Michael Shea
Michael Shea ()

A federal jury Thursday ordered a prominent New Haven rabbi and founder of an Orthodox Jewish school to pay $20 million for sexually abusing a former student.

The eight-person federal jury in Hartford found there was sufficient evidence to find 77-year-old Rabbi Daniel Greer liable on civil counts of assault and battery in addition to negligence and recklessness by the school. In his 15-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in May 2016, Eliyahu Mirlis, of New Jersey, detailed more than 100 instances of alleged sexual abuse at the hands of the rabbi.

“My client wants to have his name out there. He chose to use his name deliberately and with bravery,” said his attorney, Antonio Ponvert III.

Antonio Ponvert.

Ponvert, a partner with the Bridgeport firm Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder, said the rabbi began sexually assaulting Mirlis in 2002 when he was 15 years old. The assaults, Ponvert said, occurred at the Yeshiva of New Haven, the Gan School and other locations.

The lawsuit claimed Greer showed the boy pornographic movies, often gave him alcohol and repeatedly raped and sodomized him.

“There is evidence that Greer began grooming him in his sophomore year and began having sex with him almost immediately,” Ponvert said. “He came forward because he was finally able to understand the connection between abuse and the problems he was facing in his life and with the relationship with his wife.”

On the advice of professionals, Ponvert said, he advised his client not to attend the three-day trial.

“He is a child sexual abuse victim. It would have been a re-traumatizing event to have him at trial,” Ponvert said. “That advice was truer than I could have ever imagined. Attorney [Billy] Ward’s entire pitch was that the plaintiff in this case was a liar and a cheat and spent the entire time of the trial trying to do things that most terrified child abuse victims fear, which is they come forward and no one believes them.”

Ward, a solo practitioner form Litchfield, was one of three attorneys representing Greer. Greer was also represented by David Grudberg and Amanda Nugent, partners with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey in New Haven.

Ward said “there were clearly some people on the jury that did not completely believe the plaintiff. Two hours before the verdict, that jury sent out a note saying they were hung on liability. They were told to go back and do the[ir] best to come to terms with it.”

Ward, who said there will be an appeal, called the verdict “outrageous. If you were in the courtroom, you would agree with me. Let’s leave it at that.”

Ponvert noted that a second victim who accused the rabbi of sexual assault spoke at the trial on behalf of his client.

“My reaction to this verdict is one of great relief, primarily that my faith in the justice system has been justified.” Ponvert said. “The truth won out. They heard what the rabbi did to this child and sent a loud message.”

If they win on appeal, Ponvert said his firm will compile a list of Greer’s assets to pay his client.

“We know from discovery that there are assets owned by the defendant,” said Ponvert, who noted the rabbi is a real estate developer. “Greer has some real property and we will attach that. We really have to investigate his finances and assets.”

Ponvert said it’s not clear if there will be criminal charges leveled against Greer. “If law enforcement wants to get involved, they have the ability to arrest him,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shea presided.