The stunning 103-year prison term imposed on Brooklyn “therapist” Nechemya Weberman for sexually abusing a girl has unleashed fierce debate, with many members of his ultra-Orthodox community saying the harsh sentence is unfair especially compared with punishment meted out to other notorious criminals.
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Critics claim the long sentence will deter future abuse victims from coming forward — but victims’ advocates and prosecutors insist seeing justice done will only encourage others to report crimes to secular authorities.
Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, rabbi, and prominent member of the Satmar ultra-Orthodox community, was hit with the lengthy sentence on January 22. He was found guilty in December of 59 counts related to the abuse of the Orthodox girl over a period of three years from the age of 12.
“The community looks at a 100-year-sentence and says, ‘Whoa, murderers don’t get anywhere near 100 years,’” said Ezra Friedlander, CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public relations firm that caters to many ultra-Orthodox clients.
Just last month, Friedlander had welcomed the guilty verdict returned against Weberman. Writing in the Forward at the time he said that the community ought to see Weberman’s case as an opportunity to confront abuse once and for all.
But he said that the 103-year sentence has led even “fair-minded” community members to wonder whether the system “is stacked against us.”
Within hours of sentencing, blog comment threads and Twitter feeds filled with people comparing Weberman’s sentence to that imposed on Levi Aron, who kidnapped and murdered 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn in 2011. Levi was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison after agreeing to a plea bargain deal.
Though many commenters on an Orthodox news site, Vos Iz Neias, supported the Weberman sentence, others said it was unfair.
“There is no defending what this man allegedly did,” wrote one anonymous commenter. “But why a sentence usually reserved for mass murderers?”
“This will only cause more fear and cover-ups,” wrote another anonymous commenter. “I believe he is innocent and most of the community agrees.”
Weberman, 54, was a prominent figure in Williamsburg’s Satmar community.
An activist in that community, who did not wish to be identified, said that if Brooklyn’s District Attorney Charles Hynes wants community members to cooperate with abuse investigations, a 103-year prison sentence is “working against his own mission.”
The victim in the Weberman case, who is now 18, was sent to Weberman by her parents for counseling because she appeared to be questioning Orthodoxy. The trial heard how during Weberman’s therapy sessions he repeatedly forced her to act out scenes from pornographic films.
The woman, now 18, told State Supreme Court Justice John G. Ingram during sentencing that she had been unable to sleep at night “because the horrifying images of the recent gruesome invasions kept replaying in her head.”
Ingram told the court: “The message should go out to all victims of sexual abuse that your cries will be heard and justice will be done.”
Weberman’s sentence was so long because Ingram chose to run most of the 59 counts against him consecutively. The maximum jail time he could have imposed was 117 years.
Barry Slotnik, who has served as a criminal defense attorney in New York for four decades, said the judge could have sentenced Weberman to as little as 25 years.
Calling 103 years “an enormous sentence,” Slotnik said, “Obviously the judge had some very strong feelings about the case.”
Rhonnie Jaus, head of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s sex crimes division, said “a fair number of sex offenders” had been given consecutive sentences. However she could not provide an example of someone receiving anything like the sentence imposed on Weberman.
It is now up to an appellate court to decide whether the sentence was correct.
Weberman’s case was highly contentious among the Satmar community where a fundraiser intended to raise $500,000 for his defense attracted thousands of supporters and led to scuffles with supporters of the victim.
The case also ignited fierce passions in the broader battle that has raged across Brooklyn in recent years between abuse victims’ advocates and members of the ultra-Orthodox community who treat abuse claims with suspicion.
And it galvanized District Attorney Hynes whose office in recent years has been accused of failing to adequately prosecute Orthodox abuse crimes or those who seek to silence victims and their families.
In a press conference, Hynes said justice was done in the Weberman case.
“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,” Hynes said.
“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,” he added.
Four men were arrested for witness tampering in the run-up to the trial. During the trial, a further four men were arrested for intimidating the victim by photographing her during her testimony.
Rhonnie Jaus, head of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s sex crimes division, said that members of the ultra-Orthodox community have used previous lengthy sentences to try to dissuade victims from reporting abuse.
“They were told by people in their community, ‘Look at all the time that Lebovits got sentenced to,’” Jaus said, referring to Baruch Lebovits, a Brooklyn travel agent sentenced to up to 32 years in prison for abuse in 2010.
Lebovits’ conviction was overturned last year. He is currently awaiting a retrial.
Jaus said victims were told that their abuser would be better off in therapy than serving such a lengthy prison term.
But Jaus added that there are victims who “very much want their offender to get jail” time, including the victim in the Weberman case who suffered three years of “horrific abuse” and who spent four days on the stand giving testimony and being cross examined.
Jaus said that the victim’s “courage was extraordinary” and that she hoped the conviction and sentencing would have “a positive effect on people.”
She added: “I hope that it will inspire people to come forward and realize if they do come forward to the secular authorities they can achieve justice[and] can have their day in court.”