|Dr David Pelcovitz at a Child Protection Event|
A few years ago, I was asked to write a letter of reference to the court for a man convicted of shooting and seriously injuring three young men in a park. The man had shot at these kids, at close range, while under the influence of alcohol, and the three young men could easily have been killed.
I agreed to write that letter, which basically consisted of my introducing myself to the judge, acknowledging the serious nature of the crimes the man had been convicted of - and bringing to the judge's notice (truly) admirable characteristics I knew first hand about the man.
Out of the many letters submitted on the man's behalf, my letter was the one apparently selected to be read to the court. I don't know if the judge was influenced to be lenient in sentencing, in light of my letter, but that was the purpose.
Convicted criminals are entitled to obtain and submit such letters of reference, addressed to the judge, requesting clemency in sentencing.
For example, I am sure that Ehud Olmert and his convicted colleagues, will obtain hundreds of VIP letters, presenting the many (genuine!) achievements of the illustrious convicts.
This process is entirely legitimate.
Furthermore, in itself, writing such a letter of character reference does not imply any support or defence whatsoever of the crimes the convicted man has done.
It has recently come to light (big hat-tip to "Frum Follies") that Dr David Pelcovitz, a leading child protection advocate, writer and educator, wrote and submitted such a letter of reference (full text here), pleading clemency in sentencing for one Evan Zauder.
Evan Zauder was a charismatic and successful youth worker & educator, Zauder worked as a sixth-grade teacher at the Yeshivat Noam school in Paramus, N.J. and various Jewish community programs.
Unfortunately, Evan Zauder was also sexually attracted to children.
Zauder was arrested in May 2012, when the police found large quantities of child pornography on his home PC.
A few days later, Zauder was released under a $2 million bail deal, which included requirements that he live with his aunt and uncle, and that he use a PC monitored by the pre-trial supervision services. It even had a screen which told/reminded Zauder that the computer was being monitored.
During his bail period, Zauder used that computer to download even more child porn. Which was, of course, discovered.
His bail was annulled, and a search warrant issued.
During the search, police found more computers, even worse child pornography ("pre-pubescent, sadism and masochism") and records of sexual chats Zauder had held with minors, prior to his initial arrest. Furthermore, Zauder had distributed these videos and images to others, which is a more severe crime than solely possession.
Following an investigation, one of the boys who Zauder solicited online, disclosed to police that he had met up with Zauder and had sexual contact with him. The boy was 14.
Faced with this plethora of incriminating evidence, on 22nd January, 2013, Zauder pleaded guilty to three charges of: sexual contact with a minor; distributing child pornography; possessing child pornography.
Once the guilty verdict was accepted by the judge, and Zauder was convicted, many letters were written and submitted to the court by family, rabbis, and others who vouched for Zauder's good side.
Had Dr Pelcovitz asked my advice, I would have recommended NOT writing any such a letter for Zauder.
I wouldn't have a problem with him writing such a letter for, say, a car thief, tax evader or, heh, for Ehud Olmert.
However, writing such a letter for a convicted and dangerous pedophile undermines Dr Pelcovitz' well earned international reputation as a pioneer in educating the Jewish community about child protection and advocating for victims.
If Dr Pelcovitz had insisted on writing such a letter anyway, which is his right, he ought to have been very clear in what capacity he wrote it, and to only write in that capacity.
Indeed, in the letter Dr Pelcovitz wrote that he offers it "in my capacity as a former teacher of Evan Zauder's in a Pastoral Psychology course he took with me."
In such a capacity, Dr Pelcovitz could have written (for example) that Zauder was a hard working student, who did well in exams and that he was good to his mother. Whatever. Fine.
However, Dr Pelcovitz also introduced himself as "a clinical psychologist in practice for the past thirty years... I spent most of my career treating victims of child sexual abuse...I have had the opportunity to treat many individuals with issues in the area of controlling sexuality".
Dr Pelcovitz, having stated his professional credentials, reported that when he met with Zauder after his arrest "he wasn't the least bit defensive about his actions. He expressed sincere regret and remorse."
Remember, Zauder was arrested for possessing child porn. So presumably that was what he was expressing remorse for.
What about the even more serious offenses which were unknown to the police, which Zauder had committed by that time, and which he was covering up?
Dr Pelcovitz made a misjudgement claiming that Zauder showed remorse. Perhaps remorse for being caught, and relief at not having been caught, at that stage, for the worse offenses. But there was nothing sincere about Zauder's show of regret for his crimes.
Dr Pelcovitz then continues in his letter to Judge Kaplan:
"As you know, the prognosis for sustained change is often guarded [DM: This is code, I believe for the high rates of pedophile recidivism]. In the case of Evan, however, I believe that he possesses many of the ingredients that I have come to associate with sustained change and potential to be a valuable member of society. A combination of an unusually supportive family coupled with Evan's advanced capacity for self-awareness and empathy should serve to improve prognosis for becoming a valued member of his family and community".
Here again, Dr Pelcovitz is taking on the persona of the mental health professional, giving a quasi-prognosis for a man who was not Dr Pelcovitz's therapy client - but a student in his class.
And again, Dr Pelcovitz gets his stab at a prognosis seriously wrong.
In the Sentencing Memorandum, by Preet Bharara, United States Attorney, Southern District of New York:
"Dr Shoshanna Must, the Probation Office’s evaluator, scored Zauder’s risk of reoffense as
Moderate-High based on the conjunction of the Static-99R and the Stable-2007 instrument, a
result statistically correlated with a 5-year recidivism rate for sexual reoffenses of 16.8%.
"Beyond this quantitative metric, Dr. Must also qualitatively found that Zauder has “a strong sexual interest in underage males, pro-offending attitudes, and a sense of intellectual superiority that allowed him to believe he could break societal rules without being detected.”
"Moreover, any account of Zauder’s risk of recidivism must take account of his violation of his terms of pretrial release by using a computer he knew was monitored by Pretrial Services to access inappropriate sexual images of children. This extraordinarily flagrant and reckless conduct—after he had just been arrested and placed on home detention with relatives, and had started his course of therapy—gives great reason to question his confidence that he poses no future risk.
"Indeed, given the risk of recidivism, the Government harbors serious concerns that a sentence at or near the mandatory minimum will not adequately protect the public from further crimes by the defendant."
In conclusion, while I am an ardent admirer of the career of achievements of Dr Pelcovitz, I believe Dr David Pelcovitz made various disappointing errors in judgement.
1. Writing a letter for Evan Zauder in the first place.
2. Mixing up Dr Pelcovitz's two capacities - Zauder's past teacher (legitimate, I guess) and a renowned clinical psychologist (blunder).
Given the negative publicity, and even outrage, which has now been generated by Dr Pelcovitz's letter for Evan Zauder, and the knock to his professional prestige, I suggest it would be appropriate for Dr Pelcovitz to issue a retraction of the letter and apologise.
And for the sake of our children, I hope Judge Lewis A.Kaplan had the good sense to ignore Dr Pelcovitz' ill-considered letter and plea for leniency, when he sentenced Zauder this week to 13 years imprisonment.