Arguments Feb. 14 in a New York
State Freedom of Information lawsuit failed to force open government files that might hold answers to longstanding questions about
the handling of
child sexual abuse in some fervently Orthodox Jewish communities.
Freedom of Information Law, New York
Hella Winston is the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, Beacon Press, 2005.
"Tempest in the Temple: Jewish Communities and Child Sex Scandals," (Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture and Life), Amy Neustein ed., Brandeis University Press / University Press of New England, 2009.
"Wall of Science," which featured "The Tempest in the Temple," is a 2012 winner of a Gold Special Jury Award from the Worldfest Houston International Independent Film Festival.
Public Secrecy About
Child Sexual Abuse
Attorney and author Michael Lesher made oral arguments on February 14 before New York State’s Court of Appeals in his longstanding Freedom of Information (FOIL) lawsuit against Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes. Lesher’s lawsuit aimed to push the district attorney to provide some much needed transparency regarding cases of child sexual abuse in fervently Orthodox (sometimes referred to in media reports as the “Haredi” or “ultra-Orthodox”) communities.
Photo credit: Howard Ohlhous
Freedom of Information—On Trial
The Court decided not to require the Brooklyn district attorney to release the documents. According to The New York Jewish Week, Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Department of State Committee on Open Government, called aspects of the decision “troublesome.” in this case will have a significant impact on the public’s access to information about what the government is doing in citizens’ names.
- AUDIO: Lesher's oral arguments
Three significant issues were involved in this case—and this ruling:
- The public’s ability to learn details about the Brooklyn district attorney’s decision-making process and actions (and possibly those of other agencies and organizations) in a high profile case involving allegations of child sexual abuse.
- Journalists’ capacity to do public accountability reporting about cases involving victims of sexual abuse in New York.
- The openness and effectiveness of New York’s Freedom of Information law.
Read "High Court Ruling on Mondrowitz 'Troublesome'," Hella Winston, April 10, 2011, The Jewish Week.
Winston has reported for several years—primarily in The New York Jewish Week, the nation’s largest Jewish weekly—about allegations of secrecy and cover-ups involving child sexual abuse in fervently Orthodox Jewish communities. Despite many roadblocks, including community members’ fears of speaking out and a lack of transparency from both the communal leadership and law enforcement authorities (similar to resistance Lesher has experienced), Winston, perhaps more than any other journalist, has reported relentlessly and extensively about this issue.
She notes that her investigations into this parallel justice system have been hampered over the years by weak public accountability, particularly on the part of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Michael Lesher's Freedom of Information Lawsuit
Brooklyn District Attorney
Lesher sued to compel the Brooklyn district attorney to release, under FOIL, documents related to efforts to extradite alleged serial child molester, Avrohom Mondrowitz. Mondrowitz, a member of the fervently Orthodox community, fled from New York to Israel in 1984—likely mere hours before a warrant for his arrest could be executed, law enforcement sources told Winston. Mondrowitz was indicted in absentia by a Brooklyn grand jury in 1985 on 14 counts, including five counts of sodomy in the first degree. After two failed attempts to extradite him, Mondrowitz remains in Israel to this day.
After Mondrowitz fled to Israel in 1984, then Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman attempted to extradite him, but her effort failed. Mondrowitz lived freely in Israel until he was arrested in 2007, pursuant to a renewed extradition request, this time made by Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes. Winston has reported that in recent years, Hynes has come under pressure from alleged victims’ attorneys and child advocates for what they see as his “coddling” of fervently Orthodox child molesters. Mondrowitz successfully fought the request all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled in 2010 that to extradite Mondrowitz some 25 years after he allegedly committed his crimes would violate due process.
In 2007, using New York State’s Freedom of Information Law, Lesher, who represents some alleged victims of Mondrowitz, requested documents pertaining to the Mondrowitz case. Lesher said that he believed they might shed light on why efforts to extradite Mondrowitz stalled for so many years and to what extent, if any, pressure from politically powerful members of the fervently Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn played a role. (He is also writing a book about sexual abuse cover-ups in such Orthodox Jewish communities.)
