Sunday, May 13, 2012

Who Speaks for the Children?


For decades, Brooklyn prosecutors pursuing child molesters netted few complaints or convictions in the borough’s cloistered, politically powerful community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rabbinical authorities banned relatives of the abused from reporting the crimes to non-Jewish authorities; those few who spoke out were shunned — expelled from synagogues, their children expelled from schools — or pressured into dropping their cases.

As Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera reported in The Times this week, this intolerable situation has slowly begun to change, as some community members have dared to speak up for the victims, no matter the personal cost. While some religious leaders now say that molesters should be turned over to the police, too many still insist on covering up these crimes.

Instead of protecting their community, they are doing enormous, shameful damage.

Brooklyn’s district attorney, Charles Hynes, who has received considerable political support from ultra-Orthodox rabbis, has been accused by victim advocates of not doing enough to face the problem. His office denies this, noting he roiled the community in 1999 in accusing a prominent rabbi of witness-tampering in a child abuse case and three years ago set up a hot line for child abuse complaints in the community.

He needs to do a lot more to help the victims and demonstrate his independence. Mr. Hynes can start by ending his policy of refusing to announce the names of accused molesters from the ultra-Orthodox community. He does not shield the names of other defendants, and no other city district attorney employs such a selective policy, according to The Times.

Mr. Hynes’s insistence that victims might hesitate to come forward if defendants were identified is absurd. The clear message to the victims is that the system is intent on protecting abusers.

Studies find that the problem of child abuse in the Brooklyn community is no greater than elsewhere. What is needed is far more of the candor and initiative displayed last summer by a religious court in Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic neighborhood. The court ruled the traditional prohibition against mesirah — turning in of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities — did not apply in cases of sexually abused children. “One is forbidden to remain silent in such situations,” it declared. Everyone who cares about children should listen.


Bloomberg Among Critics of Prosecutor in Brooklyn

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Friday sharply criticized the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, over his handling of child sexual abuse cases among the borough’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Mr. Bloomberg said through a spokesman that he “completely disagrees” with Mr. Hynes’s decision to not object to the position of an influential ultra-Orthodox advocacy group on reporting allegations of child sexual abuse. The group announced last year that adherent Jews must obtain permission from a rabbi before reporting such allegations to district attorneys or the police.

The group’s position could conflict with a state law that requires teachers, counselors and others to report allegations immediately to the authorities.

“Any abuse allegations should be brought to law enforcement, who are trained to assess their accuracy and act appropriately,” said a spokesman for the mayor, Marc LaVorgna.

The mayor was responding to an article in The New York Times on Friday that examined Mr. Hynes’s record on these cases and his relations with ultra-Orthodox leaders in neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Borough Park.

District attorneys in New York are elected, and the mayor has no authority over Mr. Hynes’s conduct. But the mayor was adding his voice to growing criticism of Mr. Hynes’s record on child sexual abuse cases involving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Victims’ groups have accused Mr. Hynes of being too accommodating to politically powerful rabbis who have often sought to resolve allegations of sexual abuse quietly through rabbinical panels.

Mr. Hynes has also adopted a policy of not publicizing accusations of child sexual abuse involving ultra-Orthodox Jews, even as he has continued to publicize the names of other defendants accused of sex crimes. Mr. Hynes’s aides said Mr. Hynes was not publicizing the accusations to avoid revealing the identities of victims in the highly insular community.

Asked on Friday about Mr. Bloomberg’s criticism, Mr. Hynes’s spokesman, Jerry Schmetterer, declined to comment.

Last summer, Mr. Hynes met with a top official of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group, who informed him about the group’s position that allegations could be reported to the authorities only if a rabbi first determined that they were credible. Mr. Hynes’s aides said Mr. Hynes told the official, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, that he “wouldn’t interfere with someone’s decision to consult with his or her rabbi about allegations of sexual abuse, but would expect that these allegations of criminal conduct be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.”

In an interview, Rabbi Zwiebel said the need to consult a rabbi first outranks even New York’s mandatory reporting law. Even a teacher, he said, should go to a rabbi if a child says he or she is being abused before the teacher reports it.

“The rabbis’ consensus is go to a rabbi, because of the stringency of the matter on both sides of the equation, both the Jewish legal implications and because you can destroy a person’s life with a false report,” Rabbi Zwiebel said.

On Friday, the leading Democratic mayoral candidates also took issue with the ultra-Orthodox policy on reporting abuse allegations. “Our first concern is with victims of crime, especially potential victims of child abuse, and the first call should be to the appropriate law enforcement authorities,” Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said.

Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, said, “Law enforcement must focus all its attention on protecting victims, not on shielding abusers.”

The public advocate, Bill de Blasio, said, “There should be one standard of justice for the whole city.”

Tom Allon, a community newspaper publisher who is also a candidate, compared the issue to those involving the Roman Catholic Church “and what happened at Penn State....”