An accused pedophile from ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn has never faced trial, thanks in part to a D.A. who had political reasons not to pursue the case
Most people have never heard the story of Avrohom Mondrowitz, which has received only a smattering of headlines in the Jewish media. A charismatic and eloquent member of the Ger Hasidic sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the 63-year-old claimed to be both a rabbi and a Columbia-trained psychologist. Though he was neither, for years he ran a psychology practice out of his basement, as well as a school for troubled youth. He is also alleged to be one of the worst sexual predators in Brooklyn history.
In 1984, Mondrowitz was accused of sexually abusing four Italian boys. Since then, the number of Mondrowitz’s alleged victims has been estimated at close to a hundred—making him, shockingly, an average pedophile. But given the shame and secrecy surrounding sexual abuse, and his broad network of contacts, the number of alleged victims could actually be much higher. Moshe Rosenbaum, one of the activists who first aired concerns about Mondrowitz in the late 1980s, estimates the number to be 300. If Mondrowitz were to be convicted of so many crimes, he would be the worst sexual predator in the Orthodox community on record.
But that would require a case to be brought against him—which, for a variety of troubling reasons, has never happened.
This fall, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, will hear oral arguments pertaining to the release of documents about Mondrowitz. Michael Lesher, an attorney representing several of Mondrowitz’s alleged victims, asked the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office for the documents under New York’s Freedom of Information Law in 2007. A trial court initially ruled in favor of Lesher’s clients, but that verdict was overturned unanimously last year on appeal.
The fact that the Court of Appeals will hear the case is a significant victory for Lesher, who believes that Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes stopped pursuing Mondrowitz, who’d fled to Israel, because of pressure from ultra-Orthodox voters. Although it seems that Mondrowitz could have been extradited to Brooklyn to stand trial as early as 1989, Hynes’ office waited two decades, until 2007, to launch the extradition process. Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, said that if Mondrowitz ever returns to the United States, he will be arrested and tried. “We don’t reveal files on open cases, and courts have upheld that,” he said. “I know we have handled this case properly.”
Lesher disagrees and is looking for a smoking gun to prove his theory. But even if he is wrong about Hynes, the Mondrowitz case—or non-case—has involved a series of brilliant two-steps on the part of a community that is looking to face its demons quietly. But the story, in part due to the complexities of extradition, simply won’t go away.
Mark Weiss, who is represented by Lesher, is one of Mondrowitz’s alleged victims. Today, he is a frequent speaker at Jewish sexual abuse conferences; in 2006, he appeared on a Nightline segment about Mondrowitz. In 1980, he was a 13-year-old in Chicago—a good kid with some philosophical differences from his ultra-Orthodox parents. “I didn’t see eye-to-eye with them,” he said last month by phone from New Jersey. “But I wasn’t stealing cars or taking drugs.” When his junior high school asked him not to come back, his parents sent him to a psychologist in Brooklyn named Avrohom Mondrowitz.
The Weiss and Mondrowitz families were friendly. They had lived close to each other in Chicago. Mondrowitz’s father was a popular figure in the community, both a scholar who studied in the Mir yeshiva and a businessman in charge of several nursing homes. According to a family friend from the neighborhood, the senior Mondrowitz was part of the group of Mir students who escaped Poland before World War II through Shanghai, China. Avrohom, who was born in 1947, moved to New York in the late 1970s to be closer to the Ger Hasidic community in Borough Park. By the time Weiss was sent to Mondrowitz, the older man had already established himself as a psychologist whose patients came to him through a wide network in the Orthodox community, including the Ohel Jewish social service agency, according to the Orthodox Jewish website Vos iz Neias? and other leading members of the community. (Ohel has publicly denied employing Mondrowitz but is more circumspect about referrals. “Given the lapse of time, it is impossible to determine whether any referrals were ever made to Mondrowitz,” a spokesperson said.) Mondrowitz agreed to treat Weiss by taking him for a week into his Borough Park house. Unknown to Weiss’ parents, Mondrowitz’s family was out of town, which left him alone with the teenaged Weiss.
Weiss remembers Mondrowitz as a dazzling figure. “He was just the essence of coolness, especially for a little yeshiva kid showing up,” Weiss told me. “He wined and dined me. He took me out to eat. He took me out to an amusement park. He basically showed me a good time and gave me lots of positive attention. I soaked it up. He was grooming me.” At night, Weiss said Mondrowitz gently persuaded him to sleep in Mondrowitz’s bed. (He declined to go into detail about what would happen next, but he alleges sexual abuse.) “He was very smooth and manipulative and really gave me no pause for thinking anything was inappropriate,” Weiss said. His descriptions are similar to those of the five other alleged victims represented by Lesher, none of whom are named in the appeal.
Part of Mondrowitz’s appeal relied on the stigma toward mental health professionals in the Orthodox community. “He had this reputation of being a wonderful guy and being very helpful,” said Deborah Dienstag, a physician who works with the Orthodox community. “People don’t want to go to psychologists, since there’s stigma. There is no stigma going to rabbis.” According to Jeff Dion, of the National Center for Victims of Crime, an advocacy group, certain abusers set themselves up as pillars of the community, targeting victims who are troubled, outcasts, or young people with drug and alcohol abuse problems. If a victim then chooses to disclose acts, he said, “it becomes the word of a ‘bad kid’ against the pillar of the community.”
In the years following Weiss’ visit, Mondrowitz’s star rose. He hosted a popular program called Life Is for Living on the now-defunct local radio station WNYN. “Don’t picture this man living in isolation or even living a double life,” said Lesher, the lawyer. “Don’t picture someone who was off in the corner abusing kids who came to him. He was very industrious about bringing victims to him and integrating himself into the institutional structure that made it possible. He founded a school. He got victims through the school. He ran a psychology practice and promoted it with a radio program. He got hundreds of kids.”
For years, no Jewish victim spoke out against Mondrowitz. But accusers say he also went after Italian boys on his ethnically mixed Brooklyn block; residents recalled him showering gifts on the neighbors’ kids. In 1984, someone made an anonymous phone call to two New York Police Department detectives, Pat Kehoe and Sal Catalfamo.“I never had received a call like that in my whole career in the New York City Police Department,” Kehoe told ABC News. “There was a rabbi and gave the name and he was abusing people on this block. And he said if you go knocking on doors, you’ll find victims.” Both detectives are now retired and, through another police officer, declined to talk to me about the case.
Responding to the tip, the detectives went down the block, knocked on doors, and quickly located four Italian victims who were willing to press charges ranging from sexual abuse to sodomy. “When people finally went to the police, it was the Italian kids,” Lesher said. “Several victims have told me that their parents were instructed not to approach the grand jury. Some victims were discouraged from reporting Mondrowitz’s crimes. I can only assume the rest were, also.”
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