By Julia Dahl (CBS 2 News)
January 22, 2013
A prominent member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn has been sentenced to 103 years in prison after being convicted last month on 59 counts of sexual abuse against a young girl he counseled for years.
Nechemya Weberman pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and the case divided the insular Satmar community of which he and his teenage accuser were a part.
In an editorial for the New York Daily News, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes wrote Monday that he hoped the Weberman case "sends a very clear and unmistakable message to people in certain parts of the Orthodox community -- it is time to start protecting victims rather than defendants."
For years, activists within the notoriously strict and insular community have been agitating to bring media and law enforcement attention to the sexual abuse of children. The Weberman case is among the first to result in a conviction, partly because the young woman who accused her former counselor was able to withstand extreme pressure not to testify. Last year, four members of the Satmar community were indicted on charges including conspiracy, bribery and witness tampering for allegedly trying to silence the girl.
According to Ben Hirsch, spokesperson for Survivors for Justice, a group dedicated to supporting victims of child sex abuse, the mores of the community, including extreme modesty (often enforced by so-called "modesty squads" of which Weberman was reportedly a member), rigid separation of the sexes, lack of sex education and rabbinic pressure not to report problems within the sect to secular authorities, contribute to silence surrounding the sexual victimization.
"The great part of this case is it empowers the victims and advocates and like-minded people in the community to speak up," says Hirsch. "So long as these stories continue being covered in the media, so long as victims know they aren't alone, reporting of these cases will grow."
The New York Times reported that just before pronouncing the sentence, State Supreme Court Justice John G. Ingram said: "The message should go out to all victims of sexual abuse that your cries will be heard and justice will be done."
Paul Mones, an attorney who specializes in child sex abuse cases, called the long sentence "unique," and said that Ingram's statement was "one of the clearest articulation of what victims have been wanting to hear, but not heard, from the justice system."
Hirsch says he is pleased that Weberman was convicted, but is concerned that the 103- year sentence will backfire.
"Successes such as these present new challenges," he says. "Weberman is a powerful insider. When his supporters see a punishment that is very harsh, it gives their arguments against reporting child molesters to the secular authorities additional strength. They can now shamelessly say it's an 'unfair criminal justice system.' And how can you possibly report a crime when they're treated like that."
Minutes after the verdict was announced, Weberman's supporters took to Twitter to express their outrage:
"BREAKING: Man gets thrown into jail for 103 years based on one girls tears" and "Justice in America, Levi aron 40 years and weberman 103...?????"
Levi Aron is the Orthodox Jewish man who admitted to murdering and dismembering a young boy in July 2011. He was sentenced to 40 years-to-life in prison.