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On stand, New Haven rabbi invokes 5th on sex abuse case

By Christopher Peak

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, let alone having repeatedly assaulted him.

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 here 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 Michael 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.

This article is reprinted with permission of The New Haven Independent, where it first appeared.

CAP: Rabbi Daniel Greer, accompanied by his wife Sarah, outside court.

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