Pedestrians walk through Borough Park, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Leiby Kletzky disappeared. Photo by Christopher Macsurak, via Flickr
When eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky failed to return to his Brooklyn, New York home after summer camp on July 11, the little boy’s frantic parents didn’t call the police.
Instead, the Kletzkys, members of Brooklyn’s Borough Park ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, called the neighborhood’s volunteer patrol, known as Shomrim (from the Hebrew word for “guard”).
It wasn’t until more than two hours later that the family alerted the New York City Police Department (NYPD) that the little boy was missing.
After a search, the boy’s remains were found in the home of a man named Levi Aron, who has since pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder..
Could those two-and-a-half hours lost before the police got involved have made a life-or-death difference? The answers may not be apparent until the trial—if ever.
The presence of an alternative “police” force dedicated to protecting members of a specific faith community—like the Shomrim―is unusual.
But the Kletskys’ instinct not to immediately report a possible criminal act to secular authorities is not unusual among those who live in close-knit religious communities.
According to those who study the intersection of law and religion, it reflects a “don’t tell the authorities” mindset that prevails in many insular religious communities, and even finds adherents among some mainstream religious groups.
That worries law enforcement.
The day after Leiby Kletsky’s remains were found, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told The New York Times that delays in contacting the police were “a longstanding issue with Shomrim.”
Michael Gennaco, a former federal civil rights prosecutor and the Chief Attorney in the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, believes the protective attitudes taken by religious communities—whether they are small communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Amish or the global Catholic Church—can interfere with police efforts to track and apprehend predators before they strike again.
Without police involvement early in a case to collect and circulate data about criminal activity, “the administration of justice can’t proceed,” he says.
Some observers are even harsher.
Religious groups which fight tooth and nail against efforts by civil courts and law enforcement to hold child abusers to account, are subverting justice, charges Seattle attorney Timothy Kosnoff.
“The (Supreme) Court has held that you can’t use your religious beliefs to trump a law that applies to everyone equally, even if it does have the effect of preventing you from carrying out religious conduct,” says Kosnoff, who won a $3 million settlement against the Mormon Church in 2001 for protecting Frank Curtis, a man with a history of molestation of boys.
He cites Reynolds v. U.S., the 1878 Supreme Court case that has become the precedent in freedom of religion cases. George Reynolds, a Mormon, brought the case to challenge his indictment on bigamy charges in Utah.
Divine Authority vs Secular Law
But nearly 140 years later, the tensions between religious and secular authorities continue to have an impact on American justice.
In the Curtis case, a young man named Jeremiah Scott and his mother had gone to a Mormon leader to discuss the possibility of having Frank Curtis, then over 80, live in their home.
The church leader, it was later revealed, knew that Curtis had a history of molesting boys, but failed to tell Mrs. Scott.
“The church said (Mormons) have a right to believe in forgiveness of sin, and that a secular court can’t hold (them) to account and require (them) to pay civil penalties for practicing (their) beliefs,” recalls Tim Kosnoff.
The argument was rejected by Judge Ellen Rosenblum, who then sat on Oregon’s Multnoma County Circuit Court
Nevertheless, as Kosnoff spent the next four years attempting to depose Mormon bishops and lay clergy around the country about Curtis’ history of sexual abuse, he found himself blocked by church claims that any communication between clergy and church members was protected by the clergy-penitent privilege, which according to Kosnoff is upheld by state statute throughout the country.
Investigative journalist Lisa Davis, author of “The Sins of Brother Curtis,” which explored the Frank Curtis story, calls this interpretation “a gross misuse of the statute.”
“When a parent turns to his bishop for help because his child is in danger, that’s not a protected conversation,” she says.
“The expectation is that the bishop will do something to remove the danger. It’s not a penitential exercise. There’s no penitent.”
This issue is currently playing out in Philadelphia, where Monsignor William Lynn, a former Catholic priest, is on trial for conspiracy and child endangerment for his role in transferring “predator priests” from parish to parish.
