New York, N.Y. - A respected religious counsellor in New York's ultra-orthodox Jewish community was convicted Monday of repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl who had come to him with questions about her faith.
The Brooklyn courtroom was silent as the foreman said jurors had found Nechemya Weberman guilty of 59 counts, including sustained sex abuse of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and sexual abuse. He faces 25 years in prison on the top charge and may get more time when he is sentenced on Jan. 9.
The 54-year-old defendant looked down as the verdict was announced and glanced briefly back at his family, who held hands, as he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom. Some of the accusers' supporters smiled quietly. The girl's mother, who was not in the courtroom at the time, said later she was weeping tears of joy, according to her friend.
Defence lawyers said the jurors, who deliberated about half a day, did not properly grasp the complicated issues. They plan to appeal.
"We firmly believe that the jury got an unfairly sanitized version of the facts," attorney George Farkas said. "As a result, the truth did not come out and the struggle continues in full force to free this innocent man."
The trial put a spotlight on the insular Satmar Hasidic sect, and its strict rules that govern clothing, social customs and interaction with the outside world.
The accuser, now 18, told authorities that Weberman abused her repeatedly behind his locked office door from the time she was 12 until she was 15. She had been ordered to see him by her school because she had been asking questions about her religion and was dressing immodestly according to the sect's customs, and she needed to be helped back on the right path. Weberman was not a licensed counsellor but spent decades working with couples and families in his community.
Assistant District Attorney Linda Weinman said Weberman abused his role as a confidant and teacher, intimidating the girl to satisfy his sexual needs.
"The defendant took this young girl with a fiery spirit and he broke her," Weinman said.
But there was no physical evidence regarding the suspected abuse. Defence attorney Stacey Richman said the case boiled down to a simple "he said," ''she said," and the girl was a petulant, calculating liar.
"The only evidence in this case of sexual abuse is the word of (the girl)," Richman said. "She's making things up in front of you as they occur."
The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
Brooklyn is home to the largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews outside Israel, more than 250,000, and the Satmar sect is one faction clustered mostly in the Williamsburg neighbourhood. The group has its own ambulances, volunteer police and rabbinical courts. Women dress modestly and cover their heads. Men wear earlocks and dark clothing. Men and women rarely interact in public; in the packed courtroom, the women sat in one row and the men another even though it often meant Weberman's family sat next to supporters of the girl.
"It's really a sad day for our community that a person did such heinous deeds," said Judy Genut, a Hasidic woman who had been to court to support the young woman. "We are a wonderful people, and a wonderful community, and this has been embarrassing."
Questioning faith or customs is strictly forbidden, according to trial testimony, and the sect has what's known as a "modesty squad" that admonishes followers who break the rules.
The girl, who is now married, testified for four days, chronicling abuse that she said lasted for three years. Weberman would take off her clothes and touch her, force her to perform oral sex and re-enact scenes from porn films, she said. She didn't know what to do; he was a well-respected member of the community, and she was "a piece of dirt," she said.
"My body just froze. I didn't know how to respond," she said. "I just felt I wanted to die."
The allegations surfaced last year when the girl told a guidance counsellor at a different school that she'd been molested, and later that she was molested by Weberman. She eventually went to police.
Weberman also testified, saying he "never, ever" abused the girl. Defence attorneys said she was angry that he had betrayed her trust, telling her parents about a boyfriend, and had conspired to help get the boy arrested. The charges were later dropped, and the girl then accused Weberman of sex abuse out of revenge, and a hatred for her community, the defence said.
The guarded society strongly discourages going to outside authorities. The girl testified she was branded a traitor and was shunned for going to police. Her father lost his job and her nieces were kicked out of school, she said. Three men were charged with criminal contempt for photographing the girl and posting her picture online during her testimony. Before the trial, District Attorney Charles Hynes charged other men with trying to bribe her with $500,000 to drop the case.
Genut and other supporters were doubtful that the case would make it easier for others to come forward — but remained hopeful.
"I don't know how it will change," Genut said.
"There is such intimidation to sweep it under the rug," she said. "But it only takes one pioneer."
Hynes said he hoped the courage of the girl, and the trial outcome, would encourage other victims to come forward, and he urged the Satmar community to reform its rules restricting families to go to outside authorities. He said he's not clear how widespread sexual abuse is in the community, but there was at least one more victim of Weberman's who has not come forward.
"What the leaders have to understand is we will never get to the bottom of this until there is total co-operation," he said.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, Satma Hasidic community, sexual abuse, Nechemya Weberman, criminal conviction, New York
Jury finds Nechemya Weberman, Satmar Hasidic leader, guilty of molesting teenage girl he was paid to counsel
Weberman, guilty on 59 counts, is facing a maximum of 25 years in prison on the top count alone, prolonged sexual conduct against a child. The high-profile case cast light on the Satmar Hasidic community – and has also put pressure on Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes over the way he has managed such cases in the Orthodox Jewish community.
