By SHARON OTTERMAN (New York Times)
June 21, 2012
The Brooklyn district attorney, facing a wave of public criticism about his handling of sexual abuse allegations in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, on Thursday charged four men with attempting to silence an accuser by offering her and her boyfriend a $500,000 bribe, and threatening her boyfriend's business.
The district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, alleged that the men were part of an effort to protect a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidic community, Nechemya Weberman, who has been accused of 88 counts of sexual misconduct, including oral sex with a child younger than 13 years old. The charges all involve one girl, now 17, who was referred by her school to get counseling by Mr. Weberman, and then alleged she was abused by him during therapy sessions.
The charges are the first time in at least two decades that Mr. Hynes has charged Hasidic Jews with intimidation of a witness in a sexual abuse case, even though victims, their advocates and prosecutors say intimidation has long been a major obstacle to prosecution of abuse among the ultra-Orthodox. In recent weeks, Mr. Hynes has been saying that the intimidation of witnesses in the ultra-Orthodox community is worse than in the world of organized crime.
"I'm hoping that this will be a message to those who are intimidated that they should come forward and help us," Mr. Hynes said at a news conference. "No one can engage in this kind of conduct and feel free that, based on prior experience, nothing can happen to them."
Prosecutors charged Abraham Rubin, 48, of Williamsburg with bribery, witness tampering and coercion. They said that he had been recorded offering the accuser's boyfriend the money, and he suggested that the young couple could flee to Israel to avoid testifying. He also offered to provide them with a lawyer who could help them avoid cooperating with prosecutors.
Prosecutors also charged three brothers, Jacob, Joseph and Hertzka Berger, with coercion, saying they threatened and then removed the kosher certification of a restaurant run by the accuser's boyfriend. The brothers are sons of a local rabbi who issues kosher certifications to stores.
The four men pleaded not guilty on Thursday in a Brooklyn courtroom packed with benches full of their supporters, dressed in the dark clothing worn by Hasidic men.
Hertzka Berger's lawyer, Bruce Wenger, said after the arraignment that the four men "all deny the allegations."
"They are all obviously going to be fighting these cases vehemently," he said. "They are looking forward to their day in court."
But a prosecutor, Josh Hanshaft, said the men had been "telling witnesses to forget what they know, not to come to court, to disappear," and said prosecutors had "clear, substantial evidence" that part of the plan to silence witnesses involved offering money to dissuade their testimony.
If convicted, Mr. Rubin faces up to seven years in prison. Joseph and Hertzka Berger each face a year in jail, and Jacob Berger faces up to four years.
Mr. Weberman has denied the abuse allegations, and his lawyer, George Farkas, said Mr. Weberman knew nothing of the alleged intimidation.
"Mr. Weberman, and his attorneys, are appalled by these allegations, which if true, are reprehensible," Mr. Farkas said. The intimidation charges, a moment of triumph for Mr. Hynes, come as his office has been criticized by victims, victims' advocates, former Mayor Ed Koch and others for an insufficiently aggressive response to the sexual abuse of minors within the ultra-Orthodox community.
And this week, Mr. Hynes's office is suffering an embarrassing reversal in another abuse case involving an Orthodox Jewish accuser. After revelations that Mr. Hynes's office had failed to share exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys, lawyers said Monday that all charges against four men accused of raping and forcibly prostituting a Chabad Lubavitch woman from Crown Heights for nearly a decade would be dropped.
In the Williamsburg case, the accuser was in sixth grade when she was referred to Mr. Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, by her Williamsburg religious school, a close family member said in an interview last month. Her parents were told she would be expelled from school unless they paid $150 an hour for him to provide her with therapy.
Instead, Mr. Weberman, who is now 53, repeatedly sexually molested her over three years, when she was 12 to 15, and told her that she would be expelled from school if she told anyone, the relative said. The girl then changed schools and told a licensed therapist what had happened. The therapist reported the girl's allegations to the police.
After Mr. Weberman's arrest in 2011, a campaign of intimidation is alleged to have begun against the accuser, her boyfriend and her family members. Prominent Hasidic Jews publicly proclaimed their support for Mr. Weberman, and, on May 16, hosted hundreds of Hasidic men at a local wedding hall to raise money for Mr. Weberman's legal defense. To promote the fund-raiser, his supporters hung posters on lampposts and brick walls around the neighborhood, accusing the young woman, in Yiddish, of libel.
The girl's boyfriend, 24-year-old Hershy Deutsch, organized a demonstration outside the fund-raiser. In an interview at the time, he said that he had faced intimidation because of his girlfriend's allegations, and that he had decided to speak out. He said that a restaurant he manages in Williamsburg, the Old Williamsburg Cafe on Lee Avenue, was targeted by a flood of false complaints to city authorities in late April. And, he said, men from the neighborhood had offered him $500,000 if he could persuade the girl to drop her case.
"For those of you questioning the credibility of the victim's story," Mr. Deutsch wrote in a letter he posted on his Facebook page, "ask yourself the following question: Would a nonguilty person offer someone a half a million dollars if they drop the charges?"
"Speak up!" he wrote. "Face the facts, our community has been covering up these stories for way too long. We have to put an end to this!"
On Thursday afternoon a metal gate was rolled down over the entrance to the Old Williamsburg Cafe, and a sign taped to the door said that the store "will be closed until further notice."
Victims' advocates said Thursday that they were glad that Mr. Hynes had brought an intimidation case, and hoped it would begin to ease the problem. While some ultra-Orthodox rabbis now say that a child molester should be reported to the police, others strictly adhere to an ancient Jewish prohibition against mesirah, the turning in of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, and instruct victims to either remain silent or let rabbinical authorities quietly handle the allegations.
"This is a big threshold," said Mark Appel, the founder of Voice of Justice, a nonprofit agency that helps ultra-Orthodox victims. And Joel Engelman, the founder of the Jewish Survivors Network, also praised Mr. Hynes for bringing the intimidation case, because, he said, "in the Williamsburg Hasidic community, intimidation is rampant."