By Colleen Long
JAY STREET — Four men were accused yesterday of trying to bribe and frighten witnesses into refusing to testify against a spiritual counselor in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who has been charged with molesting a teenage girl for years.
The men, three brothers and another man, pleaded not guilty to charges including witness tampering, bribing a witness and coercion. Attorney Bruce Wenger said the men deny all the charges against them.
Prosecutors said some of the men offered witnesses thousands of dollars, asking them to leave the country and not testify in the case against Nechemya Weberman.
Weberman, 53, has been accused of molesting the girl from ages 12-15. He has pleaded not guilty to sex abuse charges, and he has been embraced in his community and defended as wrongly accused. The girl has been threatened, ostracized and called a slut and a troublemaker.
The rallying around Weberman, whose trial has been postponed, suspected witness intimidation, and ostracizing of his accuser reflects long-held beliefs in this insular community that problems should be dealt with from within.
Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft said the men had no regard for the criminal justice system and wanted to handle the case their way. The men "tried to make the witness disappear so the case is dropped," he said.
Prosecutors say some of the four accused, Abraham Rubin, and brothers Jacob, Joseph and Hertzka Berger, made a threatening phone call, destroyed property, and harassed the witnesses in the case.
The courtroom Thursday was packed with family and friends of the defendants, who were expected to make bail.
Brooklyn is home to about 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, the largest community outside of Israel. The Hasidic community is especially tight-knit, embracing centuries-old traditions and creating a network of separate schools, ambulances and community policing.
Weberman's accuser was eventually kicked out of the school where she was receiving his counseling. When she was asked by a guidance counselor at her new school whether she had ever been molested, she said yes, according to a family friend. The counselor went to police last fall.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they were victims of sexual abuse.
Weberman's attorney, George Farkas, has said his client is innocent of the charges, and that Weberman has been maligned by the supporters of the girl, now 17.
Farkas said Thursday his client had no knowledge or involvement in the suspected bribery.
"We denounce any effort to undermine the legitimate court process in this or any case. Mr. Weberman has stated from the beginning that no one should be subjected to any form of harassment," Farkas said in a statement.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes has said it is difficult to prosecute cases of sex abuse within the ultra-Orthodox community, because victims are unlikely to come forward, and witness intimidation is rampant. Earlier this year, he created a new panel to help address some of the problems, amid criticism that he was being soft on the community in exchange for political support from powerful rabbis.
Hynes has denied those claims. In 2009, he created a program that offered counseling and other social programs to sex abuse victims in the Orthodox community. Since then, more than 100 cases have arisen.