Although the scandal of ongoing sex abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church broke decades ago, Lynn is the first high-ranking church official ever charged with concealing the crimes of a sexual predator.
“For years, law enforcement believed that the bishops were going to take care of the problem,” says Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, and the author of “God Versus the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law.”
“But institutions put their own interests above the interests of the individual; they’re uniquely incapable of policing their own.”
ED NOTE: For another view of the roots of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals, please see John Jay Prof. Karen Terry’s TCR commentary on her May 2011 research report HERE.
Don’t Snitch on a Fellow Believer
Hamilton has written critically about what she sees as the Mormon Church’s foot-dragging in reporting sexual abuse to the authorities. In a 2010 article for Find Law, an online legal news site, she wrote that “Mormon leaders are discouraged from cooperating with authorities in cases involving abuse.”
The church disputes this.
In a statement to The Crime Report, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints spokesman Eric Hawkins said: “No other religious organization does more to educate its leadership on how to prevent abuse, to directly address abuse cases when they occur, to assist in reporting to legal authorities or to provide support for abuse victims.
“To insinuate that the Church is either unresponsive or protective of those who abuse is both inaccurate and offensive.”
But Lisa Davis argues that even in the mainstream Mormon Church. laws dictating that you must go to the police if you know a child is being harmed are “not enforced ”
“Members of the Mormon Church are taught to turn to their bishop for whatever challenges they’re facing in life,” she says. “If you have trouble with the IRS, trouble with your teenager or, if you think someone is molesting your daughter, that is always going to be the first call.”
Other faiths also use a combination of theology and peer pressure to keep unpleasant realities within the fold.
In Judaism, the prohibition against “mesira” forbids informing on another Jew to secular authorities.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are instructed that they must have “reasonable suspicion” about sexual abuse before going to the police, and that a rabbi “with experience in these matters” is the person they should ask to make that determination, according to Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization that sponsors conferences on the intersection of Jewish and secular law
The most sensitive area of conflict between civil and religious authorities may be the sexual abuse of children—with the most well-known example the long silence shielding cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
But other forms of abuse that would ordinarily bring families into court are often walled off from secular law enforcement.
The Amish, who consider divine authority higher than civil authority, are reluctant to report crime, especially domestic crimes involving abuse, to police.
“The idea is, ‘We take care of our own affairs,” says Stephen Scott, who studies the Amish at the Elizabethtown College Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
As in other tightly structured religious communities, it is difficult to know how much criminal behavior goes unreported or unaddressed among the Amish. The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department, where a sizeable Amish community has existed for years, did not return repeated requests for an interview about their interactions with the Amish in their jurisdiction.
But one hint of the problem came in a 2005 essay for Legal Affairs Magazine, which charged that incest within Amish communities is often hushed up because of the Amish belief in the importance of forgiveness.
“It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness,” wrote author Nadya Labi. “So sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner.”
Labi wrote of one family where a young woman raped by her brothers was excommunicated from the church because she reported it to the police. The brothers received punishment, Amish-style: one was shunned for four weeks, the other for six weeks.
Among some U.S. Muslims, the instinct to keep problems “in house” is also strong.
New Jersey attorney and Islamic law expert Abed Awad says strictures under Islamic law to protect and maintain the family unit can shield abusers from civil authorities until it is too late
In an interview with The Crime Report , he cited a recent example of a Muslim women who was being harassed by her fiancé. An imam was called in to mediate. But the woman began to fear for her life after the man sent her a video depicting another man killing a woman. Awad finally helped her obtain a restraining order.
According to Awad, there is no institutional bias in the American Muslim world against cooperation with civil authorities.
”Each mosque is independent,” he says.
But Sgt. Mike Abdeen, officer in charge of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department’s Muslim Affairs Unit, and a practicing Muslim, says the reluctance some American Muslims have to reach out to law enforcement is less a religious instinct than a cultural one.
“When it comes to family issues – domestic violence, sexual abuse – many Muslims tend to want to keep it hush-hush,” says Abdeen. “Since 9/11, many Muslims feel targeted by police and think, why bring attention to the community?”
