Trial Mines How Victims Process Trauma

Christopher Peak PhotoHartford — During the three years when Eliyahu Mirlis claimed Rabbi Daniel Greer sexually molested him, why didn’t Mirlis try to stop it?

Why didn’t the teenaged student phone his parents in New Jersey and flee to another school in another state?

Why didn’t he fend off the 60-year old man, weakened by a hernia?

Why didn’t he admit the alleged abuse to the assistant dean, Aviad Hack, another one of Greer’s alleged victims, or to Ezi Greer, the rabbi’s son and Mirlis’s closest friend?

Why didn’t he report the case to the state’s child welfare agents, who were investigating the Yeshiva of New Haven?

“That’s probably a hard question to answer, but I want to ask you to try,” Antonio Ponvert, Mirlis’s attorney, said after his client took the witness stand on Monday afternoon here in U.S. District Court.

Monday was the second day of dramatic testimony in a civil lawsuit Mirlis has filed against Greer, a prominent rabbi who built an Orthodox community and renovated homes around a yeshiva in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood.

During the day, Greer’s legal team sought to raise questions about Mirlis’s allegations that the rabbi sexually abused him from 2002 through 2005, from sophomore through his senior years. Greer’s attorney sought to present Mirlis’s actions as inconsistent — in the process touching on broader questions about how victims process abuse over time and what forms trauma takes.

Through their line of questioning, Greer’s lawyers painted Mirlis as an opportunist, seeking hard cash or a convenient out from marital problems.

If he so hated his alleged rapist, they asked, why had Mirlis installed the rabbi in a place of honor at his wedding and visited the Greer home on Jewish high holidays? If he was so crippled by unwanted memories, why had he been able to purchase ownership interests in a portfolio of successful nursing homes? And why, a decade after the abuse allegedly ended, had Mirlis decided to come forward with a lawsuit only now, before even seeking professional psychological help?

Plaintiffs attorney Ponvert characterized that portrayal as insensitive. He called to the stand an expert witness named Dr. Julian Ford, an authority on childhood traumatic stress. Ford argued that Mirlis is a victim still trying years later to fathom the damage Greer had inflicted on him.

Ford explained that many of the apparent contradictions raised by Greer’s team were actually coping mechanisms common to victims of juvenile sexual abuse, particularly abuse by a respected figure like a priest, scoutmaster or rabbi. That kind of severe trauma in adolescence, Ford indicated, can create “a kind of emotional shadow” over a victim’s life that “unfortunately never goes away.”

After the First Time

After hearing about the effects of PTSD, Mirlis — who is now 29, lives in New Jersey, and manages nursing homes for a living — took the stand and recounted the initial alleged abuse he received at the Yeshiva of New Haven. He breathed heavily during his testimony and spoke in deferential terms.

In detail, the jurors heard for the first time exactly how the alleged molestation started. (Greer had earlier invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to answer questions about whether he’d sexually abused Mirlis.)

In his telling, the first encounter happened on the first floor of 777 Elm St., next door to the yeshiva. “He asked me to meet him there one night, and I did. I didn’t know what he wanted,” Mirlis recalled. Greer had brought alcohol and cashews, he added. “We were talking about my family and my past and my history — my life up until that date,” he said. “I was inebriated. He tried to kiss me. And I just remember freaking out, my heart palpitating.”

Mirlis told Greer he wasn’t sure what had just happened but that it was unacceptable. Greer answered that it was inconsequential. The rabbi said he did it all the time with his kids, “which I don’t know if he meant literally or if he was trying to calm me,” Mirlis added.

Over the next three years, their relationship escalated to the point where sexual encounters — “oral sex, anal sex, anything within the realm of sexual conduct, I guess,” Mirlis said — happened on a weekly basis. On a dozen Sundays, Greer took him to a motel in Branford, where they watched pornography, he claimed. And once, on an outing to Pennsylvania to scout another yeshiva, the pair didn’t make it to Philadelphia before sundown on Friday, so Greer booked a room in the small town of Paoli to avoid breaking Jewish law by traveling on the Sabbath. Mirlis recalled Greer did not want to have sex on the Sabbath itself, but they did right before and after.

Throughout the day, as they’ve done most of the trial, the defense harped on the outstanding matter of why Mirlis had continued to stay in touch with Greer over the years. Attorney Bill Ward reproduced a stack of wedding photos featuring Greer and asked Mirlis to describe each one, ending with a picture of the two together, with Mirlis smiling and giving the thumbs up.

Ford explained that the continued relationship after Mirlis graduated from the yeshiva was likely motivated by two contradictory feelings. On one hand, Mirlis probably thought of the abuse every time he saw Greer, but he wanted to maintain contact so as to keep the secret between the two of them, he guessed. And on the other hand, Mirlis wanted to reassert a sense of normalcy, by moving on with his life with the rabbi continuing to play the role of authority figure and mentor that Greer had played in his youth.

Mirlis indicated that he felt indebted to the rabbi, even after all the suffering he had allegedly caused.

“Can you explain to the jury how those two things can coexist, that he abused you as a child and that you voluntarily continued to engage with him? How do you understand that?” Ponvert asked him.

“I looked up to him as an important figure and therefore I wanted him to be at my wedding. I felt it was appropriate for all he had done for me in my education and helping me out financially when he did,” Mirlis answered. “You know, New Haven was my family. Or second family.”

