On Stand, Greer Invokes 5th On Sex Abuse

YouTube/Larry Dressler Hartford — Speaking publicly for the first time about sexual abuse allegations that have ripped apart the Orthodox Jewish community he built in New Haven, Rabbi Daniel Greer denied under oath ever having counseled a teenaged yeshiva student named Eliyahu Mirlis about spiritual matters.

Then, under further questioning, Greer refused to say whether he took Mirlis to motels overnight, showed him porn, plied him with alcohol, molested him in the bedroom where he sleeps with his wife and fondled him at several other rental properties he controls throughout the Edgewood neighborhood.

“Did you force Eli Mirlis to have sex with you when he was a child?” Antonio Ponvert, Mirlis’s attorney, questioned after Greer took the stand here Thursday in a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

“I advise Mr. Greer to invoke his privilege”  —  the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination —  David Grudberg, one of the rabbi’s three defense attorneys, interrupted.

“I invoke the right to privilege,” Greer said. Ponvert moved on to the next allegation.

That back-and-forth — an accusation of sexual assault and silence from the alleged perpetrator — characterized a significant portion of the Thursday testimony in Mirlis’s civil suit. (Greer explicitly denied only one allegation: having sex with Mirlis on a parcel of land in Hamden.) The federal suit seeks damages from Greer, who revived a struggling portion of the Edgewood neighborhood and is known statewide and nationally for advocacy on social issues; Yeshiva of New Haven and several Greer-controlled housing not-for-profits for allegedly allowing Mirlis to endure sexual abuse for three years as a boarding student.

In a packed, five-hour day, jurors heard from three witnesses. Greer drew the contours of his relationship with Mirlis —  that is, when he chose to answer. Jurors watched the deposition of Aviad Hack, the yeshiva’s assistant dean who claimed Greer also sexually abused him. (The Independent wrote about the deposition at length in this story; jurors watched a video of that depisition, because Hack dodged a process server on four occasions across two states.) And finally, the plaintiff’s wife, Shira Mirlis, recounted how the couple fought over why Greer continued to be involved in Mirlis’s adult life, despite alleged childhood abuse.

Adverse Inferences

Christopher Peak Photo Absent a confession, Greer’s pleading the Fifth was almost exactly what Ponvert, of the firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, expected to hear. In his opening statement, the lawyer readied the jury for Greer’s non-answers.

“He will take the Fifth Amendment about every substantive question. He will not deny anything, but he will not answer either. He will not deny that he abused Eli. He will not deny that he brought him to hotels and his bedroom, that he fondled him and raped him,” Ponvert said, speaking so faintly it was difficult to hear at times from behind the bar. “On the one hand, you’ll hear direct testimony from Eli and Aviad Hack about what this man did to them. On the other side, you will hear silence, evasion and a refusal to testify.”

Minutes into the cross-examination, that’s exactly what happened. Ponvert explicitly asked Greer if he had assaulted Mirlis, and he invoked his right to not answer.

Judge Micheal P. Shea halted the proceedings to clarify what had happened. Each time the Fifth Amendment shielded Greer from answering, he explained, jurors “may, but are not required to, infer from such a refusal that the answers would have been adverse to the witness’s interests and any party’s interests.”

Ponvert appeared unprepared for just how often Greer chose to keep mum.

Ponvert: “Did you teach them religious and secular studies?”

Greer: “I invoke my privilege.”

Ponvert: “You’re really saying you take the Fifth when saying whether you taught religious or secular studies?”

Greer: “Yes.”

Ponvert produced a copy of Mirlis’s report cards from his four years at the yeshiva and handed them to the witness. Peering through his glasses, Greer flipped through each page, hitting the microphone with the papers.

Ponvert: “It’s true, is it not, rabbi, that you taught ethics and theology?”

Greer: “I invoke my privilege.”

Throughout his hours on the stand, Greer attempted to minimize his role in the yeshiva he created. He claimed his title of dean was really just an honorific, that the school was actually run by his assistant Hack.

