Reporting a sexual assault to the police and testifying at an attacker’s trial cannot be easy for any victim of a sex crime. As the case of Nechemya Weberman, the 54-year-old unlicensed therapist from the Satmar community convicted this week of sexual abuse, has made shockingly clear, however, doing so as a member of the haredi community comes with its own particular perils.
As anyone familiar with this case by now knows, the young woman who pressed charges against Weberman found herself and her family subjected to everything from social ostracism, threats, harassment, loss of livelihood, and even an attempted bribe to drop the charges, to public condemnation — often expressed in extremely degrading language — from members and leaders of her own community. Posters plastered throughout Williamsburg last spring, when the community held a lavish fundraiser for Weberman’s defense, represented the teenage victim as a missile aimed at the community, and a recent speech by one of two Satmar Grand Rebbes, Aaron Teitelbaum of Kiryas Joel, disparaged her as a prostitute.
While it has garnered significant local and even national media attention, the kind of behavior displayed in this case is not unique to the Satmar community of Williamsburg. The Jewish Week has for years been reporting on the harsh treatment of alleged sex abuse victims, and the communal defense of their abusers, particularly in haredi communities throughout Brooklyn, upstate New York and New Jersey.
But along with all of this, we have also seen the advent of a nascent, grassroots advocacy movement. People of all ages and religious affiliations, abuse survivors and others, have mobilized in different ways to support victims and demand change — both from the religious leadership and the secular authorities, including the Brooklyn district attorney, who has been roundly criticized for his perceived failure until now to pursue these cases in deference to the haredi bloc vote. And while the haredi leadership has thus far shown depressingly little willingness to change its ways when it comes to the handling of allegations child sexual abuse, there is little doubt that the efforts of these activists did much to create the context for the successful prosecution of Nechemya Weberman.
Ultimately, of course, the credit for the outcome in this case goes to the courageous female victim, now 18, who was not only brave enough to come forward and press charges against Weberman in the first place, but who persisted in her pursuit of justice despite the torment she and her family endured.
During her testimony at trial, which, according to assistant district attorney Kevin O’Donnell, totaled close to 13 hours (much of that under cross examination), the young woman told the court that she decided to report Weberman because she wanted “peace” and because she did not want to be responsible for having what she went through happen to anyone else.
This is a sentiment we have heard over and over from other survivors of sexual abuse who have decided to press charges against their abusers or, barred from doing so by the statute of limitations, go public with their stories. In most cases, their motivation and actions to protect other children stand in stark contrast to those of the religious and lay leaders of their communities, whose primary interest seems to be protecting the public image of the community and the reputations of the accused, not to mention the assets of communal institutions whose complicity in covering up these crimes in some cases for decades surely opens them up to significant liability.
Given this, it appears that it will be quite some time, if ever, before haredi abuse victims gain the unequivocal support of their communities and religious leaders to do what is right and necessary to make their children safer. And because of this, we can only hope that more victims — including those of Weberman himself, at least one of whom is within the statute of limitations, according to the district attorney — will make the brave decision this young woman did to hold their abusers accountable under the law. Indeed, we can see no more fitting reward for her courage than for others who have been harmed to come forward and report their abuse to the secular authorities. Doing so will not only create a critical mass that will empower victims and give them the support the communal leadership has thus far failed to provide, but it will also force the intimidation to stop. As the history of these communities has demonstrated, there is strength in numbers.
Finally, it is fitting that the Weberman verdict came during Chanukah, when the traditional “Al HaNissim” prayer praises God for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the impure into the hands of the pure.”
A victory to mark, but this war is far from over.