By Colleen Long
A young girl with questions about her ultra-Orthodox Jewish religion was sent to a respected counselor to help her back on a path of faith. Prosecutors say the girl was instead molested by the man for years behind a locked office door starting when she was just 12. Defense attorneys say the counselor is the victim of a vindictive child, angry that he had betrayed her trust.
The ongoing sex abuse trial of Nechemya Weberman in Brooklyn court has rocked the insular, tight-knit group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, not only because of the shocking charges but also because the case is being played out in a public court and the guarded society strongly discourages going to outside authorities. The girl, now 17, testified that she and her family were harassed and shunned for coming forward; her father lost his business and her nieces were kicked out of school.
During the trial, which began last week, four men were charged with criminal contempt for snapping images of the accuser on the witness stand with cellphone cameras and posting them online. And before the trial began,Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes charged other men with trying to bribe the girl to drop the charges.
The girl testified for three days about the abuse, detailing that the 54-year-old Weberman, who was not a licensed counselor, forced her to perform oral sex and act out porn films. She said the abuse lasted from 2007 to 2010. Her family paid him $12,800 in counseling fees during that time, the girl's mother testified Monday.
"I wanted to die rather than live with myself," the girl testified. "I didn't know how to fight. I was numb."
Weberman has pleaded not guilty to 88 charges of sexual abuse and misconduct. Defense attorneys said the girl fabricated the stories as an act of revenge because she had told Weberman she had a boyfriend at age 15, forbidden in her community, and believed he then told her parents.
"There was only one answer," defense attorney George Farkas said. "Vengeance and revenge against Nechemya Weberman, and through this, to bring down the entire community."
The case has also been a crash course for jurors about the customs and rules in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, home to about 250,000, the largest community outside Israel. The girl's mother testified Monday that the school forced the family into sending the girl to Weberman otherwise she'd be expelled from school, because she had questioned her teachers on their religion and had worn clothing that wasn't modest enough.
The defense questioned why she didn't come forward sooner, and tried to pick apart inconsistencies in her statement. She admitted that she talked with Weberman about other things, confiding in him about her doubts on religion.
"It wasn't just touching," she said.
On Monday, psychiatrist Anne Melzter testified that often children and adolescents don't come forward because they develop feelings for their abuser and they don't want to get the abuser into trouble.
"They think it's their fault," she said. "They don't think they are going to be believed."
The allegations surfaced last year when the girl told a guidance counselor at a different school that she'd been molested. She eventually went to police. The Associated Press typically doesn't identify people who say they are the victims of sexual assault.
The girl, who will be 18 this week and was recently married, was shunned, she said. Her community, the Satmar Hasidic sect, turned against her for going to police and for accusing such a well-respected man, her family said. Newspapers decried her story, and a fundraiser was held for Weberman. Leaders of the sect have expressed support for him.
But the girl has received growing support, and the courtroom was packed for days during her testimony. On Monday, her mother testified that she is a bright, loving, respectful girl, what any mother could wish. The girl and three other siblings out of seven in the family have since left the Satmar sect.
"Do you still love them?" Assistant District Attorney Kevin O'Donnell asked.
"Very much," she said.