Without resorting to the Fifth Amendment, Greer did deny speaking to Mirlis about faith or his family. The rabbi said the only conversations he had with the teenage student were to encourage him to improve his grades, to take the requisite standardized tests and get into a good college.

“Your statement to the jury is that never on one occasion did you have one conversation about anything personal to his life, other than his education?” Ponvert asked.

“Not while he was in school,” Greer answered.

How Bad Can It Be?

Given the damaging inferences jurors may draw from Greer’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment, the defense has already ceded much ground.

That’s partly because the standards for how jurors will weigh evidence when testimony concludes next week differ from criminal trials. “Those of you who have sat on a jury in a criminal case or watched one on television may have heard of ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt.’ That does not apply to a civil case,” Shea instructed jurors. “The burden is different: It’s called proof by a preponderance of the evidence.” Simply put, are the allegations more likely to have happened than not?

Picture a scale, Shea continued. Stack up all the credible, relevant and supportive evidence for each side. If the scales are equal and it’s truly unclear who’s right, Greer gets off. But if the scale tips, even in the slightest, toward proof of sexual abuse, Mirlis has met his burden.

Without a direct denial from Greer, the defense attorneys can concede sexual abuse occurred but question whether it was emotionally distressing enough to be worthy of damages.

Grudberg hinted at this strategy in his opening statements, pointing out that Mirlis had brought legal action nearly 15 years after the abuse first occurred. He questioned whether Mirlis was suffering, painting him as well-adjusted with a “very active, thriving career” as a nursing home administrator.

“I think the statement I heard in the opening was that Mr. Mirlis continued for a number of years before the full impact became known to known to him,” Grudberg said. “You will learn that [Mirlis] did not seek any treatment of any kind for his claimed abuse until after he had retained counsel and entered as a plaintiff. Except marriage counseling, the only treatment he ever got was after a lawyer got involved.”

Throughout the day, the defense team repeatedly called attention to the fact that Mirlis invited Greer to play a key role at several milestones in his adult life: delivering an elegy at his father’s memorial service, acting as a witness to the signing of a marriage contract and holding his firstborn son during a circumcision ceremony.

Grudberg added that any psychological issues Mirlis displayed could be attributed to a difficult upbringing, long before being dropped off at the yeshiva, that included frequent interaction with New Jersey’s child welfare department.

“You will have to consider all of that in deciding what — if something did happen here, if you get to the point where something did happen — what has been the impact on his life?” Grudberg closed.

The strategy’s outcome will likely depend on how jurors perceive Mirlis’s behavior when he takes the stand on Monday afternoon.

Greer’s lawyers previously stated in a motion that the rabbi planned to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, in part because he has “discussed his allegations with the police authorities” and therefore “may be the subject of an ongoing police investigation.”

Beginning in the 1980s, Rabbi Greer oversaw the revival of the neighborhood around his yeshiva at the corner of Norton and Elm streets, renovating neglected historic homes.

Over the years, Greer has also crusaded against gay rights in Connecticut, at times played an active role in politics and government, and advocated for keeping nuisance businesses out of the Whalley Avenue commercial corridor. He and his family earned national attention for exposing johns who patronized street prostitutes in the neighborhood, for filing suit against Yale University over a requirement that students live in coed dorms, and then in 2007 for launching an armed neighborhood “defense” patrol and then calling in the Guardian Angels for assistance to combat crime. In the 1970s, Greer also led a successful campaign to force the United States to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate here and start new, freer lives.

Previous coverage of this case:

Suit: Rabbi Molested, Raped Students
Greer’s Housing Corporations Added To Sex Abuse Lawsuit
2nd Ex-Student Accuses Rabbi Of Sex Assault
2nd Rabbi Accuser Details Alleged Abuse
Rabbi Sexual Abuse Jury Picked

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Comments

posted by: mbedford on May 12, 2017  3:01pm

I wonder why it is that this issue is getting as much attention as it is. It’s some old guy who clearly abused a child, but why is the New Haven Independent covering it day by day. I’ve never seen anything in New Haven get coverage like this. Is this a personal vendetta? Is this the MOST important thing going on in New Haven? Just let us know what the result is when the trial is done in 10 days instead of making a circus about this.

