Justice in Williamsburg

New York Times
December 11, 2012

The sexual abuse conviction in a State Supreme Court in Brooklyn of a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidic community sends a strong and overdue message to Williamsburg’s tightly knit ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, which has shielded such abusers from legal scrutiny.

In a case brought by Charles Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, the court convicted Nechemya Weberman, a 54-year-old unlicensed therapist, of repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl who had been sent to him for help. Mr. Hynes said the verdict had lifted the “veil of secrecy” and had served notice that henceforth the prospects for justice are “only going to get better for people who are victimized in these various communities.”

Prosecutors have long had trouble finding witnesses in the community because speaking out, especially to non-Jewish legal authorities, could bring retaliation. In this particular case, Mr. Hynes charged four men with allegedly trying to interfere with bribery and threats. Four others face criminal contempt of court charges for taking pictures in the courtroom in an apparent attempt to intimidate the victim. On Tuesday, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an advocate for child sex abuse victims, was taken to a hospital after what appeared to be bleach was thrown in his face as he walked down the street in Williamsburg.

The Weberman case is Mr. Hynes’s first conviction involving sexual abuse by a prominent member of Williamsburg’s Satmar community. He and his prosecutors owe much of that success to the bravery of the victim, who was 12 when she was sent to Mr. Weberman for what school officials considered rebelliousness. Now 18, she testified that she was forced to endure the abuse for three years. Mr. Weberman denied her charges, and his lawyer said he plans to appeal.

After receiving some criticism for not aggressively pursuing such crimes in the politically active ultra-Orthodox community, Mr. Hynes’s office has stepped up prosecution of abusers. Groups supporting the rights of victims have also been winning ground: a religious court for another Jewish community ruled last year that in cases of child abuse, “one is forbidden to remain silent” and must report the charge to civil authorities. The Satmar community should do the same. No religious institution has the right to shield its child abusers from civil prosecution.