By Pervaiz Shallwani (Wall Street Journal)
November 28 2012
A 17-year-old girl took the stand in the sexual abuse trial of a respected ultra-Orthodox Jewish counselor Tuesday, putting a spotlight on an insular Brooklyn community that authorities claim has historically avoided such prosecutions by keeping members quiet.
In a packed courtroom filled almost entirely with her supporters, the teen testified during the second day in the trial of Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed religious counselor in the Satmar Hasidic community, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism.
Mr. Weberman is accused of sexually abusing the girl dozens of times in his Williamsburg home and office over a three-year span beginning when she was 12 years old. The girl, who turns 18 next week, isn't being identified because she may be a victim of sexual abuse.
Defense attorneys, though, have painted a different picture, questioning her testimony and arguing that the girl singled out their client and the Satmar sect because of its ultra-Orthodox policies.
During more than five hours of testimony, the girl spoke confidently but quietly—at times struggling to hold back tears—as she detailed the alleged abuse.
The teen testified that her father first took her to see Mr. Weberman in March 2007 when she was in sixth grade, and that school leaders deemed her a problem after she questioned her religion, began rebelling against her parents and was caught sending text messages to a boy.
"I had a lot of questions about religion…how do you know God exists?" she said, adding that in response, her teacher "yelled at me and sent me to the principal. It happened to me a lot of times."
The teen testified that Mr. Weberman—whom she saw between once and four times a week—began sexually assaulting her on the first day and inappropriately touched her or assaulted her at every session.
"I just froze," she said, when asked about her first encounter with him. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to respond. I didn't know how to fight back. I was numb."
"He would continue touching me all the time," she said.
By spring 2009, the teen testified, she started avoiding appointments and stopped eating, which prompted Mr. Weberman to finally visit her home, where she says he sexually assaulted her.
Asked by prosecutor Kevin O'Donnell if she tried to stop him, she replied, "I didn't have the strength. I didn't have the strength to do anything....I wanted to die rather than live with myself."
On cross-examination, defense attorney Michael Farkas spent about two hours trying to discredit the testimony, portraying the teen as a problem child who loathed her religion, and poking holes in her testimony and comments to investigators.
The girl acknowledged that she and Mr. Weberman had conversations about some of her problems with the religion and its strict guidelines, including requirements that women wear skirts at least six inches below their knees and not date.
"He was the first person who listened to you?" Mr. Farkas asked.
"Yes," the girl replied, admitting, "We did discuss other things."
Community members, some traveling hours from upstate and Long Island, packed four allotted rows in anticipation, some being forced to wait anxiously outside for a seat.
The testimony brought many in the audience to tears, some openly weeping with tissues in their hands during the most emotional moments. The drama forced officers and the judge to quiet attendees for whispering loudly during breaks in testimony. One woman was told to be careful of her nodding.
The alleged abuse came to light in February 2011, when the girl told a school counselor and named Mr. Weberman as her abuser.
The case is one of only a few that Brooklyn prosecutors say they have been able to bring to trial in the community, because, according to District Attorney Charles Hynes, prosecutors have struggled to get its members to cooperate.
In the lead-up to the trial, Mr. Hynes said prosecutions among the ultra-Orthodox can be more difficult than even organized-crime investigations, in which he can at least offer the witness-protection program.
The case has caused deep divisions among Williamsburg's Hasidim, with some rallying behind Mr. Weberman, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense and subjecting the accuser to threats and name-calling.
Four men were charged earlier this year after they allegedly tried to buy the silence of the girl and her husband, whom she married in October.
On Tuesday, the girl, who has since left the Satmar Hasidism for the Modern Orthodox sect, testified about the difficult decision to testify against Mr. Weberman. She said her parents suggested she drop the case as recently as six months ago, taking her to a rabbi who also tried to persuade her to walk away from the matter.
When asked by a prosecutor what was the benefit of pursuing the case, she said, "Peace."
The girl, who says she would like to go to college one day, also acknowledged that problems have plagued her since she reported the alleged abuse, including "intimidation," "intimidation of my parents," "loss of business," "having my nieces kicked out of school."
The girl will take the stand again Wednesday, and Mr. Weberman is expected to testify in his defense.