By Sharon Otterman (New York Times)
December 5, 2012
Nechemya Weberman, the unlicensed ultra-Orthodox Jewish counselor charged with repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl in his care, testified in a Brooklyn courtroom on Wednesday that he had “never, ever” touched her inappropriately.
“What were you looking to do in terms of her?” asked Michael Farkas, a defense attorney, as Mr. Weberman testified in his own defense.
“To save her life,” Mr. Weberman said.
He spoke on the concluding day of witness testimony in a closely watched trial in State Supreme Court; it is one of the first times a prominent member of the insular Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg has faced child sexual abuse charges before a secular court. Closing arguments are expected to begin Thursday.
The unusual decision by Mr. Weberman, 54, to take the stand in his own defense turned the trial into a credibility battle between Mr. Weberman and the accusing witness, an 18-year-old who claimed over four days of testimony last week that she had been forced to perform oral sex on him during counseling sessions, when she was between the ages of 12 and 15.
Dressed in the traditional long black coat and white shirt of the Satmar Hasidim, Mr. Weberman testified that he had first begun counseling his accuser in 2008, not in 2007, as she had claimed. He testified that he billed $150 an hour to see her, and also charged her family $1,500 for a trip upstate that he took alone with her. He denied that anything untoward had happened.
He based his testimony on work records, but under further questioning from prosecutors, Mr. Weberman admitted that he did not always record his meetings with clients. Mr. Weberman also admitted in court that he had used the finances of a nonprofit corporation he runs to help the poor, called the Congregation of Classon, to pay private school tuition bills for his children. Lingerie purchases were also billed to its accounts, prosecutors said.
“Maybe it did,” pay for lingerie, Mr. Weberman said of the foundation, “for certain individuals. I don’t know.”
At least three troubled teenage girls have lived in his office apartment in recent years, Mr. Weberman said, but he could not remember if there were more. One of the girls, Baila Gluck, now 23, took the stand Wednesday morning and said that Mr. Weberman had always acted appropriately and that she was grateful to him for his help.
Beyond the details of the accuser’s case, the testimony also shed light into the way the Satmar Hasidic community enforces its strict religious rules. Ms. Gluck testified that masked men from the religious modesty committee, based in Monroe, N.Y., had come into her bedroom at night when she was 15 or 16 years old to take away a cellphone that she was not permitted to have. The same committee, Mr. Weberman testified, regularly referred young boys and girls to him for counseling.
Mr. Weberman testified that as an unlicensed counselor, he was not obligated to report allegations of child abuse to secular authorities, nor was he legally bound to respect the privacy of the young people he was counseling. As a result, he shared information given to him by the teenagers with their parents and schools, he said.
At the center of Mr. Weberman’s defense is an example of that kind of information sharing. His lawyers have argued that his accuser invented her charges as an act of revenge, after she learned that when she was 15, Mr. Weberman had told her father about an 18-year-old boyfriend she had, leading to the boyfriend’s arrest.
Mr. Weberman testified on Wednesday that he had indeed told the father, but had falsely assured the girl that he knew nothing about what had happened.
“So she wouldn’t have known,” about his involvement said Kevin O’Donnell, an assistant district attorney.
“Right,” Mr. Weberman said.