At the sentencing Tuesday of a bar mitzvah tutor and social worker convicted of sexually molesting two boys in Brooklyn, a New York State Supreme Court Judge lashed out at the offender’s Orthodox community for "a communal attitude that seems to impose greater opprobrium on the victims than the perpetrator."
With his stinging critique, Judge Guston Reichbach placed himself at the center of a fierce debate in the Orthodox community over how best to police the problem of pedophilia.
Speaking from the bench the day after Yom Kippur at the sentencing of Yona Weinberg, who received a 13-month jail term, Judge Reichbach said he found it "troubling" that the community "seeks to blame, indeed punish victims who seek justice from the … civil society," according to a court transcript. He went on to add that the Orthodox community’s religious courts are "inappropriate" and "incapable" of dealing with criminal matters.
Making his comments before a courtroom packed with supporters of the 31-year-old Weinberg – among them, according to his defense attorney, school principals, two rabbis and civic leaders – the judge spoke of receiving more than 90 letters attesting to Weinberg’s character and innocence. None of the letters, the judge noted, "displays any concern or any sympathy or even any acknowledgement for these young victims which, frankly, I find shameful."
Indeed, Judge Reichbach referred to one letter in particular, written by a Mrs. Mandel and expressing sadness "that Weinberg’s love of humankind has turned against him," to be "the height of chutzpah."
Judge Reichbach’s comments come as the Orthodox community struggles to come to grips with the problem of child sexual abuse. Just last week, in what was described as a groundbreaking occurrence, an Orthodox synagogue in Passaic, N.J., drew more than 300 people to an event where several victims of sexual abuse, including a 16-year-old girl who said she had been raped, told their vivid and shocking stories. Other events about the pedophilia problem have taken place in the Orthodox world, but this one was unique for having attracted such a large audience to a synagogue in Passaic, known for its strong, fervent religious community.
And in the spring the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, partnering with various agencies, including Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, launched a hotline designed to get alleged victims of sexual abuse to come forward and press their cases in the courts.
Indeed, in his statements at Weinberg’s sentencing, Judge Reichbach praised the victims and their families for the having the courage to come forward despite communal pressures. And he made a point of indicating that precisely because of the community’s "’circle the wagon attitude’ there is going to be a jail sentence in this case because anything less, I believe, would offend not only the appropriate sense of justice but would also further, in some way, if not penalize [and] … indicate to the victims here who have … suffered the opprobrium of the community that somehow what happened to them was not important, was not significant."
Weinberg was convicted of nine separate crimes – seven counts of sexual abuse in the second degree and two of endangering the welfare of a child. Judge Reichbach made the point that had Weinberg expressed any remorse at the sentencing – he remained "mute," according to the judge – Weinberg might have been entitled to some consideration with respect to the duration of his sentence. In fact, throughout the proceedings Judge Reichbach seemed dismayed by Weinberg’s failure to express contrition. Kevin O’Donnell, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, also argued for jail time as opposed to therapy, which the defense was seeking, emphasizing that the absence of jail time would send "just a very bad message … [not only] to the community but to the family that is in court and the two young victims in the case."
Both Judge Reichbach’s and O’Donnell’s words were greeted with strong praise from survivors of sexual abuse and their advocates in the Orthodox community, many of whom have, in the past, expressed concerns about the Brooklyn District Attorney’s handling of such cases. One highly publicized example was the plea bargain the DA struck with alleged child molester Yehuda Kolko last year, which allowed Kolko to avoid jail time, sex offender registration and counseling by copping to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
Ben Hirsch, president of Survivors for Justice, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, told The Jewish Week on Friday that "Reichbach’s compassion and admiration for the courage of these victims have resonated through our community, as has his rebuke to those within our community who would protect pedophiles.
"Not only will his just sentencing save children from this predator," Hirsch continued, "it also sends a message that these crimes will not go unpunished, which will go a long way towards reducing the prevalence of abuse in our community."
Hirsch went on "to commend DA Hynes and his staff for their effective prosecution of this case. We hope this will encourage members of the Orthodox community to bring all cases of abuse directly to the sex crimes division of their police departments so that the justice system can do its job."