Still, the occasional use of Islamic law, known as Sharia law, in civil and even criminal cases in the U.S. has raised hackles among the larger community.. A recent article in The New York Times reported that three states have enacted statutes prohibiting judges from consulting Sharia law. More than 20 others have considered similar measures
A DA’s Office Reaches Out
In the past several years, sexual abuse within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey has emerged from the shadows and onto the front pages.
Part of the reason is an Orthodox woman named Henna White, whose work as a liason between the Brooklyn District Attorney and her community led to the creation of special programs aimed at combating domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Since 2002, one of those programs called Project Eden, has provided assistance to Orthodox Jewish victims of domestic violence in partnership with local women’s shelters and social service organizations. In April 2009, she helped launched Project Kol Tzedek (Hebrew for “voice of justice”) to specifically address sexual abuse. It established a hotline for orthodox to call if they suspected sexual abuse.
“Before the creation of Kol Tzedek, there was about one case a year of sexual abuse in the orthodox community,” says White. “I knew there were many, many more we weren’t hearing about because people weren’t coming forward.”
Since 2009, the office has opened 66 cases of sexual abuse within the orthodox community.
According to White, part of the success of the program is rooted in cultural sensitivity. Hotline operators speak Yiddish, Hebrew and English, and callers can remain anonymous.
“People call and ask questions,” explains White. “They want to know if their child’s name will be spread all over the community if they come forward. We answer their questions and allow them to make a decision. If they say, ‘I need to talk to my rabbi first,’ we understand.”
But White doesn’t want anyone to think that by treating victims and families carefully, her office is letting perpetrators off the hook
”We’re going to make arrests and crack down,” she explains. “But we’re going to do it with respect for where you’re coming from.”
“Wanna –Be Cops”
Law enforcement can act when believers themselves end the code of silence. Earlier this month, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FDLS) leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexual acts with a two young girls to whom he was married. Prosecutors secured a conviction partly because of affidavits from former members of his community.
But what happens when members of a faith community choose to police themselves?
On August 4, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) presented the Borough Park Shomrim with a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for their assistance in searching for Leiby Kletzky.
However, Nadler didn’t post news of the award on his congressional website―perhaps because, while they may be popular among the people of the neighborhood, Brooklyn’s various Shomrim forces, organized by neighborhood, are controversial and, to some, legally questionable.
Shomrim have no official law enforcement training, but they patrol the streets in cars with flashing red and blue lights, sporting knock-off NYPD logos, badges and decals. They also receive funding from the New York City Council—reportedly about $130,000 in the city’s 2012 budget.
In an interview with The Crime Report, Simcha Bernath, one of Shomrim’s coordinators, blamed a “misunderstanding” for the two-and-a-half hour delay in reporting the missing Leiby Kletzky.
But a promotional video for the Borough Park Shomrim posted on YouTube just six days after the boy was found tells another story.
The video, which refers to the squad as the “Brooklyn South Safety Patrol,” begins by depicting a bandana-sporting Latino man breaking into a Jewish home. Inside, a little boy hears a noise, picks up the phone and, instead of calling 911, dials his local Shomrim’s nine-digit number.
A moment later, a black SUV with flashing red and blue lights, speeds to the scene. In the house, Shomrim wearing jackets and badges bearing a remarkable resemblance to NYPD police paraphernalia, search the house and find the perp. Cut to NYPD taking him away.
When Bernath was asked why the video was instructing neighborhood children to call Shomrim instead of the police, he answered that Shomrim consider themselves “the eyes and ears of the police in the community.”
He added that the boy, who may speak more Yiddish than English, might be more comfortable explaining the situation to a Shomrim operator.
“It’s a wonder any of this is legal,” says an NYPD official with knowledge of the orthodox community.
The official asked not to be named for fear of reprisal within the department. NYPD declined requests to comment on the Kletzky case or Shomrim.
“At least the NYPD is beholden to the law and you have sworn officers who are trained—at least there’s some transparency,” says the official. “There’s zero transparency with Shomrim.”
Julia Dahl is acting managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.