Prior to the creation of the Kol Tzedek program, only a handful of sexual abuse allegations from the Orthodox community were reported to my office each year. Our information was that victims of sexual assault in the community were afraid to come forward and report to secular authorities due to enormous community disapproval and pressure. In an effort to overcome these obstacles and encourage reporting of these heinous crimes, and to ensure the continued cooperation of the victim with the prosecution, my office launched Project Kol Tzedek.
Kol Tzedek was put in place to dispel the Orthodox community’s fears and misconceptions about the criminal justice system. It was also established to institute measures to make the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of this community. Some of these measures include a culturally sensitive social worker to work with the victims and refer them for services to the appropriate agencies; intensive community outreach efforts to educate the community; a hotline for reporting; and, because many victims fear being seen entering a police precinct in their neighborhood, the opportunity to bring their case directly to the Sex Crimes Bureau of my office.
It was hoped that this would facilitate more people coming forward with their sexual assault allegations. It should also be noted that although Kol Tzedek was formally announced to the public in 2009, we had actually begun to focus our efforts to encourage reporting in this community in 2008, through community outreach and other services for victims.
Project Kol Tzedek has been extremely successful. Since its creation, my office has prosecuted 99 cases within the Orthodox community. These cases involve approximately 130 victims, as a number of cases involve multiple victims. We have also investigated at least 40 additional allegations that could not be prosecuted because, among other reasons, they were either beyond the statute of limitations or victims were not willing to go forward.
The program has created an environment for the community where victims are now more comfortable coming forward and maintaining their cooperation with the prosecution. The overwhelming number of these cases involves people who are known to each other – family members, teachers, tutors, neighbors, community members, etc. These cases come to my office in numerous ways, from the hotline that was established for Kol Tzedek as well as through direct referrals to the police and to members of my Kol Tzedek staff.
Coming forward, however, is only the first step. Once the victim makes that commitment, the second prong of Kol Tzedek begins. What makes prosecutions viable is developing the evidence and maintaining the cooperation of the victim. That is the essence of Kol Tzedek. My Sex Crimes Bureau, with its specially trained assistant district attorneys, works tirelessly to develop the prosecution of these cases. These efforts include developing all forensic evidence and attempting to secure any additional victims and other corroborative evidence to make each case as strong as possible.
A key component of the success of Kol Tzedek is, as mentioned above, the availability of a culturally sensitive social worker who works with each victim. This relationship is most significant, since criminal cases can be pending for well over a year.
Sexual assault allegations are difficult to report and even more difficult to sustain in any community. That is why such cases are historically underreported. The attention the Orthodox sexual abuse cases have generated in the press and on Internet blogs is not welcome by the victims. In fact, the majority of the victims whose cases have been publicized tell me they have felt violated and exposed. Many have also experienced relentless pressure from the community to drop the charges. Victims often fear that if they continue with the prosecution they risk being unable to arrange marriages for their children or to sustain membership in their synagogue.
Many victims who have had the courage to press charges have been ostracized by their community, shunned by their synagogue, had their children expelled from schools and been prevented from attending summer camps. In fact, it is not uncommon to see widespread support for the offenders, in the form of fundraisers and other events and public condemnation of the victims. This support often carries over into the courtroom, where supporters of the defendant turn out to further intimidate the victim who may be on the witness stand.
One father, in a recent case of ours, was told by a member of his synagogue that if his daughter testified in the criminal case, male community members would fill the courtroom on the day of her testimony in order to place even more pressure her.
I will not tolerate this type of intimidation of victims and their families. I have set up a law enforcement panel comprised of highly experienced law enforcement professionals whose mission it will be to root out and prosecute cases of intimidation. I am the chair of this committee and will do everything in my power to ensure its success.
The media requested that my office release a list of all the Orthodox Jewish defendants the Kol Tzedek program has generated. My position is that releasing the names of defendants involved in Kol Tzedek cases would inevitably reveal the identity of the victims and subject them to intimidation and retribution within the community. The New York Civil Rights Law prohibits the direct disclosure of the names of victims of sexual assault or any information that might identify them. Records of arrests and court appearances are, however, available to the public.
Our experience has shown that once a member of the ultra-Orthodox community has been arrested, the victim’s identity is relentlessly sought. When a victim’s identity is obtained, various levels of pressure and intimidation are exerted upon the victim to make his or her life unbearable. Concern over this exposure is the number one reason victims are reluctant to prosecute.
Another argument that has been raised to support the release of this list is that the people need to know if a sex offender is living in their neighborhood. That is precisely why the New York State Sex Offender Registry was created in 1996. One need only enter a zip code into the Registry and all the registered level-two and -three convicted sex offenders from the neighborhood will be revealed.
The suggestion that I condoned the practice of first seeking a rabbi’s advice before an Orthodox Jewish community member reports sexual abuse is an unfortunate distortion of my record. I have never suggested that someone seeking the advice of a rabbi about sexual abuse allegations is then relieved of the obligation of reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities. I am well aware of the mandated reporting laws of this state, which require certain frontline professionals to report allegations of child abuse in custodial settings to the State Central Register. I would never condone the violation of these important laws.
Although I would not interfere with anyone’s decision to speak to his or her religious leader, these allegations of criminal conduct must be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. In fact, my concern that some rabbis might advise those with knowledge of sexual abuse to withhold that information from law enforcement is precisely why, with the assistance of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Ohel and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, I created Project Kol Tzedek.
Kol Tzedek has been a very effective crime-fighting tool and will continue to be so.
Charles J. Hynes is district attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn), a position he has held since 1990.
About the Author: Charles J. Hynes is district attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn), a position he has held since 1990.
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