Specifically, Lesher requested:
“any and all records, files, notes, correspondence, memoranda or other documents [in the D.A.’s possession] pertinent in any way to the matter State v. Mondrowitz ... and pertaining to the time period from September 1, 1993 to the present date, including but not limited to any correspondence between the D.A.’s office and the Department of Justice, the Department of State or any other branch of the United States government.”
Hynes denied Lesher’s request by claiming that, with a trial in Brooklyn a possibility, pending a successful attempt at extradition, he could not release any documents because they were part of an ongoing prosecution. In 2009, Lesher filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Kings County (the county where Brooklyn is located) asking for a ruling on his request for the documents. The court held in January 2011 that while FOIL “exempts from disclosure documents related to an active and ongoing prosecution, the correspondence between the respondents and federal agencies regarding [Mondrowitz’s] extradition from Israel should be disclosed, subject to redactions.”
Hynes appealed to the Appellate Division, which in May 2011 unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision, agreeing with the district attorney that the release of the documents could interfere with an ongoing investigation and identify victims of a sex crime, “even though redaction might remove all details which ‘tend to identify the victim[s]’.”
Lesher argued before that court that FOIL exemptions do not apply to the documents related to the extradition and that this material should be released, subject to redactions.
Legal briefs related to this case were filed with the court. They included:
- Opening brief and appendix submitted by Appellant Michael Lesher.
- Respondent’s brief and appendix submitted by Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.
- Reply brief submitted by Appellant Michael Lesher.
- Amicus brief filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation.
Lesher’s appeal came at a time of increasing controversy about Hynes’ refusal to release information about the identities of more than 90 child molesters from the fervently Orthodox community who his office claims to have arrested since 2009. That year the Brooklyn DA's office launched Kol Tzedek, a confidential hotline created in partnership with OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services and other Jewish non-profits, to encourage members of fervently Orthodox Jewish communities to report their allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement. Hynes invoked a New York civil rights law intended to protect the privacy of victims of sexual assault to justify his refusal to release even the names of the alleged perpetrators.
On April 3, 2012, the New York Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision, ruling that Hynes did not have to release any of the documents.
Editorial: Verdict Not In On Hynes—The Jewish Week, May 8, 2012
Brooklyn DA, In Shift, Opens Window On Abusers' Names—Hella Winston, April 24, 2011, The Jewish Week.
Abuse Case Dates Suggest Brooklyn DA Is Cooking Numbers For Kol Tzedek Hotline—Hella Winston, April 24, 2011, The Jewish Week.
High Court Ruling on Mondrowitz 'Troublesome'—Hella Winston, April 10, 2011, The Jewish Week.
Abuse Case Raising Statute Questions—The Jewish Week, February 28, 2012
Fight Over Mondrowitz Documents Coming To A Head—The Jewish Week, February 7, 2012
Brooklyn DA Released Abusers' Names In Recent Years—The Jewish Week, December 20, 2011
News Of Abuse Arrests Hailed, Questioned—The Jewish Week, December 13, 2011
In Lakewood Abuse Cases, A 'Parallel Justice System'—The Jewish Week, December 6, 2011
