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Jury awards $20 million in rabbi sex abuse case

By Christopher Peak

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – On May 18 a federal jury ordered prominent Rabbi Daniel Greer and his Elm Street yeshiva to pay $20 million in compensatory damages to a former student who said the rabbi raped and repeatedly abused him 15 years ago.

The jury awarded an additional $5 million in punitive damages, to pay the lawyers.

In adjudicating a civil lawsuit brought by Eliyahu Mirlis, a former high school student at the Yeshiva of New Haven, the jury deliberated in U.S. District Court for 12 hours over two days before coming to its unanimous decision.

The eight jurors slapped Greer with the eight-figure bill for the emotional suffering he caused Mirlis by assaulting and battering the boy over a three-year period, from his sophomore to senior years at the high school. The panel calculated the total after also concluding that Greer and the yeshiva had shown recklessness and intentional infliction of emotional distress and the school separately had displayed negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

That sum was less than half of the $38 million that the plaintiff’s attorney, Antonio Ponvert III, had requested.

Jurors also requested that Greer pay extra punitive charges to pay Mirlis’s lawyers. That added another $5 million to the bill.

Greer’s defense said the rabbi plans to appeal the verdict.

Beginning in the 1980s, Rabbi Greer oversaw the revival of the neighborhood around his yeshiva, located at 765 Elm St., in New Haven, renovating neglected historic homes. Over the years, Greer has also crusaded against gay rights and at times played an active role in politics. 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.

Enrollment at the yeshiva dwindled to close to zero in recent months as word about the abuse allegations spread through the Orthodox Jewish community.

Mirlis attended the yeshiva and lived in Greer-owned housing from 2001 to 2005. He filed his lawsuit on May 3, 2016.

The recent verdict followed a four-day trial at U.S. District Court in New Haven.

Mirlis and the yeshiva’s assistant dean, Aviad Hack, both described their underaged sexual encounters with Greer in graphic detail. Shira Mirlis, the victim’s wife, said the abuse had hardened her partner, preventing him from being vulnerable. Julian Ford, a UConn professor and expert in childhood sexual abuse, explained to jurors that the inability to trust was a normal response to “betrayal trauma,” and diagnosed Mirlis with post-traumatic stress disorder.

From Greer’s side, the jurors didn’t hear much of a denial. The rabbi repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. (He denied only one accusation: That he’d had sex with Mirlis on a forested parcel of land in Hamden.) The defense’s other witnesses presented only mitigating evidence: Neither the rabbi’s wife, Sarah Greer, nor his secretary, Jean Leadbury, had noticed anything unusual, they testified. The team’s defense instead, relied heavily on a set of cheery wedding photos showing that Mirlis continued to maintain a relationship with his abuser, honoring the rabbi at life milestones.

The final day in federal court wrapped up with attorneys presenting 40-minute closing arguments.

Ponvert, Mirlis’s counsel, said the two victims’ testimony and an expert’s diagnosis proved the accusations against Greer were more likely than not true — meeting the lower standard, a preponderance of the evidence, used in civil suits as opposed to in criminal trials. Ponvert argued that the yeshiva also deserved blame. Hack, effectively the school’s manager, had suspected the rabbi was abusing Mirlis, once even trying to beat down a locked door where Greer was having sex with the boy inside. He failed to report his suspicions to child welfare and law enforcement authorities as required by law.

Defense attorney William Ward made one last attempt to explain why Greer hadn’t denied the accusations. Because Mirlis had spoken with police a year ago, keeping silent on “anything that tends to incriminate you” by pleading the Fifth would be “wise,” Ward explained. “That could mean anything that puts Mr. Mirlis or Mr. Greer alone in the same room during four years in high school, anything.” He added that Ponvert had fired “loaded questions” throughout the trial, cornering Greer into remaining silent. (Local police decided not to pursue a criminal investigation of Greer, concluding that the statute of limitations had expired, according to law-enforcement officials familiar with the matter.)

After two full days of deliberations, the jury handed back its ruling. After reading through verdict form, count by count, each juror stood individually to affirm agreement with the decision.

This is an abridged version of a story that appeared in the New Haven Independent and is reprinted with that paper’s permission.

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