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.
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?”
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