The crime of sexually abusing a child, including adolescents and teens, is so heinous that the public is immediately shocked and angered. For a number of years, we have read of sex acts involving Catholic clergy with adolescents and seminarians taking place in a number of countries, including the United States. The New York Times, to its credit, has been relentless in keeping this situation under examination by its reporters over the years with front-page stories devoted to exposing the abuses.
The Times is now examining the sexual abuses taking place in the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Hassidic community, primarily in Brooklyn, and the response of the Brooklyn District Attorney, Joe Hynes.
In Brooklyn, the major communities where Hassidic groups live — the largest being Satmar and Lubavitch — are Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Flatbush and Borough Park. Different Hassidic groups contend with one another and other ethnic communities for space — their housing needs are enormous because they typically have very large families of eight or more children — and occasionally philosophical differences have led to physical attacks. In Brooklyn, many Hasidic groups have been very supportive of Hynes, who is Irish and Catholic. The Times articles provide us with one major reason for that support: He apparently has treated them preferentially, particularly in child abuse cases.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, like all other communities, is ashamed of the fact that child sexual molestation exists in their community. However, the Hassidic community was apparently outraged when one of its members reported to civil authorities that his son had been sexually molested in a ritual bathhouse. As reported in a May 11 Times article authored by Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera: “The first shock came when Mordechai Jungreis learned that his mentally disabled teenage son was being molested in a Jewish ritual bathhouse in Brooklyn. The second came after Mr. Jungreis complained, and the man accused of the abuse was arrested. Old friends started walking stonily past him and his family on the streets of Williamsburg. Their landlord kicked them out of their apartment. Anonymous messages filled their answering machine, cursing Mr. Jungreis for turning in a fellow Jew. And, he said, the mother of a child in a wheelchair confronted Mr. Jungreis’s mother-in-law, saying the same man had molested her son, and she ‘did not report this crime, so why did your son-in-law have to?’ ”
That Times article also reported the statement of Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, who said, “You can destroy a person’s life with a false report.” Zwiebel last year said that observant Jews should not report allegations to the police unless permitted to do so by a rabbi. Rabbinic authorities “recommend you speak it over with a rabbi before coming to any definitive conclusion in your own mind,” Zwiebel said.
The Times cites a number of cases of sexual abuse of children and the threats parents received from rabbis and others in the community if they alerted the police. The article reported on the community’s shunning of a rabbi who urged victims of sexual molestation to call the police, reporting, “Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg of Williamsburg, for example, has been shunned by communal authorities because he maintains a telephone number that features his impassioned lectures in Yiddish, Hebrew and English imploring victims to call 911 and accusing rabbis of silencing cases. He also shows up at court hearings and provides victims’ families with advice. His call-in line gets nearly 3,000 listeners a day. In 2008, fliers were posted around Williamsburg denouncing him. One depicted a coiled snake, with Mr. Rosenberg’s face superimposed on its head. ‘Nuchem Snake Rosenberg: Leave Tainted One!’ it said in Hebrew. The local Satmar Hassidic authorities banned him from their synagogues, and a wider group of 32 prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis and religious judges signed an order, published in a community newspaper, formally ostracizing him.”
Furthermore, the Times reported, “An influential rabbi came last summer to the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, with a message: his ultra-Orthodox advocacy group was instructing adherent Jews that they could report allegations of child sexual abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible. The pronouncement was a blunt challenge to Mr. Hynes’s authority. But the district attorney ‘expressed no opposition or objection,’ the rabbi, Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, recalled.”
If in fact Hynes assented to this procedure, he was blessing the obstruction of justice, in my opinion. The law requires certain categories of employees, such as teachers, social workers, etc., to immediately report to the government any information they gain concerning a case of child abuse. For a rabbi to counsel otherwise, I believe, is a criminal act to be pursued by the district attorney, rather than countenanced.
To the credit of the Lubavitch community, the Times reported, “In Crown Heights, where the Chabad-Lubavitch Hassidic movement has its headquarters, there has been more significant change. In July 2011, a religious court declared that the traditional prohibition against mesirah [being an informer against a fellow Jew] did not apply in cases with evidence of abuse. ‘One is forbidden to remain silent in such situations,’ said the ruling, signed by two of the court’s three judges.”
Hynes is also accused of, and admits to, the charge that he has “taken the highly unusual step of declining to publicize the names of defendants prosecuted under the program [protecting ultra-orthodox Jews for engaging in sexual abuse of children] — even those convicted. At the same time, he continues to publicize allegations of child sexual abuse against defendants who are not ultra-Orthodox Jews.”
Last week I was asked by Azi Paybarah of Capital New York for my views on this aspect of Hynes’s official acts. My response, quoted in that blog May 11, was as follows: “This community does not deserve to have any preferential treatment” and “he should treat them exactly as he would anyone else.”
At this point, unless Hynes announces that he will release the names of all defendants — including those of ultra-Orthodox Jews charged with child abuse, sexual or otherwise —and that he will pursue criminally anyone who engages in obstruction of justice, the governor of New York should supersede him in these cases and appoint a special prosecutor to handle them.
(Ed Koch is the former mayor of New York City.)