Grace Perez, Domestic and Sex Offense Expert, on Nechemya Weberman and Ultra-Orthodox Jews' Reactions to Sex Abuse Allegations
By Victoria Bekiempis (Village Voice)
May 17, 2012
If you have been following the story of Nechemya Weberman, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man accused of being a child molester, you might have thought that it sounds all too familiar.
Weberman, 53, had been working as an unlicensed therapist in the uber-insular community. One of his patients, a young girl who attended "sessions intended to promote her religious practice," accused him of sexually assaulting her beginning when she was 12, according to the New York Times. The community has rallied behind him, it seems, with thousands attending a fundraiser for his legal defense Wednesday evening and a mere hundred people protesting in defense of the victim, who has been lambasted as a "liar."
Rewind to May 2011. The Voice detailed a similar saga taking place in El Barrio: Juan Caceres, a prominent leader of the Mexican community, had been convicted of repeatedly raping his own daughter. Instead of rallying behind her, they publicly villified her.
The Voice wanted to get a better understanding of why this shaming takes place. So we reached out to Grace Perez. She has worked as a sex abuse and domestic violence victims advocate in the New York metropolitan area for some 30 years and organizes the annual Brides March. What did she say?
Village Voice: The Hasidic community's reaction seems a lot like other tight-knit communities' reactions to sex abuse allegations. What's the deal?
Grace Perez: Society does not want to accept that this is a reality. That this does happen. Because it's so difficult. We have been indoctrinated to think, to believe, that our leaders, our clergy -- especially members of the cloth especially -- are people who wouldn't do something like this, that a father wouldn't do that to his daughter. It's very difficult to comprehend, to allow ourselves to accept as a fact that this does happen. We've come a long way as a society, but we're still there -- in denial.
VV: Can communities circumvent this pattern?
Perez: There has to be continued education at many many levels from the media, to the community, to schools, to everywhere, to everyone. Not just about victimization, but also about the fact that this does happen. And just because this is a member of a community's church and again, a leader, this does not make this individual immune from these behaviors.
VV: Aside from education, what has to happen in communities for victim-blaming to stop?
Perez: People who are in leadership positions, in this case people such as rabbis, need to take a stand and publicly denounce the behavior. When you start hearing from folks in positions where the community will listen and respect what they're saying, when it's uniform, that's truly when education is happening and is most effective. Someone from this community has to come out publicly. It doesn't have to even be to the media, it could be within the congregation to say 'This is unacceptable, we have a system, we have to let the system go through this process but this is unacceptable clearly and publicly.' And if there is someone who is thinking that but has not publicly said it to his community, then they are condoning this shaming behavior.
VV: In your experience, what does it actually take for someone to step forward?
Perez: People don't take action until it hits home in some form, until it affects someone that they know. People don't want to deal with this. It's too horrible of a thing. They don't want to imagine a father doing this to their daughters, their sons. Rabbis, priests, people who you've been raised to blindly trust and respect -- people whose words are right next to the creators' -- they don't want to deal with the difficulty. It's easy to speak about the total stranger, but it's not easy to talk about it when it has to do with your significant other, with a member of your church, with your father or your mother.
VV: Are there any challenges this young woman will face specific to the Ultra-Orthodox community?
Perez: Yes. Dating and courtship traditions. That's a very big deal in the Hasidic community. She's not going to be a part of that.That's going to be devastating to her because she has been groomed all of her life to prepare for that, and no family, let alone a young man, is going to be interested in her.
Perez: It's everything. They'll think that she's tainted. And the controversy, just affiliating yourself with her: They're always going to shun her and her family. They will say: "What did she do for him to have done that? If she said that he did this to her, what will she say in the future about her spouse, about her family's spouse?' and so on and so on. Because, again, and especially in the Hasidic community, they are still a community living within a community that's isolated -- especially the women.