After pleading guilty this week to five counts of sexually abusing his young nephew over a four-year period, Cantor Howard Nevison continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong.
In an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday — the first time he has spoken publicly about the case that made sensational headlines in 2002 — Cantor Nevison said that his deal with prosecutors was akin to a “no contest” plea — “when you don’t admit to anything.”
“You’re accepting that something happened but not saying that I did anything” wrong, he continued.
The assistant district attorney who prosecuted him sees things differently.
Cantor Nevison pleaded guilty on Monday to five misdemeanor-level offenses relating to sexually abusing his nephew in the early 1990s, when the boy was between 4 and 7 years old. Those offenses include indecent assault, corruption of the morals of a minor and terroristic threats.
In exchange for his guilty plea, the district attorney dropped a felony charge of involuntary deviant sexual intercourse.
Had he been convicted on all of the original counts, the maximum sentence would have been 25 ½ years in prison.
“He came in and accepted responsibility for what he’s done. That’s the most important part of this story for all of us here,” said Risa Vetri Ferman, the first assistant district attorney for Montgomery County, a suburb of Philadelphia, where Cantor Nevison was prosecuted because it was where the family of his brother, Henry Nevison, lived when the crimes took place.
A sentencing date has not yet been set, but Cantor Nevison could be sentenced to as little as probation or house arrest, and to as much as 19 years in jail, Ferman said.
She agreed to allow Cantor Nevison, who is 65, to plead guilty in exchange for the dropped charge at the behest of the victim’s parents, she said. Ferman was preparing to go to trial this summer when they approached her and asked her to find a way to avoid it.
The boy, whose identity is being shielded by everyone around him, is now 16 years old and “doing extremely well,” Ferman said. “He has a wonderfully supportive family around him and he’s made great strides in recovering from the abuse suffered at the hands of three people [Nevison, along with his brother Lawrence Nevison and Lawrence’s son Stewart.] They did not want to put him back on a destructive path. For him to go through a trial at this point in his life would have been too damaging, too traumatic.”
She met with his family Monday after Cantor Nevison entered his plea. His victim “felt great vindication at the plea, and he and his family are extremely happy,” said Ferman.
But as far as Cantor Nevison is concerned, they shouldn’t be.
“I’m not accepting responsibility for it at all,” he told The Jewish Week.
When asked why he didn’t insist on a jury trial, at which he might have been exonerated, Cantor Nevison said “I was destroyed by the D.A. in the press, and you can’t get a decent jury when they put those lies in the newspapers,” he said.
His lawyer did not return a phone call, nor did his employers at Temple Emanu-El.
The tony Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, where Cantor Nevison had for 23 years sung and prepared bar and bat mitzvah students, put him on a paid leave of absence shortly after he was arrested, in February 2002.
Temple Rabbis David Posner and Amy Erlich, and its president, investment banker and Lincoln Center Institute trustee Robert Bernhard, did not return phone calls this week seeking comment.
Temple administrator Mark Heitlinger declined to say if Cantor Nevison remains on paid leave or not.
As of this year, the cantor resigned his membership in the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization of which he was a member, said Cantor Steve Stoehr, the group’s president. There is no way to undo a cantor’s investiture, said Cantor Stoehr, no equivalent to a priest being defrocked.
Cantor Nevison’s crimes “blemish the human race,” he said. “Part of you has to feel pity for a person who can’t control these urges he must have, part of you feels disappointment, anger, a litany of other emotions, as we would a suicide or any other mental illness. But the cantorate stands greater than any single individual.”
Cantor Nevison’s brother, Lawrence Nevison, was convicted of sexually abusing the boy in 1990 and is now serving a sentence of five to 15 years in a Pennsylvania state prison. So is Stewart, who pleaded guilty during his father’s trial to having abused the boy and his sister. Stewart served his sentence and was released but is now back in custody, said Ferman, for having violated his probation.
Cantor Nevison said “I don’t believe either one of them is guilty. Pennsylvania is archaic, almost like going back to the witch trials,” he said. “That’s how they deal with these cases.”
When asked how he feels about the possibility of going to prison, Cantor Nevison said, “it could happen, but we have a lot of proof that none of this happened, and that will come out.
“We feel the time to strike is when we have the sentencing hearing.”
Cantor Nevison’s former supporters at Emanu-El had little to say after his guilty plea.
Long-time temple member Vicky Weiner, a public relations professional who for a time after his arrest represented the congregation on the matter, said, “I’m surprised. I haven’t been following this recently but I knew the cantor for all those years and thought he was a very fine man.”
And Henry Fruhauf, a close friend of Cantor Nevison who retired as the temple’s administrator and after the arrest created a Howard Nevison Legal Defense Fund, said “I know what you’re calling about and I have absolutely no comment” before hanging up the phone.
Until his sentencing, Cantor Nevison remains free on bail, living with his wife in their Manhattan home.