Tragedy in Borough Park Puts Shomrin Under Scrutiny: Community watchdogs are praised, criticized for actions and delay—The Jewish Week, July 22, 2011
Ohel Campaign to Bolster Image Questioned—The Jewish Week, May 31, 2011
Court to Rule on Release of Mondrowitz Records—The Jewish Week (Staff report written by Hella Winston), May 10, 2011
Abuse Case Tests Ohel’s Adherence—The Jewish Week, February 25, 2011
Kolko Allegedly Intimidating Boy Set to Testify in Abuse Case—The Jewish Week, November 19, 2010
One for Abuse Victims—The Jewish Week, April 13, 2010
Mondrowitz Extradition Ruling Raising Questions—The Jewish Week, January 29, 2010
Mondrowitz May Have Been Treating Boys Long After Indictment—The Jewish Week, January 21, 2010
BREAKING: Israeli Supreme Court: No Extradition For Mondrowitz; Brooklyn DA 'Disappointed'—The Jewish Week, January 15, 2010
Judge Lashes Out at Orthodox Community in Sex-Abuse Case; Says it Protects Abusers, Not Victims—The Jewish Week, October 2, 2009
Colmer Plea Deal Seen Raising Questions—The Jewish Week, June 19, 2009
Protest At Agudah—The Jewish Week, May 21, 2009
A Suspected Pedophile Eludes The System—The Jewish Week, May 6, 2009
Mondrowitz Accusers Seen Ready To Testify—The Jewish Week, December 30, 2008
Mondrowitz Extradition Case Thrown Into Limbo—The Jewish Week, December 19, 2008
Scrutiny of Hikind Intensifies—The Jewish Week, November 25, 2008
Anti-Abuse Rabbi Says He's In Danger—The Jewish Week, November 21, 2008
Hikind Subpoenaed on Sex-Abuse Information—The Jewish Week, November 14, 2008
Hikind Reports Second Reichman Allegation—The Jewish Week, September 17, 2008
Top Doc Scared Off Panel On Rabbinic Sex Molesters—The Jewish Week, September 12, 2008
A Charge of Double Betrayal in Williamsburg—The Jewish Week, September 5, 2008
No Sex Charge for Kolko; Boys’ Parents Foiled by DA—The Jewish Week, April 18, 2008
Yeshiva Fired, Then Paid, Rabbi Charged With Abuse—The Jewish Week, April 2, 2008
Fight Against Intimidation Must Rage On—The New York Post, December 11, 2011
Bloomberg Among Critics of Prosecutor in Brooklyn—Ray Rivera and Sharon Otterman, The New York Times, May 11, 2012
For Ultra-Orthodox Abuse Cases, Prosecutor Has Different Rules—Ray Rivera and Sharon Otterman, The New York times, May 10, 2012
Ultra-Orthodox Shun Their Own for Reporting Child Sexual Abuse—Sharon Otterman and Ray Rivera, The New York Times, May 9, 2012
Brooklyn DA accused of failing to tackle Orthodox Jews' cover-up of sex abuse—Zoe Blackler, March 29, 2012, The Guardian
Silence and self-rule: Brooklyn's Orthodox child abuse cover-up—Zoe Blackler, March 29, 2012, The Guardian
Victim’s Father Determined To Break Cycle Of Abuse In Brooklyn’s Hasidic, Orthodox Communities—March 28, 2012, CBS New York
Orthodox Sex Abuse Scandal: 117 kid victims and 85 arrests in Jewish enclave—The New York Post, Dec. 11, 2011
Guiding Families Through the Fear—The New York Post, Dec. 11, 2011
The Uphill Battle to Expose Abusers—The Jewish Week, Nov. 22, 2011
Crackdown on Child Sex Abuse Unravels—Paul Berger, October 31, 2011, The Jewish Daily Forward
Suffering In Silence—News 12, Aug. 31, 2010
WPIX investigates the reports of sexual abuse in the Ultra-Orthodox community—WPIX TV, March 11, 2010
Rabbinic Leaders Silent On Child Sexual Abuse—The Jewish Week, March 11, 2010
Lebovits Conviction—WPIX TV, Jan. 20, 2010
Orthodox Jews Rely More on Sex Abuse Prosecution—The New York Times, Oct. 13, 2009
Father Warns Other Parents—The Jewish Star, July 22, 2009
Abuse Scandal Plagues Hasidic Jews In Brooklyn—NPR, Feb. 2, 2009
Sex Abuse Allegations of Chassidim—WPIX TV, Dec. 2, 2008
Child Sex Abuse Case Still Haunts—Roxanna Sherwood, ABC News Nightline, October 11, 2006
Silence of the Lam—Kristen Lombardi, The Village Voice, July 18, 2006
On the Rabbi’s Knee—New York Magazine, May 14, 2006
Last page update: May 16, 2012