Prosecutors should handle sex abuse cases in religious groups

By Kenneth Kowald

This series of blogs started out to try to find out why in a special election for a seat in Congress, considered “safe” for the Democrats, the Republican candidate won. The district then encompassed Queens areas and some parts of Brooklyn where Robert Turner won very handily, thanks to the votes of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. He lost in Queens, but he became a Representative.

We still must wonder about the “why” of that vote. We may never get an answer.

But the U-O vote in Brooklyn threw a public spotlight on that close-knit community and out of that came revelation that for many years, accusations in of child abuse in that group were not followed up vigorously, if at all, by the Brooklyn district attorney. He allowed the spiritual leaders of the U-Os to handle the complaints. They took the place of the law. They judged their own, without respect for the law.

Not a good idea. As a result of all the publicity, a high-profile trial has been held; the predator has been sentenced to jail and the DA is now handling the complaints as he should have. What a difference a vote can make!

Now all of this happened in Brooklyn, so for a Queens columnist it was something of a stretch to keep on about this matter. It was not happening here, right?

Ah, in this day of telephonic and other great technical advances, boundaries are not enough. It appears, according to the Queens district attorney, that a rabbi in the Midwood section of Brooklyn (his congregation meets in his house — a common situation) is accused of having a telephonic relationship with (he believed) an underage teenage girl in Queens and trying to arrange a meeting with her for sexual purposes. In fact, he was talking to a police operative and he is now facing prosecution, the DA said.

You may find this a stretch for a Queens columnist, but, I hope, you will bear with me while I discourse on the Common Law and especially how important it is for it to be followed in the case of child abuse, wherever it is found. It could happen in a university. It could happen in a religious organization. It could happen in a school system. It could happen in a town which dotes on its athletes’ prowess in high school and refuses to believe they can do wrong.

Indeed, it could happen in Queens.

You don’t have to go far to find it. Read the papers. Watch the TV. Listen to the radio news.

Let us remember that as far as the American public is concerned, the wake-up call about child abuse started with the scandals in the Roman Catholic church. Revelations continue. No place seems to be immune to this problem.

It is not religious groups alone which deal with this matter. They get the most coverage. But no group or area seems to be free of it, as I think everyone realizes from listening and reading.

And now, with your pardon, my take on The Common Law and why it is so important.

Let’s start with history:

Henry of Anjou became King Henry II of England when he was in his teens. His mother was the last direct descendant of William the Conqueror, if my research is correct. Henry reigned for 45 years.

Thomas Becket was 15 years his senior, son of a Norman family, not nobility, but given a fair education for those days. They became great friends and Thomas became the second most important person in the kingdom when Henry named him chancellor. He was very faithful to the plans and policies of his lord.

In those days — this is the mid-12th century — less than 100 years after the Norman Conquest, many rulers across Europe were having problems with the Church of Rome. They were not “enemies,” but the monarchs wanted to be the rulers of their countries and leave the church to rule its own. Matters of economics, of course, were not beside the point. The church was a great landowner.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Henry, without permission from the pope, named his devoted servant, Thomas, to that post. Thomas was not a priest, but became one very soon after being named. He also became a vigorous opponent of Henry’s plans and policies, which he had once promoted.

He was now a churchman to his bones. Indeed, there have been reports that he wore a hairshirt at times if not always, to show his devotion.

There were many disputes between Henry and Becket, so heated that for a long time Becket was in exile on the continent, fearing for his safety. Sometime in 1190, the differences seemed to be resolved and Thomas returned.

One of Henry’s problems was the question of which entity should punish a clergyman or other religious figure if that person committed a crime for which government justice would be the judging body. Thomas said, in effect, the church will judge its own, regardless of the infraction. Henry said, in effect, no. If it is a crime outside the domains of the church, we must handle it.

I don’t know what language they spoke when they talked to each other — Chaucer, whose writings are generally considered to be the beginning of the modern English language as we know it, did not write until some two centuries later — but I can imagine an exchange:

Henry: Thomas, I am glad to have you back. But we must resolve this question of your people committing crimes.

Thomas: My lord, we will take care of it, as we always have.

Henry: Not good enough. If your monks break the laws of the church, well and good; you judge them. When one of them cudgels a freeholder in a pub, or breaks any law in this kingdom, we judge. It is Common Law, as you know, and it must apply to all those who commit crimes, whether they are religious or lay people.

Thomas: Never!

Henry: Thomas, never say never. Good luck and good day.

Not long after this imagined conversation, it is reported that Henry was heard to say something like (there are various versions): “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Four knights set out to do so. During Christmas week, 1170, they confronted Thomas in his cathedral. He did not yield to their statements (or entreaties, if they were such). He did succumb to their weapons. He died in his own house of worship.

Thomas became a martyr and was named a saint a little more than two years after his assassination. They did that kind of thing faster in those days. A great shrine was erected in his memory, later destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.

In 1174, Henry, who outlived Thomas by 19 years, did public penance in Canterbury, being flailed (not too hard, I would imagine) as he walked the streets.

But Henry won. The Common Law was the law of the land. Tinker, tailor, baker, lord, priest, farmer, serf, etc., were all one before the laws of the land.

They still are. Which is where the Ultra-Orthodox of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn district attorney and all those other entities come in. Child abuse and how it has been handled in that community or any other place should be a message to us all, regardless of where we live. The law was evaded by both sides for far too long.

There are too many more instances in which the Common Law has been disregarded, in matters of child and other kinds of abuse, in too many parts of our country and the world. The U-Os and DA Charles Hynes are not alone in this kind of contrarian behavior.

History, as we all should realize, can teach us many things for living in our own century.

One of them is that no person or group is above the law. None.

In a country where the law is paramount there should be no doubt about that.

And that goes for Queens, too.