By Josh Dawsey and Pervaiz Shallwani (Wall Street Journal)
January 25, 2013
When a judge sentenced a religious counselor from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn to 103 years in prison this week, he framed the punishment as a message: Victims of sexual abuse will find justice, no matter their community.
But the closely watched prosecution of 54-year-old Nechemya Weberman, found guilty last month of repeatedly molesting a young girl, might not become the milestone sought by victims' advocates. Some within the Satmar Jewish sect said the 103-year sentence might reinforce suspicions that their community is being targeted by outsiders.
"It's not a good number," said Gary Schlesinger, head of a charity linked to Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, a leader of the Satmar.
The sect runs its own schools, ambulances and informal justice system, all meant to preserve a distinct religious culture in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section. To critics inside and outside that world, the closed-off community creates a culture of silence that deters abuse victims.
For Mr. Schlesinger, the severe punishment is likely to make his neighbors even more wary of secular justice.
"The 103-year sentence is going to discourage future victims from coming forward because nobody wants to have that on their conscience their entire life," he said. "Sometimes you can have a person rehabilitated for a much shorter time."
Prosecutors see the outcome as a significant victory, said Rhonnie Jaus, chief of the Brooklyn district attorney office's sex-crimes division.
"I hope that people can see that if they come forward, that there are measures in place to help," she said. "We take everything that they tell us seriously, we will prosecute people who intimidate them, we will have detectives surround them."
Speaking to reporters after Mr. Weberman's sentencing on Tuesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes underscored a lesson from the case: Everyone, he said, has "a moral, if not a legal, obligation to promptly bring allegations of child sexual abuse to secular authorities."
Mr. Hynes has come under widespread criticism for failure to prosecute child-abuse cases within Brooklyn's Orthodox neighborhoods. His office responded in 2009 by launching Kol Tzedek—Hebrew for "Voice of Justice"—as an outreach effort that helps abuse victims bypass local police precincts.
"People were afraid to go to the police," Ms. Jaus said.
To date, she said, the program has resulted in 113 arrests with a 70% conviction rate, including the Weberman case. Prosecutors have investigated 40 other cases, most of which were past the statute of limitations.
"We've made tremendous progress, but we still have a long, uphill way to go," said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew who represents Brooklyn's Borough Park and Midwood areas. "On a scale of one to 10, we're at 1.5."
"Six years ago, people would get angry at me when I even used the words sexual abuse," said Mr. Hikind, who has discussed the subject frequently on his radio show. "Now they're talking about it, even if it's not always out in public."
Other signs of progress are less measurable but still visible. Mr. Hikind pointed to sexual-abuse awareness meetings between parents and summer-camp administrators and efforts to make more classrooms visible from the outside.
Like Mr. Hikind, Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg has long fought sexual abuse in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Over his two-decade campaign, those hostile to his work have thrown bleach in his face and disrupted his home with incessant phone calls.
"The rabbis sold people [on the idea that] the Jew is not supposed to be an informer," said Rabbi Rosenberg, who once identified as a Satmar but has left the sect. "We do see the changes. But it will take time for people to realize the government is stepping up."
"We don't have the right trust yet," he added, "but it's coming."
Inside the close-knit Satmar community, there is little consensus about whether change is inevitable or desirable.
"It's a completely different world here," said Mr. Schlesinger. "That's why you have so many good things—a lot better things sometimes."
Other close observers of the Satmar community worry about the outcome of the Weberman trial. Dovid Zwiebel, vice president of Agudath Israel America, a group that works closely with Brooklyn's Satmar population, said the case should have been handled more "delicately."
"Many people felt it wasn't as if Mr. Weberman was on trial, it was as if the community was on trial," he said.
Mr. Zwiebel, who said he applauded the crackdown on abuse, worried that a 103-year sentence might suggest "the system is rigged against Hasidic Jews."
"The reaction I've heard from many is maybe we shouldn't be cooperating with law-enforcement authorities," he added.
Mr. Hynes said his office asked for the maximum prison term knowing that the sentence—similar to those given to others convicted of such sex-abuse charges—would likely be cut to 50 years on appeal, which is typical in such cases.
But that change might come too late to alter the perceptions of the community.
Even Mr. Hikind, one of the most determined advocates for stepped-up prosecutions of sexual abuse within the Orthodox communities, questioned the wisdom of the sentence.
"As horrible as all of this is, I would have been happier if it would not have been 103," he said. "This almost says to people who already have a chip on their shoulder that the Orthodox community isn't getting a fair shake that they're right."