Canarsie Residents Sue Police Athletic League for 70s Sexual Abuse

The Police Athletic League has been sued three separate times this month over sexual abuse allegedly committed by a martial arts instructor in Canarsie in the 1970s.

The Police Athletic League has been sued three separate times this month over sexual abuse allegedly committed by a martial arts instructor in Canarsie in the 1970s.

The lawsuit, filed by Minnesota attorney Patrick Noaker and Manhattan attorney Matthew Lombardi, alleges that Police Athletic League (PAL) Tae Kwon Do instructor Ronald Schwartz abused his clients when they were teenagers participating in PAL programs. Schwartz allegedly, among other things, groped his students, male and female, masturbated in front of them, and performed oral sex on them while they were under his tutelage, and that PAL failed to intervene despite clear warning signs.

Noaker plans to file lawsuits this week on behalf of two other clients, but believes that the true number of victims is probably in the dozens.

Via PAL website.

“What happened here should never have occurred,” Noaker told Bklyner. “There were children being sexually assaulted by this martial arts instructor. He used principles like honor, courage, and obedience, and basically had these kids believing it. And he used it to sexually abuse them. If the PAL had any presence, they would have stopped it.”

The case is being filed in Manhattan Supreme Court under the 2019 Child Victims Act statute, which allows victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. The “look back window” to file cases regardless of when they occurred was set to expire in August of last year, but has been extended to August of this year.

Schwartz, who also taught physical education in Brooklyn public schools, was convicted of unrelated child sex abuse charges in 1984. His supervisor in Canarsie, Freddy Gilstein, was convicted of child sex abuse last year. Noaker said that while Schwartz, who has since passed away, faced legal accountability at least for one of his crimes, PAL has never had to answer for its allowance of the abuse.

“These were real people that were really damaged as a result of PAL’s failure to put in just basic rudimentary precautions that protect kids,” Noaker said. “All you had to do was have a second set of eyes and this guy wouldn’t be passing around Playboys and Penthouses.”

Schwartz’s modus operandi often began by giving students massages at tae kwon do classes that ended up including groping, and introducing students to pornography and marijuana. Eventually, Schwartz would allegedly go on to, among other things, forcibly kiss students and masturbate in front of them, force students to masturbate him, and forcibly perform oral sex on victims. When one student refused to touch Schwartz’s penis, Schwartz allegedly held a knife against his neck.

Schwartz also attempted to engage students in group sex, according to the lawsuits.

Ron Schwartz teaching Tae Kwon Do at a PAL after-school program, ca. 1970s. Image Courtesy of Noaker Law Firm LLC

Schwartz’s program took place initially at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Canarsie branch, but was kicked out after librarians caught him showing pornography to students. After that, the class took place in a rec room at NYCHA’s Glenwood Houses, and later NYCHA’s Bay View Houses, both in Canarsie.

The abuse took place in class, where Schwartz would allegedly change clothes with his male students, and would often inappropriately massage students who were injured, as well as at his home, on camping trips, and even at students’ homes.

One student, who asked to be identified only as Anonymous AL, said that when she was 13 years old, Schwartz asked if he could come to her house and talk to her, to which she agreed, saying that he was “sort of like a god” and that the possibility of abuse didn’t cross her mind, instead assuming he wanted to talk about martial arts.

When he arrived, he sat down on her bed and told her that he was in love with her boyfriend at the time, and that he wanted her to “share” him with her.

“Ron was an opportunist,” AL told Bklyner. “He took my hand, and forced me to rub his crotch and then tried sticking his tongue in my mouth. I was horrified.”

The encounter took place in 1975; AL would remain in the class for another four years. Schwartz would engage in troubling behaviors, like massaging injured students and “professing his love” for students, in “pretty much every class,” she said. Attending class became hard to bear afterward, but she remained because it was a locus of her social life.

“It was very, very awkward and scary,” she said. “I did not know what was going to happen to me if I didn’t quote unquote ‘share my boyfriend’ with him. Was he going to take it out on me in sparring? You’re just kind of petrified of him.”

The experience has had a lifelong impact on AL, who said she was eventually kicked out of school for associating with drug users, impacting her career and life trajectory.

“I have nightmares still about this, someone coming through the backdoor and assaulting me,” she said. “That’s a constant.” Each of Noaker’s clients has faced challenges, including drug dependency, later in life.

“I feel terrible that I didn’t come forward earlier,” she continued. “And I have such regret for those other victims that he had later on, that maybe I could have stopped that from happening later on.” She said that she could never fully trust that her own children were safe when they were participating in athletic programs or other extracurriculars. Eventually, she left Brooklyn and moved to South Carolina, at least partially because of the trauma afflicted upon her.

Via PAL website

PAL was founded in 1914 with the intention of forging closer ties between police and community, particularly with youths in underprivileged areas. PAL is known for “Play Streets,” where streets in lower-income areas with few recreational activities are closed so that children can freely play in them and mingle with officers that patrol their neighborhoods. It also puts on Head Start, after-school, and athletic programs for kids and teenagers in the city.

The organization is funded via a mixture of public and private money. Its most recent financial statement, for 2019, shows that the majority of PALs funding comes from city agencies, in the form of grants and contracts, to the tune of $1,869,630. Another $833,164 comes from federal agencies, $370,797 comes from state agencies, and $9,094 comes from “other” agencies. Grants from the city dropped significantly from 2018 to 2019 – in 2018 city grants totaled $4,511,521.

City funding for PAL comes in the form of grants and contracts for early childhood education, after-school programming, summer youth employment, and other initiatives. Agencies that have provided funding in one form or another to the organization, according to the financial statements, include the Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Previous financial statements show funding has, in the past, come from NYCHA, District Attorney’s offices, and the state Departments of Health and Education. The NYPD itself doesn’t provide any funding for PAL, according to the documents.

The NYPD’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Noaker said that, at least at the time the abuse occurred, PAL did not have adequate systems in place to vet instructors or to monitor their classes.

“The PAL just didn’t take the time to properly supervise this program, probably because it would have been expensive to do so,” Noaker said.

While Schwartz’s passing means he himself cannot face accountability for its actions, AL says that she hopes the lawsuits prevent similar abuse from taking place in the future.

“I’m hoping that this never happens to another child again,” she said. “And that there should be some accountability for the PAL, the Police Athletic League. Look at the first word there, what place would you trust more with your children?”

“Could you imagine,” she said, “sending your child to a police program and then having them be victimized?”

Representatives for the Police Athletic League could not be reached for comment.

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Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld

Ben Brachfeld is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared in Gotham Gazette, City & State, and Gothamist. Reach out to him via email at benbrachfeld@bklyner.com, or on Twitter @benbrachfeld.

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