New York Daily News/December 10, 2012
By Oren Yaniv , Simone Weichselbaum and Ginger Adams Otis
A prominent Hasidic counselor was convicted yesterday of sexually abusing a young girl in a bombshell trial that caused deep rifts in Brooklyn's insular Satmar sect.
Ultra-Orthodox counselor Nechemya Weberman, 54, was convicted on all 59 counts of abuse, including sustained sex abuse of a child and endangering the welfare of a child. He faces a maximum of 117 years in prison.
Weberman sat silently in the Brooklyn courtroom as the results were read, before being led from the court room in handcuffs.
The victim - who testified that she "wanted to die rather than live with herself" as the monster violated her during the closed-door molestation sessions - cried tears of joy when she got the news, she told Daily News.
"I can't wait until he is in prison. And someone holds him down and for once in his life, he can feel helpless," she said. "I honestly believe that God is my witness, and he stands up for me," said the young woman, who just turned 18 this month. "I was nervous, I was reliving trauma. But I was sure he was going down."
Her husband, who she wed last month after leaving the tight-knit sect behind, told The News, "God showed us that he is the one who makes decisions. When he is the witness you can't lie."
Many in the Satmar world were angered to see such a highly-regarded man in the community forced to defend himself in the "unreliable" secular court system, instead of secret rabbinical court proceedings.
"How did the jury listen to someone who hates the community so much?" fumed Joel Weinstock, 31, a close family friend of Weberman. "The people in this community are so hurt."
Weberman's accusor, who recently turned 18, shot back at his supporters, who once rallied for him by the hundreds: "When they think about me, they should think about how they would feel if it where their daughter. Would they let them be abused? Or would they stop it?"
In Feb. 2011, she told authorities the Hasidic leader had abused her repeatedly starting in 2007, when she was 12.
The girl was put in Weberman's care because she had asked probing questions about her faith, dressed immodestly and showed an interest in boys - all violations of her sect's prohibitive rules.
Having become a confidant for other young women who told her they were molested by Weberman as girls, the victorious victim told The News she feels empowered.
"You have to fight it all the way. You can't be scared," she said. "You can't be scared of being kicked out of the community. This is the beginning of the changes."
While not a licensed therapist, Weberman was the de facto community counselor for many of the 250,000 Hasidic families who live in Brooklyn, the largest Satmar community in the world.
Without any physical evidence, the Brooklyn DA's case hinged on the personal testimony of the victim, who bravely stared down her former rabbinical advisor from the witness stand.
Over the two-week trial, she spent four days relating the sordid details of her private counseling sessions with Weberman behind his locked office doors.
"I didn't know how to fight. I was numb," she testified.
Weberman forced her to perform oral sex and act out porn films, she said. The abuse lasted from 2007 to 2010.
Her family paid Weberman $12,800 in counseling fees during that time, the victim's mother testified Monday.
Weberman took the stand in his own defense and insisted that he "never ever" inappropriately touched the young lady while she was in his care.
But he was forced to acknowledge he had used funds from his charity's to pay for his children's school tuition and buy lingerie.
The defense team painted his accuser as an out-of-control teen who wanted revenge on Weberman after he and the girl's father filmed her in bed with a former boyfriend - who was older than her - then used the footage to get him arrested for statutory rape, according to the defense.
"When she found out that she had been betrayed, she went wild," defense attorney Stacey Richman said.
The exact content of the tape was never revealed to the jury.
"We firmly believe that the jury got an unfairly sanitized version of the facts and, as a result, the truth did not come out," said defense lawyer George Farkas, who vowed to appeal. "The struggle to clear an innocent man will continue in full force," he said.
At Weberman's Brooklyn shul last night, several supporters said he'd been railroaded.
"I believe (the prosecutor) was under pressure from the media to show that he's breaking down on the Hasidic community," said Yoely Brache, 30, adding that he would trust his kids to Weberman.
Weberman is being held without bail on Rikers Island and will be sentenced Jan. 9.
The trial rocked the tight-knit group, not only because of the shocking charges but also because the case was played out in a public court. The guarded society strongly discourages going to outside authorities.
The victim testified she and her family were harassed and shunned for coming forward; her father lost his business and her nieces were kicked out of school.
Three men were charged with criminal contempt for snapping images of the accuser on the witness stand with cellphone cameras and posting them online during the trial.
But the couple never backed down. "Anyone from the community who wants to intimidate us, we will report them," the victim's husband told The News. "We want to make sure justice is served."
Before the trial began, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes charged another man with trying to bribe the accuser to drop the charges.
"The victim showed great courage to come forward in a very difficult time," said Hynes.
Weberman's office became a way station for other troubled teen girls who strayed from the Satmar sect's rigid religious rules, prosecutors said during the trial.
Authorities know of at least one more alleged Weberman victim, but she has so far refused to step forward and press charges, they said. \
Despite the furor from the trial, Hynes hopes that more abuse victims will ask for help.
"The veil of secrecy has been lifted," the DA said. "It's very clear to me that it's only going to get better for people who were victimized in these various communities."
Weberman's accuser, who turned 18 last month and got married, isn't looking back."We don't feel embarrassed," her husband said. "You can't change the past. You can only fix the future."
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