Tuesday, October 30, 2012
THE MOST high-profile sex abuse trial in years to hit Brooklyn's insular ultra-Orthodox community is scheduled to begin this week. But hundreds of Satmar Hasids are backing the suspect, not the victim.
Nechemya Weberman, 53, is charged with 88 counts of sexual misconduct for allegedly forcing a teenage girl to repeatedly perform sex acts on him when she was between 12 and 15.
Weberman is a prominent Hasidic counselor, whose ancestor is credited with founding the first yeshiva in Brooklyn.
"It's going to be a very interesting trial," said one of the seven attorneys who will argue Weberman's high-stakes case. All are bound by a judge's gag order, and declined to discuss details.
Since coming forward last year, the woman, now 18, and her husband have allegedly been the target of a massive intimidation effort, which advocates have argued has long been an obstacle to reporting such cases in the community. More than 1,000 men showed up at a Williamsburg hall this spring to raise $500,000 for Weberman's legal defense.
But the couple has not wavered in their resolve, even after one man allegedly offered them $500,000 in exchange for their silence, and suggested they flee to Israel. Three other men ripped the husband's kosher certificate from his restaurant, causing him to shutter the business.
The incidents led to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes' filing the most serious witness intimidation indictments ever within the community, against the four men in July.
Their trials are not expected until next year.
The issue of witness intimidation — common in Orthodox enclaves — was highlighted earlier this year in a series of articles that led to criticism of how Hynes handles molestation cases within the community.
Before 2009, only a handful of sex abuse cases came out of the Orthodox community, which prefers to handle matters internally through its civilian police and rabbinical courts.
Then Hynes established a program called Kol Tzedek specifically targeting the sex abuse problem in the Hasidic community, which has resulted in over 100 cases so far, the top prosecutor has said.
In the Weberman case, as the lead member of the ardent Satmar sect's "modesty committee," the unlicensed counselor was allegedly helping the sixth-grade girl because she was believed to be unchaste.
Prosecutors say there were six other women who were counseled by him as part of this "modesty committee" who complained about unwanted sexual advances. But the women would not proceed with pressing criminal charges.
Weberman and the teenager's father secretly videotaped her in bed with an previous boyfriend while she was still underage, which they took to the DA to file statutory rape charges against the man, both the defense and prosecution agree. The teenager threatened suicide, and the statutory rape charges were dropped.
Weberman's defense argues that the new claims against him are in retaliation for the videotaping and statutory rape charges.
But Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice John Ingram found that argument "speculative and not supported by any facts." He forbade any mention of the tape at trial.
The Weberman case has stirred up strong emotions in the Hasidic community, which numbers some 250,000 people in Brooklyn. It's the largest such group outside Israel.
"The community felt we're under attack because he's supposedly a problem solver," while the young woman had left the strictly religious lifestyle, said an acquaintance of the accuser.
Hynes, who had previously came under fire for not releasing names of Orthodox men accused of abuse, has said intimidation of victims and their kin is rampant in that community.
Weberman hails from a prominent lineage. One of his ancestors, Ben Zion Weberman, is credited with helping to establish the very first yeshiva in Brooklyn in 1917. "He is very well respected," A.J. Weberman, a secular distant cousin who compiled the family history, said of the man facing trial.
The publicity this case and similar ones have garnered is beginning to shift attitudes in the Hasidic community, insiders say.
Awareness is on the rise, said Mark Appel, founder of the advocacy group Voice of Justice. "There is a major change happening," he added.
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