Sexual abuse cases in Brooklyn's Haredi community
The response of the Haredi Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York City, to allegations of sexual abuse against its spiritual leaders has drawn scrutiny. When teachers, rabbis, and other leaders have been accused of sexual abuse, authorities in the Haredi community have often failed to report offenses to Brooklyn police, intimidated witnesses, and encouraged shunning against victims and those members of the community who speak out against cases of abuse.
Prevalence and underreporting
Brooklyn is home to the largest Haredi community outside Israel. Haredim, who are often called ultra-Orthodox, though they themselves do not like that label, make up about a quarter million of New York City's population, and most of them live in Brooklyn. According to scholars, the rate of sex abuse within Haredi communities is roughly the same as anywhere else. However, for generations, most victims have not come forward with accusations because of stigmatization from the community, and when they did come forward, the matter generally stayed within the community, rather than being reported to the police and forming part of crime statistics.
Sexual abuse within the community is often not reported to police. Many feel that to report a Jew to non-Jewish authorities constitutes the religious crime of mesirah: Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College, writes that one reason why cases or patterns of sexual abuse are rarely reported to law enforcement is because "they think that anyone who turns over anyone to the outside authorities is committing a transgression to the community at large". Agudath Israel of America, a leading ultra-Orthodox organization, has stated that observant Jews should not report allegations to law enforcement without first consulting with a rabbi. Heilman adds that some wish to protect the community's reputation and the accused's family, and that the rabbis worry that outside scrutiny could weaken their authority: "They are more afraid of the outside world than the deviants within their own community", since "the deviants threaten individuals here or there, but the outside world threatens everyone and the entire structure of their world". However, other rabbis, including a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinic court in Crown Heights and Yosef Blau, disagree, and encourage reporting abusers to police, stating that the ban on mesirah does not apply. Rather than reporting to police, Haredim may take a case of sexual abuse to the shomrim, a local Jewish street patrol. The shomrim keep the names of suspected child molesters on file, but do not share them with law enforcement or take other measures to end abuse, and sometimes try to discourage people from taking a case to the police.
Reports of abuse to religious authorities rarely result in punishment for the offender; as in the Catholic sex abuse cases—where child molesters were re-assigned to other dioceses—rabbis, teachers, and youth leaders found to be abusing children are usually re-assigned to another yeshiva, perhaps after seeing a board of rabbis.
Many of the people accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse and related charges in Brooklyn's Haredi community are rabbis. Among other accused are a school principal, a spiritual adviser, and a social worker.
Witness tampering sometimes occurs after someone is accused of sexual abuse. Victims, their families, and advocates have been threatened with violence, false police reports of child abuse, loss of kosher licenses or other harm to business, and/or eviction. They are pressured or offered bribes not to co-operate with prosecutors, and physical harassment, distribution of fliers attacking victims and advocates, and coercion occur.
Establishment reprisal against sexually abused children and their parents can be severe: Parents have been shunned by the community, with rabbis forbidding congregants to speak to them, and abused children have been barred from schools.
Even when cases are reported to police, they often cannot be prosecuted because victims decide not to go forward with a case, or agree to a plea deal (usually a cash payment) with the accuser, out of fear of reprisal. District Attorney Charles Hynes has stated, "As soon as we would give the name of a defendant ... (rabbis and others) would engage this community in a relentless search for the victims... And they're very, very good at identifying the victims. And then the victims would be intimidated and threatened, and the case would fall apart." Hynes has described the intimidation that occurs in these cases as worse than anything else he has ever seen in his career, including mob cases and police corruption cases.
Brooklyn's district attorney, Charles Hynes, has had a mixed record on prosecution of these sexual abuse cases. He was praised for starting a program in 2009 called Kol Tzedek (Voice of Justice), which is geared toward ultra-Orthodox Jews and encourages them to cooperate with law enforcement; according to Hynes, it reduced the amount of victim intimidation. Since 2009, roughly 100 out of 5389 cases of sexual abuse in the district have come from the ultra-Orthodox community. The first high-profile child sex abuse case that Hynes brought against the Hasidic community, since his election in 1989, was that of Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed youth counselor and prominent member of the Satmar community, who was convicted on December 10, 2012 of repeatedly sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl he was supposed to be counseling, and sentenced to 103 years in prison.
Some victims' rights activists have still criticized Hynes, accusing him of pandering to rabbis and those in power for political reasons and not prosecuting cases aggressively enough. Described as "a velvet glove wrapped around a velvet fist", his approach did not publicize the names of defendants, even those who were convicted of abuse, and took other steps to remain in the good graces of religious leaders who took the side of accused molesters. In one complex series of cases, for example, after a prominent cantor was convicted of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy, the boy's father was indicted by prosecutor Hynes for extortion based in part on testimony from a supporter of the cantor. And, as of 2013, the cantor's conviction was overturned based on the parent's "indictment and other technicalities".
When Rabbi Yoel Malik, 33, a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, was given a 60-day jail sentence for the abuse of students at Ohr Hameir, a now closed Satmar yeshiva in Borough Park, the punishment was criticised by Ben Hirsch, a spokesman for Survivors for Justice, who stated that, "What DA (Kenneth) Thompson has done is inexplicable", and claimed that, "Through unexplained plea deals such as this, he has effectively quashed any willingness on the part of victims to come forward". It was claimed that the victims were "extremely reluctant to testify publicly", according to a law enforcement source familiar with the case, as quoted in the NY Daily News.
Some activists have encouraged victims to come forward. Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an ordained ultra-Orthodox rabbi who studied at Yeshivah Torah V'yirah in Sands Stree Brooklyn, New York, created a hotline that features "his impassioned lectures in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English imploring victims to call 911 and accusing rabbis of silencing cases". He is now shunned by communal authorities, and sometimes physically attacked. In 2008, fliers were posted around Williamsburg depicting a coiled snake around Rosenberg's head with the words "Nuchem Snake Rosenberg: Leave Tainted One!". Rosenberg has also been banned from Satmar synagogues by the Satmar authorities, while a group of 32 prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis and religious judges formally ostracized him.
Community activist Tzvi Gluck has taken a stand against abuse in his community. Gluck said that in 2011, a 30-year-old man molested a 14-year-old boy in a ritual bath; this case never made it to the police. A rabbi made the boy apologize to the molester for seducing him.
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- Blau, Reuven, "EXCLUSIVE: Brooklyn rabbi charged with teen sex assault gets 60 days in jail; DA ripped for offering light plea deal", New York Daily News, February 26, 2016.