NEW YORK - People filling the courtroom Tuesday sat rapt as Satmar Hasidic counselor Nechemya Weberman was sentenced to 103 years in prison for sexually abusing a young member of his community.
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His victim is an 18-year-old woman who was sexually abused over the course of three years. It started when she was 12 after being sent to Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, for counseling. He forced her to perform oral sex acts and act out scenes from pornographic movies, she testified during the trial.
On Tuesday she made an emotional statement as Weberman, 54, sat in the courtroom with his eyes closed. His victim said that someone who was supposed to help her had robbed her of her youth. She described herself as “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.”
Weberman did not visibly react as Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice John Ingram handed down his sentence. Weberman family members vowed to appeal.
Hershey “Boorey” Deutsch, the victim’s husband, said after the sentencing: “This is the perfect message to many abuse victims that their voices will be heard and that justice will be served.”
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a yeshiva principal from Monsey, N.Y. who has become an advisor to the couple, stood with his arm around Deutsch’s shoulders and said the sentence “definitely opened doors for a lot of victims. We just want children to be safe.”
Weberman’s victim looks like the girl she still really is. Blond and slim, she entered Brooklyn Supreme Court building earlier in the day with her husband and Horowitz. Dressed in a puffy white winter coat, black skirt and black boots, she appeared nervous and excited as she greeted supporters while waiting to go through metal detectors. Horowitz blocked a reporter from speaking directly with her.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, whose office prosecuted Weberman, said in a statement following sentencing, “The abuse of a child cannot be swept under the rug or dealt with by insular groups believing only they know what is best for their community. In this case it took the courage of a young woman to drive home the point that justice can only be achieved through the involvement of civil authorities charged with protecting all the people.”
Weberman family members present at the sentencing maintained that his innocence and has been railroaded because he is an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
“It’s a lot of lies,” said Mindy, who said she is Weberman’s sister-in-law but declined to give her last name. “You see how much they hate a Jewish guy?”
“He is totally innocent,” said Faigy, who said she is Weberman’s niece and also declined to give her last name. “I’ve been around him my whole life and he never touched anyone in the family. Really the community is a beautiful community with a happy atmosphere. I babysat his kids,” she said. Faigy is 32 and a mother of five. “Everybody knew [the victim] wasn’t a vulnerable kid. She was troubled. You have to stick to the rules the community has.”
“Of course she was troubled,” said a friend of the victim’s. The victim stayed with her in 2011, when she first decided to go to the authorities. “She was troubled because of him.”
Asked what Weberman’s family thinks of the sentence, Faigy said, “We’re going to work and appeal it.”
After sentencing, Weberman was sent to Rikers Island without bail.
It is not yet clear whether attitudes toward sexual abuse in the cloistered Satmar community will be altered by Weberman’s life sentence.
“Attitudes are definitely changing,” said Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an advocate for child sexual abuse victims in Williamsburg. The sentence “is a very powerful message and will change the community slowly but surely. We are very pleased that things are moving forward,” he said.
Rosenberg has paid a personal price for the community’s intense efforts to maintain the status quo. He had bleach thrown at his face in Williamsburg the day after Weberman was found guilty, on December 10, 2012.
The attack initially caused Rosenberg to lose his sight. His vision has now returned, though he must continue to use medicated eye drops, he said outside the courtroom after the verdict. And it wasn’t the first time that he and his family were attacked for his efforts to bring sexual abusers to justice. About a year ago, a married daughter was shot in the face by a BB gun in the hands of one of his enemies, Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg’s bleach-wielding assailant, Meilich Schnitzler, was arrested shortly after the attack and is currently out on bail. If found guilty, he faces 5 to 15 years in prison, according to Sandy Silverstein, a spokesman for the district attorney.
The Weberman case is significant for being the first that Hynes has prosecuted against a member of the Satmar community, whose members are viewed as politically powerful - in part because they vote as a bloc.
It is also notable for the degree to which it has been rife with violence and intimidation.
In addition to the attack on Rosenberg, four Williamsburg Satmar men were indicted in June for attempting to impede the prosecution against Weberman. Abraham Rubin attempted to bribe Deutsch and his wife - who was then his girlfriend - offering them $500,000 to drop the case and suggesting they go to Israel. Brothers Joseph, Jacob and Hertzka Berger were charged with harassing and intimidating Deutsch by threatening to get the rabbinical supervision of his restaurant revoked, with one of the brothers tearing down the kosher certificate.
Their trial is slated to begin on March 6, Silverstein said.
More recently, there have been efforts in Williamsburg to put the victim’s father out of business. Williamsburg Satmar Rebbe Zalman Teitelbaum personally affixed a mezuzah to the doorway of a new company intended to supplant that of the victim’s father.
The victim’s parents moved out of the community about two weeks ago, said Rosenberg, after men “screamed at her father in shul and in the mikveh.” It is customary for Hasidic men to immerse in a mikveh before Shabbat, with some immersing daily. One day, while the victim’s father was in the mikveh, someone turned the lights off and men surrounded him in the darkness screaming at him, Rosenberg said.
Immediately outside the courtroom, just after the sentence was announced, a Weberman supporter said “Yimach Shemo” to Rosenberg (meaning “may your name be blotted out,” an epithet usually reserved for the likes of Haman and Hitler).
Rosenberg had his prayer shawl and tefillin in a supermarket shopping bag as he prepared to leave Brooklyn for “at least a week,” he said. “They’re ready with bleach again."