Speaking of something that deserves attention, can we please focus on Glendower group, and Farnam Courts. That is ACTUALLY something that is important to ALL New Haveners, and should be receiving daily press pieces. How in the world is it possible for the City to have its on FOR-PROFIT entity building low income housing for nearly THREE times what private luxury apartments cost!

For context, the brand new luxury Novella, is listed in the range of $35-40MM for almost 140 units and retail space, breaking down to a little over 200,000 per unit (asking). Farnam Courts cost is over 600,000 per unit for affordable housing.

Please focus on important issues!

posted by: breakingbad23 on May 13, 2017  7:47am

Maybe mbedford should start his own online media source to bring light to the things he feels are so important.

posted by: J R on May 13, 2017  12:16pm

I find mbedford’s comment bizarre.  Greer is not some random anonymous old guy, but a major public figure. 

Those of us who lived here in the 1990s remember vividly how the national press swarmed New Haven to cover every twist and turn of his fight against Yale to stop the supposed immorality of having male and female freshman live in suites on the same hallways.  Greer became a national spokesperson for the cause of conservatism on campus, and one of the pioneers, nationally, of the argument that religious conservatives are actually the victims of discrimination by a secular society that is intolerant of them.  Today those arguments are super familiar.  But in the 1990s they were more innovative, and Greer was one of maybe a dozen high-profile conservative leaders across the country (give or take) who made that happen.

Meanwhile, at a more local level, he founded multiple educational institutions, rehabbed a ton of properties, and led a community that formed a significant part of the fabric of New Haven.  So in other words, he was not just a nationally important guy who happened to live in New Haven.  He was a figure of both national and local importance.  There’s absolutely no question the Independent should consider him highly newsworthy.

I think this sad and horrific tale also has a lot to tell us.  Greer would not the first or the last leader of a tight-knit community, highly deferential and reverent toward the authority of its leaders, who turns out to be abusing that deference, authority, and reverence, by using them as a cover for pedophilia.  Cf. the long-running Catholic priest abuse scandals, and many other examples. 

The problem here is a structural one.  We need to organize our society in a less authoritarian and more egalitarian way.  There is no way that one man should ever have the kind of power and authority within a community that Greer had.  Even if most use that authority wisely, there will always be many who don’t.  We can prevent this.

posted by: Eric B. Smith on May 14, 2017  2:12pm

@JR…I don’t have much to say about this case specifically, but I do want to respond to your last paragraph, especially the part where you say, “We can prevent this.”  No, we cannot.  We can create systems of checks and balances to make committing acts of evil more difficult, but we’ll never be able to stop motivated people from committing evil.

In my various roles throughout my life, I’ve seen people do great things and I’ve seen or heard of people do horrific things and the bottom line is that all of us have our flaws.  As someone once said, “If a [person] is guilty for what goes on in [his or her] mind, then give me the electric chair for all my future crimes.”  Those who know me have heard me say that there’s nothing ANYONE can do that would surprise me and no matter what rules, structures, or processes we implement, the human intellect is great enough to find ways to work around them.

What we can do, however, is hold people accountable for their actions when they are caught.

posted by: J R on May 14, 2017  3:21pm

@Eric,

You’re completely right that we cannot prevent all cases of this kind.  What I should have written was: we can prevent many cases of this kind, by organizing our institutions differently, so that nobody has the kind of excessive power, authority, and deference that someone like Greer had, which makes it easy to do a lot of things with impunity.

I agree that when somebody is going to abuse their power, there may be no way to prevent this.  But, we can give people less power to abuse.  And we can also make it possible to catch them more quickly, which will result in fewer victims.

Many leaders who turn out to be pedophiles have many victims over periods of decades because red flags get ignored, victims are cowed into complete silence, etc., because the community has put its leaders on such a high pedestal that they cannot be accused of anything.  That’s the part I think we can try to avoid in the future.  That’s the biggest lesson I hope we take from this case and others like it.  It’s true that we can’t stop all abuse, but we can, as you say, make it more difficult, and that is part of how.