Thursday, May 30, 2013

Exonerating the Friedmans

Jesse Friedman
I realize this is not the kind of news advocates for victims of sex abuse want to hear.  But - as reported on both VIN and the New York Post - Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice is on the verge of exonerating a Long Island man who pled guilty to 14 counts sex abuse and served 13 years in prison for those alleged crimes. It is now 25 years after the conviction. At first refusing to re-open the case Rice did so when it became obvious that the evidence he was convicted on turned out to be bogus.

Jesse Friedman – who has always claimed his innocence pled guilty because of what appeared to be overwhelming evidence of abuse apparently arising from victims who came forward. In his desire to avoid a life sentence he pled guilty thus reducing his sentence to 13 years.

It appears that none of those accusations were true. According to an article in the New York Daily News almost all of the alleged victims have backed him up.  In a rare move for a prosecutor’s office the case was re-opened 3 years ago when another alleged victim broke his 25 year silence and recanted his accusations.

The Friedman case was a very high profile case when it happened. By chance it was recorded in a documentary called ‘Capturing the Friedmans’. The documentary was originally intended to be about clowns who perform at birthday parties. When the producer found out about the accusations of one of his subjects, the documentary focused on that exclusively. But even then he was not sure of the guilt and left it open to the viewer.

Nonetheless it appears that an innocent man’s life was ruined - not to mention the fact that 13 years of his life were wrongfully spent in prison.

Perhaps this case is rare. Perhaps the fact is that the vast majority of accusations of abuse are not made up. And it is certainly highly unlikely that a confession by an accused sexual abuser is a false one. And yet here we have exactly that case. An innocent man’s life has been completely ruined by a confession coerced by the police who believed him to be guilty.

This case is not one that should be overlooked or dismissed as so rare - that it is not worth talking about. It is certainly not the only case where false accusations were made. There are other high profile cases where that happened. Like the McMartin  Pre-School case where false accusations of sex abuse ruined the school , the reputation of  its founder and her family members. I recall a few other cases like that which were not so high profile.

Once the accusations are made, there is no amount of recanting in the world that will completely restore the reputation of the accused. No matter how innocent he or she is. This should not be taken lightly.

This raises questions about the recent admission by Yosef Kolko to abusing some children in a camp where he was a counselor. I can already hear the outcry by victims’ advocates who will certainly cry foul here. "Kolko is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt." "He admitted it after all." "How dare I bring even a scintilla of doubt into the equation?!" Well… I am.  I am not a black and white person and I tend to hear both sides of an argument.

That said, I happen to believe Kolko is guilty. I know who the victim’s father is - and he is beyond reproach.  I also firmly believe that Nechmya Weberman  is guilty. The evidence against him in court was overwhelming. When other victims came forward privately with the same modus operandi attributed to him as the victim who testified against him - that convinced me of his guilt. The same thing is true with other convicted or admitted sex abusers.  

But what I will not do is ignore the possibility of error, slight though it may be. Error even when there is an admission of guilt.

This does not mean that I have changed my views about reporting sex abuse directly to the police when there are Raglayim L’Davar - reasonable suspicions of it. I agree with those Poskim, like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who say that there is no such thing as Mesirah in a democratic country of just laws like ours.

For those who do believe that Mesirah does apply even here, it does not apply when lives are at stake. A sex abuser is considered a Rodef – someone who chases another person in order to kill him or do severe bodily harm. The idea of going to Rabbis first to determine whether a suspicion is ‘reasonable’ is a bad one. Deciding suspiciaons are reasonable  should not be in the hands of the untrained.

Especially when they are naturally inclined to disbelieve accusations made against people they see as exemplary Jews. This is often the case with abusers. In all other ways they are often fine people with good values that are constantly on display. But they are also sick people who cannot always control their unnatural desires and succumb to them when nobody is looking. They are ‘Jekylls and Hydes’. The rabbis only see Dr. Jekyll. They never see the Mr. Hyde. Thus making it impossible for them to believe accusations like that. They therefore err on the side of the accused!

The only way to determine whether an accusation is credible is to let people who are professionally trained to do it – do so. Hopefully the police have learned a lot since the days of Jesse Friedman and Virginia McMartin. I have to assume that they rely heavily on police psychologists who are specially trained in this area… for fear of hurting innocent people with false accusations.

What about the reputation of someone who is falsely accused? As the victims advocates say, statistics show that accusations of abuse rarely prove to be false. Especially with very young victims. It is therefore better to err on the side of the accuser rather than the accused.

But all that being said, an innocent man can still be accused. It has happened and it could happen again – even today. I think we have to acknowledge that fact. And make absolutely certain that any suspicions of abuse be very carefully scrutinized before reporting them to the police. Unless you catch somebody in the act which at the very least requires a reflexive call to 911, one has to consider all the consequences. One should be cautious and deliberate to make 100% certain that there are indeed reasonable suspicions before erring on the side of the accuser. That is the least we can learn from the case of Jesse Friedman.