NEW YORK (JTA) – Pressure is growing on the Brooklyn district attorney and the country’s major haredi Orthodox umbrella organization to change the ways they handle allegations of sexual abuse and molestation in the Orthodox community.
A series of recent reports by The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times have brought new scrutiny to the special program that Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes established in 2009 to handle sex abuse allegations among haredi Jews in New York.
Under the program, Kol Tzedek, perpetrators’ names were kept confidential and Hynes apparently gave Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella group, the impression that he sanctioned the practice of rabbis reviewing allegations before they were brought to police.
A firestorm of controversy has surrounded the program in recent weeks, in part due to a pair of front-page stories in The New York Times detailing the communal pressure that alleged victims of sex crimes face in the haredi community.
Hynes now appears to be taking a tougher and more explicit position against the practice of rabbis screening sex abuse allegations. The longtime D.A. told reporters that he will push for New York State to enact a law making it mandatory for rabbis to report sex abuse allegations, and The Jewish Week reported that Hynes will create a new intra-agency task force to deal with haredi sex abuse allegations.
The shift comes as David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, reiterated his organization’s position that sex abuse cases should be reviewed by rabbis within the community before they are passed on to the police. It is not unusual in haredi communities for members first to consult rabbis on matters that could involve non-Jewish authorities or have legal implications.
In an interview with the Forward, Hynes reportedly said that he was in “sharp disagreement” with the Agudah’s position, arguing that the rabbis “have no experience or expertise in sex abuse.” The Forward quoted Hynes as saying that he stressed his opposition in a telephone call with Zwiebel last week.
Zwiebel “still thinks they have a responsibility to screen,” Hynes said. “I disagree.”
Meanwhile, Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told The Jewish Week that Zwiebel “risks having the rabbi prosecuted for obstructing a law enforcement investigation.”
The shift puts Hynes’ office at odds with the haredi Orthodox community — a problem the Kol Tzedek program was supposed to solve.
Cases against haredi sex abusers face a host of unique hurdles. Reporting a suspected sexual predator in the community to the police is seen by many haredim as a hostile act that threatens the community, and as a sin — “mesirah,” turning a fellow Jew over to the secular authorities.
Agudah officials reportedly have said that someone who has personally experienced or witnessed abuse could go directly to the authorities, but other allegations should be evaluated by a rabbi before being passed along to the police. In some cases, alleged perpetrators have enjoyed broad communal support, including community fundraising for their defense, The New York Times reports made clear.
For their part, haredi victims of sex abuse face communal pressure to stay silent. Even if they succeed in putting a perpetrator behind bars, victims may be ostracized or stigmatized, viewed by their community as tainted. They and their children may be shunned as unworthy partners for marriage.
Hynes’ Kol Tzedek program, by working with community rabbis and granting special anonymity to both victims and perpetrators, was meant to circumvent these problems.
In an interview last week with the New York Post, Hynes cited the insularity of Brooklyn’s haredi community and the need to protect sex-abuse victims from intimidation as the reason for not releasing the names of about 100 accused molesters from the community.
“Within days, people within this relentless community would identify the victims,” he told the Post. “Then the intimidation would start.”
Hynes’ office has boasted that the Kol Tzedek program has helped result in convictions in the haredi community while other district attorneys have failed to bring convictions. But an investigation by The Jewish Week showed that many of the 99 prosecutions claimed by Hynes’ office in fact predated the Kol Tzedek program.
Two weeks ago, Hynes said he would chair a new intra-agency task force on haredi sex abuse consisting of his office’s chief investigator and the heads of his Sex Crimes and Rackets divisions, The Jewish Week reported. The task force could involve the New York Police Department and members of the anti-abuse advocacy community, Hynes’ spokesman told the newspaper.
After Zweibel said his group would resist increased public pressure to lift its requirement that parents obtain rabbinic permission before going to the police, Hynes and the haredim appear to be on a collision course.
“We’re not going to compromise our essence and our integrity because we are nervous about a relationship that may be damaged with a government leader,” Zweibel told the Forward.