By Colleen Long
A respected religious counselor in Brooklyn's ultra-orthodox Jewish community was sentenced Tuesday to 103 years in prison for molesting a girl who came to him with questions about her faith.
Nechemya Weberman was convicted in December of 59 counts, including sustained sexual abuse of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and sexual abuse. He testified in his own defense, saying he "never, ever" abused the girl, and maintained his innocence at sentencing.
His trial put a spotlight on the ultra-orthodox community and its strict rules that govern clothing, social customs and interaction with the outside world. Brooklyn is home to the largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews outside Israel, more than 250,000. Both Weberman, 54, and the accuser belonged to the Satmar Hasidic sect there.
The girl's school had ordered her to see Weberman because she had been asking questions about her religion and was dressing immodestly in violation of customs, and he was to help her get back on the right path. Weberman wasn't a licensed counselor but spent decades working with couples and families in his community.
The accuser, now 18, had testified that Weberman abused her repeatedly behind his locked office door from the time she was 12 until she was 15.
"I clearly remember how I would look in the mirror," she said at Tuesday's sentencing, her small voice shaking. "I saw a girl who didn't want to live in her own skin, a girl whose innocence was shattered, a girl who couldn't sleep at night because of the gruesome invasion that had been done to her body."
She said she was "a sad girl who wanted to live a normal life but instead was being victimized by a 50-year-old man who forced her to perform sickening acts again and again."
She said she was speaking for many others who had been victimized by Weberman, but lacked the courage to come forward. Weberman hasn't been charged in any other molestation case.
But the girl expressed hope that by coming forward, she could give strength to other victims of sexual abuse. The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
Her husband, Hershey Deutsch, spoke to reporters and TV news cameras outside court, recounting through tears how difficult it was to watch her struggle with coming forward.
"She definitely feels relief. She can sleep more tonight," he said.
Judge John Ingram praised the teen's courage, saying he also hoped it would set an example for other victims of sexual abuse.
"This message should go out to all victims of sexual abuse: Your cries will be heard. Justice will be done. You should report," the judge said.
The teen and her family have been harassed and ostracized, reflecting long-held beliefs that any conflict must be dealt with from within. During the trial, men were arrested on charges they tried to bribe the accuser and Deutsch to drop the case. Others were accused of snapping photos of her on the witness stand and posting them online. Those cases are pending.
"We still get threats but this is not going to change anything," Deutsch said. "We're here to protect the future and the future of our children."
The court received dozens of letters from supporters of the defendant. They described his life in the community as a counselor and a father, and many proclaimed his innocence.
One said jailing Weberman would be "a loss of great magnitude for our family, in particular, to mankind in general."
Weberman said "no thank you" when asked if he wished to speak. He and his wife had no visible reaction to the sentence.
"Nechemya Weberman is innocent of the crimes charged," defense attorney George Farkas insisted at the sentencing. They said they would appeal immediately. "He stands ready to be vindicated."
As Weberman was being led from the courtroom in handcuffs, he looked toward his family and other supporters, smiled and nodded. The top charge carried a sentence of 25 years; he got consecutive terms for some of the other lesser charges.
The defense argued that the girl was angry that Weberman had told her parents she had a boyfriend at age 15, forbidden in her community. Defense attorney Stacey Richman said the case boiled down to a simple "he said, she said," and the girl was a petulant, calculating liar.
"The only evidence in this case of sexual abuse is the word of" the accuser, Richman told jurors. "She's making things up in front of you as they occur."
But the jury took just hours to convict Weberman on all counts on Dec. 10.
The Satmar sect is one faction clustered mostly in the Williamsburg neighborhood. The group has its own ambulances, volunteer police and rabbinical courts, and they are discouraged from going to secular authorities.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said he hoped the case would persuade other victims to come forward. Hynes has been accused of overlooking crimes in the community because he was too cozy with powerful rabbis, a charge he vehemently denies.
Judge Ingram on Tuesday urged detractors to leave the girl alone to live a good life with her husband.
"This cannot be tolerated in a free society," he said.