Despite having once felt unable to stop Greer’s sexual advances, Mirlis said, he filed the lawsuit to emerge from that traumatic period. As an alleged victim of sexual assault, he had the option to remain anonymous, a John Doe. Mirlis said he’d found the courage to stand up for himself and confront his identity, his old community and his alleged abuser.

“I went to that school, I was part of New Haven for a long time and this happened,” Mirlis said. “I don’t want to hide it.”

“Betrayal Trauma”

Mirlis paused before speaking when Ponvert asked him why he didn’t immediately report the alleged abuse.

“I wanted to finish high school out,” Mirlis said after a sharp intake of breath. “I didn’t want to have to start at a new place. It would have been very difficult to tell someone and feel validated, to have someone believe what I was actually saying was reality.”

In his own testimony Monday, Dr. Ford, a psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut who chairs the American Psychological Association Division of Trauma Psychology Presidential Task Force on Child Trauma, offered a technical term for the apparent reticence: “betrayal trauma.”

Ford told jurors that molestation by a trusted, respected adult creates a savage inner conflict in adolescents. “He was a 14-year-old boy initially. This was like nothing he ever experienced. He had no sexual activity whatsoever in his life”  —  except for kissing one girl in middle school —  “and he didn’t know what to make of it,” Ford said. “This kind of betrayal leads to a very tragic pattern of blaming the perpetrator, which is of course understandable and perfectly reasonable, but also a great deal of self-blame because the victim very commonly comes to believe, ‘I should have done something, I should have stopped this,’ when there really is not a way they could have.”

A psychiatry professor at the University of Connecticut, Ford was hired by Ponvert to conduct a “forensic interview” to determine if Mirlis suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over the course of a three-hour session at his Farmington office —  while billing $400 hourly, the defense pointed out —  Ford ran through the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), a questionnaire that’s considered the gold standard for measuring the frequency and intensity of various PTSD symptoms.

After talking with Mirlis and observing his behavior, Ford concluded that the man suffers from “severe and chronic” PTSD, as indicated by four main signs.

First, unwanted memories of what he engaged in with Greer intrude frequently, the psychiatrist said. Sometimes these remembrances reveal themselves as a vague feeling of dread, a sense “that something terrible is happening or will happen,” or as gut reaction of self-loathing and disgust, regret and anger for the sex acts he’d committed, Ford said. Other times, the flashbacks could be more vivid, so realistic it feels as if Mirlis is reliving the abuse: “It’s as if it’s happening all over again, right then and there,” Ford added. Even the body begins to react to the overwhelming stress, with shakes and trembles.

Second, to avoid those feelings, victims may attempt to shut out any reminders that could trigger the memories, Ford said, by distracting themselves with an all-consuming task. as Mirlis did that with his work; or finding outlets for a quick release, as Mirlis did by furtively visiting massage parlors without his wife’s knowledge for impersonal sexual encounters.

Third, this permanent state of avoidance can lead to fundamental changes in a victim’s “core beliefs and emotions,” the professor said. The betrayal can lead to a cynical outlet, accompanied by anger, fear and dysphoria. Mirlis “doesn’t trust people in authority or anyone he could be close to, because those are the ones that did the most harm to him,” Ford said.

Mirlis believes the world is a “very dangerous place,” he added. Why? It’s “where something like this can happen.”

Fourth, constantly on the defensive against future threats, victims often display hypervigilance. “They can never be happy except in fleeting moments,” before the paranoia returns that someone is out to betray or exploit him again, Ford explained. On the witness stand last week, his wife, Shira Mirlis, had said her husband expressed genuine emotion only twice: when his father died and when their children were born. “This is someone who can never let down their guard,” Ford added.

These symptoms were likely so acute, he speculated, because of the timing of the molestation. During adolescence, the brain develops rapidly, as it begins to comprehend more complex thoughts, calculate morals in decision-making and regulate emotions. “Abuse can be particularly damaging because it’s also when a boy or girl is figuring out who they are, when they’re establishing a sense of identity. And when that becomes permeated by a sense that they’re doing something wrong and they’re not doing anything about it, they may feel, ‘I’m helpless, I’m not courageous enough to reveal this secret.’ That conflict can lead to a person feeling that for the rest of their life, to feel a sense of shame and disgust.”

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
On Stand, Greer Invokes 5th On Sex Abuse
Rabbi Seeks To Bar Blogger from Court

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posted by: Dwightstreeter on May 16, 2017  9:16am

A sexual predator not only steals a child’s childhood, he steals his future as well.
How many other victims are out there, silent, suffering and afraid they won’t be believed?
Going public is a brave act.
I hope Mirlis finds some peace one day.

posted by: timlennon on May 17, 2017  1:44pm

The rape and abuse of a child causes great harm and injury.  It was difficult to read the article as the victim’s experience was evoked vile memories of my rape and sexual molestation by my parish priest when I was 12.  My response was to freeze, yes, like a deer in the headlights. I could not respond.  I buried memories of my molestation for over thirty years and the violent rape for over fifty years. 

The horrific abuse killed my childhood, deformed my life.  Yet, I have moved on a path of healing and can determine my own future.  My healing has been the result of three things, support from my family and friends, SNAP support group participation and professional therapy. 

I honor the courage of the survivor Mirlis to come forward and accuse the vile abuser.  I call on the community to support the survivor.