A high-profile case of alleged child sex abuse at a prominent Washington, D.C., synagogue is closing with no apparent charges, leaving the children’s families furious and pushing for further investigation.
Emails obtained by The Daily Beast show prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia reached out to families this week to say they are closing the case of Jordan Silverman, a former teacher at the venerated Washington Hebrew Congregation's preschool who was accused of sexually abusing more than a dozen children in his care.
The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment, but the Metropolitan Police Department confirmed that the 16-month investigation was ending.
“After exhausting all investigative avenues, the universal determination of the investigative team was that there was insufficient probable cause to establish that an offense occurred or to make an arrest,” the department said in a statement on Thursday morning.
Silverman’s attorneys have maintained his innocence throughout the investigation. In a statement on Thursday, they claimed vindication in response to the MPD’s announcement.
“For 19 months Jordan Silverman has been forced to endure the nightmare of being accused of and investigated for crimes he did not commit,” attorneys Sarah Fink and Jon Jeffress said in a statement. “To prove his innocence Mr. Silverman took two independent polygraph tests conducted by former FBI agents. He passed both of those tests with flying colors. We look forward to restoring Mr. Silverman’s reputation and good name.”
But the decision not to bring charges against Silverman has infuriated parents, who feel the U.S. Attorney’s office showed deference to the accused and failed to take into consideration the special circumstances surrounding crimes against minors.
Emails to U.S. Attorney Mark O’Brien obtained by The Daily Beast show parents criticizing him for not reaching out to them directly before coming to a conclusion. Other parents said they were told their child would have to take the stand at a criminal trial, or were criticized for enrolling their child in therapy. A number of families are now advocating for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case, which has garnered national attention.
“Fifteen children are not going to see justice for this,” a mother of one child, whom The Daily Beast is not naming to protect their identity, told The Daily Beast. “This guy is going to go without any charges ever being brought against him. It’s unfathomable to me that we live in a time and a place where he could do this to our children.”
Of O’Brien, she added, “I have no words for this person. He is supposed to be the person in charge of protecting us.”
O’Brien, in his email responses to several parents, defended his decision to inform the families’ civil counsel about the outcome instead of contacting them directly. He subsequently attempted to schedule meetings with them this week and, by Wednesday, had told one parent that his timeline for telling Silverman the results of the investigation was “still fluid.”
The investigation into Silverman began in August 2018, when the Washington Hebrew Congregation's preschool told D.C. police that a preschooler claimed to have been abused by a teacher. As word of the allegations spread, the parents of more children—boys and girls, ages two to four— also came forward to say their children had been abused.
Silverman—a former Vermont photographer with no full-time educational background—was placed on leave that month and fired in October. Police and prosecutors did not name him publicly at the time, but emails reviewed by The Daily Beast reveal that he was the subject of a criminal investigation.
Parents of eight children sued the Washington Hebrew Congregation in April, accusing the school of turning a blind eye to the “grievous, demeaning and damaging forms of sexual abuse” that Silveman allegedly inflicted over more than two years. Two more families were added to that suit this month.
The attorney in that case, Michael Dolce, previously told The Daily Beast that they believed Silverman had taken small groups of children to remote locations both inside and outside of the building to abuse them. Three more parents filed a separate suit in May, bringing the total number of alleged victims to 14.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education conducted an investigation into the allegations last year, according to a cease-and-desist letter obtained by CNN. While Silverman is not named in the June 2019 letter, the investigation found that "more than one child was a victim of sexual abuse” by an “alleged maltreator” at the school. It said that the “alleged maltreator” would “regularly take groups of children outside or to the bathroom by himself for extended periods of time with a handheld radio, but not respond to the radio when called."
The OSSE also found that the school did not enforce its “no cell-phone” policy, allowing the “alleged maltreator” to take pictures and video of the students. They noted that the school had no record of any application, resume, letters of reference, or verification that Silverman met the credential requirements for an assistant teacher.
In a statement on Thursday, Washington Hebrew said that it had taken “extraordinary steps” to ensure student safety, and that the corrective action plan brought to them by OSSE was in line with improvements they had already made. They added that they were working closely with the families who filed suit to “find a resolution that will bring healing to all concerned.”
“All OSSE requirements have been fulfilled and we are fully licensed to operate our child care programs year round, with no interruption to the continuous early childhood education programs that we have offered,” a spokesperson for the school said.
Family members of Silverman’s alleged victims had been working closely with the U.S. attorney’s office for months, operating—they say—under the assumption that the office would talk to them individually before making a decision on the case. On Monday, O’Brien alerted the families’ attorney that the case had been closed, leaving several parents shocked—not only that they were hearing the news indirectly but that O’Brien was apparently going to inform Silverman about the investigation’s closure first.
In an email to O’Brien sent Wednesday, one mother pleaded with him not to alert Silverman or Washington Hebrew about his decision before meeting with the parents. “Where is the protection for my child?” she wrote. “Why does it seem like you are protecting a predator and, for no reason, an institution that harbored a predator?”
“I’m sorry it keeps you up at night… I have not slept in a year and a half,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “No matter how hard this is for you, Mark, you will never know how this feels.”
Other parents said they were dissatisfied with how the investigation was run as a whole. Multiple families said O’Brien and Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart Allen told them their child would have to take the stand if that case went to trial—something not always required of minors in sexual abuse cases. In another instance, two families told The Daily Beast that O’Brien had accused them of enrolling their child in therapy exclusively to advance their civil case.
One father, shocked at how difficult the process seemed, told The Daily Beast that he asked O’Brien facetiously if abusers should purposely target preschoolers, because the law did not seem to protect them.
“The response—and I wrote this down word for word—was, ‘Well if you’re a pedophile, that’s a good place to start,’” the father told The Daily Beast.
The families had asked the U.S. Attorney’s office to keep the criminal case open until the end of discovery in their civil case—or at least until Silverman could be deposed in March. But in an email viewed by The Daily Beast, O’Brien declined, writing that there was “no reasonable basis to conclude that you will secure sufficient evidence during the deposition to change the decision.”
Several of the families say they have lost faith in the U.S. Attorney’s office, and are pushing to bring in a special prosecutor who is experienced in trying child sex abuse cases.
“We’re asking for a special prosecutor because we believe that Mark O’Brien, the lead prosecutor we’ve trusted to seek justice for our children, has behaved in a way that shows he clearly does not understand the complexities of a case involving the abuse of children this young,” one father said.
The U.S. Attorney's office of the District of Columbia has come under scrutiny before for its handling of sexual assault cases, albiet under the leadership of a different head attorney. A 2016 investigation by independent investigators reporting to the D.C. City Council found that prosecutors there brought forward sexual assault and abuse cases at a level comparable to or just below the national average. But the investigators also found that attorneys failed to communicate effectively with victims whose cases they did not take, and often left victims feeling like they were speaking with attorneys for the defense team.
The office’s communication pattern, the investigators wrote, is “vastly less respectful and meaningful than the USAO perceives it to be,” and “extremely destructive to their ability to communicate an unfavorable outcome to a survivor.”