By Shmarya Rosenberg (Failed Messiah blog)
January 26, 2013
A Satmar hasid, Rabbi Nechemya Weberman, was sentenced last week to 103 years in state prison for sexually abusing a hasidic girl for three years, beginning when she was 12-years-old. Many people think that sentence is draconian. But is it?
The Brooklyn DA says he asked for the longest sentence possible and nearly got it; Weberman faced up to 117 years in prison for his crimes. The DA says he asked for this long sentence because sentences for crimes like this are often reduced on appeal. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Weberman's sentence was, in prosecutors' view, typical, and they expect that on appeal it will be reduced to about 50 years, which is also typical.
Haredi leaders from Agudath Israel of America's Rabbi David Zwiebel, Gary Schlesinger who runs a charity controlled by the upstate Aharoni Satmar faction, and NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind all think the sentence is too long and that rather than serving as a deterrent for haredi pedophiles and as encouragement to haredi victims to come forward and report the crimes committed against them to police or the DA, the verdict will have the opposite effect.
They believe that victims will be more afraid than ever to report pedophiles to police because the penalty potentially given these molesters is so draconian.
But that is not the only problem with the sentence.
A sentence that essentially means life in prison for many pedophiles will cause the haredi community to lash out more harshly than ever at victims and activists, making reporting that much more difficult.
Additionally, haredi rabbis will redouble their existing efforts to prevent child sexual abuse from being reported to police or social services. Those efforts infamously include severe rabbinic harassment of victims and victims' families, ordering community shunning, expelling all the children in those families from community schools, and firing parents who hold jobs with community organizations or supporting efforts to launch new businesses to compete with – and hopefully destroy – the businesses owned by victims' parents.
However, many countries, like Britain, penalize child rapists with life in prison. Some countries even put child rapists to death. (That is not possible in the US because the Supreme Court in 2008 in Kennedy v. Louisiana ruled that killing a child rapist was "excessive" and cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Constitution's Eight Amendment.)
Rape of a child is defined broadly in many jurisdictions. In some, any penetration in any orifice – even a tongue inserted into the child's mouth (i.e., French Kissing) is rape. In others, carnal knowledge of a child or indecent contact with a child (performing oral sex on a male child, for example, or forcing or inducing a female child to perform oral sex on an adult male abuser) is classified as child rape.
So an effective life sentence is not an unusual punishment for a child rapist.
Almost everywhere, it is an aggravating factor if the perpetrator has gained access to the child through a position of authority over the child or though force or use of psychological superiority – and this was the true in Weberman's case, as well.
So the bottom line is that an effective life sentence for someone like Weberman who repeatedly sexually abused a young girl several times each week for years on end is not legally excessive or disproportionate, and it doesn't necessarily indicate anti-Satmar bias.
But I do agree with Hikind, Zwiebel and Satmar in this case – something I rarely do.
I think the sentence is counterproductive for all the reasons enumerated above. But I also think all those same reasons will be in play even if Weberman's sentence is reduced to 15 or 20 years in prison – well below the norm for the crimes he committed.
In fact, I believe that even if Weberman got only 10 or 12 years in prison, haredi leaders would still react the same way and so would much of the haredi community.
For them, anything more than what we would consider a slap on the wrist is too much and will be used as an excuse to harass victims, their families and activists.
Nothing will change that, I think, except aggressive prosecution of the DA of that harassment and witness tampering, something DA Charles Hynes has shown himself to be unwilling to do except in two of the most extreme cases. Hynes has ignored the very harassment and witness tampering he condemns, except for some of what took place in the Weberman case – an attempt to bribe the victim with $500,000 to leave the country and not testify against Weberman and an attempt to extort her fiancee (now her husband) by destroying his business. Only the lower level enforcers were arrested; the rabbis who ordered the bribery and extortion have not been arrested or indicted. Neither case has yet been tried.
However, I do oppose the sentence because I believe it is excessive. Why?
Because Weberman was tried for the sexual abuse of one minor. If his other victims – and there are many – would have come forward, an effective life sentence would certainly be appropriate. But they were not able to or willing to come forward because they feared harassment and abuse being heaped on them and their families, just like it was heaped on the victim who did come forward and on her family.
She was described as a missile that was about to land on the Satmar community. She was likened to a prostitute by one of the two Satmar Rebbes and her family's shunning was encouraged by both Satmar leaders. Her mother's business was boycotted and her father's has seen a new Satmar business started in direct competition with it – a violation of Jewish law openly endorsed by the Williamsburg Satmar Rebbe Zalman Leib Teitelbaum. And both parents and her siblings have been shunned.
None of this direct harassment has been prosecuted by Hynes and no arrests have been made.
To some extent this may be due to holes in exiting law that make it harder to prosecute this type of harassment and intimidation than it should be. But Hynes has not even tried to do anything, either to prosecute haredim who behave in this fashion or to get a tougher law passed.
If Hynes was tougher on haredim who harass and intimidate victims and witnesses, more victims would certainly come forward and report their abusers to police or the DA.
That would lead to more convictions and to some real deterrence.
But wouldn't the sentences still be excessive?
Yes, they would be excessive – but still legal.
And that is one out of many examples of why the entire US criminal justice system needs to be revamped.
Prisons should not be hell holes. "Don't drop your soap" jokes should not be relevant, and prisoners should not routinely fear that level of violence from other prisoners.
Prison should be used to, as much as possible, rehabilitate criminals by giving them mandatory mental health counseling, life skill education, and vocational training. Their reentry to free society should come not only with a period of probation, but with ongoing mandatory mental health counseling and life skills support.
Sentences for non-violent criminals should be significantly lower than sentences for violent criminals – except for non-violent criminals whose crimes seriously hurt people or undermines the justice system or society. If your fraud steals 1,000 from 1 million people, perhaps 5 to 10 years is appropriate if this is your first offense; if it steals 1 million dollars each from even one person, perhaps it should be 10 years to 15 years, if it steals 1 million each from 1,000 people, perhaps it should be 20 years to 30 years.
Weberman's crime is – as it righfully should be – classified as violent. So what should he have been sentenced to?
I'm not sure.
By his attitude and his clear lack of remorse, it seems likely that if he got a slap on the wrist and was out on the streets now or in the near future he would re-offend. Pedophilia itself has a high rate of recidivism, no matter the sentence handed down and served.
That argues for a long sentence – perhaps 25 years to life – not as punishment for Weberman's crimes but as protection for what would otherwise probably be his future victims.
In the end, there are no easy answers – just as there are still no haredi leaders who are doing the right things regarding child sexual abuse, including encouraging the reporting those and other crimes to police and doing anything credible to oppose the harassment and extortion of victims and their families and witness tampering.
Until that situation changes (and until haredim stop evading jury duty, an all to common occurrence), haredi leaders and haredim themselves do not have much of a right, if any right at all, to complain about Weberman's sentence.