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The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Time to bar Brooklyn D.A. from public service

Published: May 19, 2012
Section: Opinions


The New York Times recently called out Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney Charles Hynes for his lack of severity in dealing with child sexual abuse within the extremely insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Hynes, who is a non-Jewish D.A. in a heavily Jewish borough, relies heavily on Jewish support during election-time and he has been accused of letting things slide in order to gain votes.

One accusation cast against Hynes is that when he heard that Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox advocacy group, was instructing its followers to report abuse to rabbis rather than to police, Hynes did not voice a concern. Agudath Israel told its adherents that they could only report allegations of child sexual abuse to the police if a rabbi first decided that their allegations merited further action.

This is ridiculous and Hynes should have immediately told Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, president of Agudath Israel, that this was unacceptable. According to Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for Hynes, the D.A. reminded Zwiebel that after consulting with their rabbis, people should go to the police but Hynes has never made a statement confirming this. Even so, this is a weak reminder. Additionally, it should be noted that neglecting to report alleged child abuse is a crime in New York.

Hynes should have reminded Zwiebel and the rest of the Jewish community in Brooklyn that rabbis are not experts in child sexual abuse but that the police are. The police are trained to recognize the signs and to stop the abuse. Very often, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. If you’re concerned enough to report it to your rabbi, you should be reporting it to the police.

Additionally, many rabbis in this community have alternative agendas; while they surely want sexual abuse to stop, their main concern is keeping issues within the community. According to the Times, the rabbis often do not report allegations to the police and tell their congregants to do the same. While having men rape children looks bad for a community, covering it up looks even worse for the community—just look at the Catholic Church. Hynes should be ashamed that he is a party to this.

Another complaint is that Hynes does not publicize the names of ultra-Orthodox Jewish sex offenders even though he does publicize the names of non-Jewish ones. Although Hynes claims that he does not publicize alleged abusers names because he does not want to dissuade possible victims from coming forward, one rabbi told the Times that Hynes does this because the rabbis asked him to, further adding to the secrecy of their close-knit community, even when that secrecy harms their children. Keeping these things a secret only adds to the belief that they should be kept secret; by refusing to name alleged abusers, Hynes is telling the community that they should not talk about these things and that it should be swept under the rug.

Hynes’ claim that he does it to encourage people to come forward is malarkey. None of the other four district attorneys in New York City do this. Bennett Gershman, a former Manhattan prosecutor who specializes in prosecutorial conduct at Pace University Law School, told the Times, “The idea is that the more information you give out, the more likely it is that victims might come forward with complaints. So the idea that a prosecutor would conceal this kind of information strikes me as illogical and almost perverse.”

Zwiebel told the Times that “the D.A. has made a conscious effort to be sensitive to the cultural nuances of the different communities that he works with.” This has gone beyond sensitivity though; Hynes is not just being sensitive to the culture of secrecy within the ultra-Orthodox community, he is fostering it. Additionally, covering up child sexual abuse is not a nuance, it is a crime.

The final complaint against Hynes is that he is far too lenient with those convicted of child sexual abuse. To fight this image, back in 2009 Hynes founded Kol Tzedek, a program that reaches out to ultra-Orthodox victims of child sexual abuse. Hynes claims that this program has led to 95 arrests involving more than 120 victims. The Times, however, went through the program’s records and found many of the numbers to be inflated.

Hynes created the program after public outcry in 2008 when he made a plea deal with Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, a grade-school teacher at a yeshiva in Flatbush, N.Y. The rabbinical authorities had been receiving complaints of sexual abuse about Kolko for 30 years before reporting it to police—more evidence that Hynes should have had stronger words about reporting alleged abuse to rabbis. Then, after 30 years of abuse, Hynes reduced two felony counts of sexual abuse to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the welfare of a child. Kolko only received three years of probation and did not have to register as a sex offender. The public was right to be outraged.

Hynes has also been lenient on prosecuting those who pressure victims not to testify. In another case, one David Zimmer, who was charged with more than 24 counts of sex offenses and who gave the police a handwritten confession, was pled down to one count of sexual abuse in the first degree and given probation. When police later found evidence that Zimmer had molested four other girls, they did nothing. Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the sex crimes division under Hynes, said that the original plea deal would have to stand because parents did not want their children to testify.

The father of a nine-year-old victim, however, claims that he would have let his daughter testify. “The district attorney’s office called me and said this guy’s not 100 percent normal, so they were going to give him probation,” the father, who was unidentified to protect his daughter’s identity, told the Times. “If they don’t want to prosecute, what are you going to do?”

This blatant leniency against those who abuse children is sickening. While probation is an acceptable punishment in certain circumstances, this is not one of those circumstances. Hynes needs to get his act together or get out of office. A child should be protected from sexual abuse no matter their religion and no matter their community. No one would claim that sexual abuse within a cult should be handled internally, so why would Hynes even begin to think that it was acceptable within the ultra-Orthodox community.

It is time for Brooklyn to get a new D.A., one who will prosecute and stop child sexual abusers to the best of the office’s ability. It is time for a D.A. whom the ultra-Orthodox rabbis do not have wrapped around their little fingers. The district attorney holds that office to prosecute criminals, not merely to have the title of district attorney. It is a title that needs to be earned and Hynes has lost the privilege.