A respected religious counselor in New York's ultra-orthodox Jewish community was convicted Monday of repeatedly sexually abusing a young girl who had come to him with questions about her faith.
The Brooklyn courtroom was silent as the foreman said jurors had found Nechemya Weberman guilty of 59 counts, including sustained sex abuse of a child, endangering the welfare of a child and sexual abuse. He faces 25 years in prison on the top charge and may get more time when he is sentenced on January 9.
The 54-year-old defendant looked down as the verdict was announced and glanced briefly back at his family, who held hands, as he was handcuffed and led from the courtroom. Some of the accusers' supporters smiled quietly. The girl's mother, who was not in the courtroom at the time, said later she was weeping tears of joy, according to her friend.
Defense lawyers said the jurors, who deliberated about half a day, did not properly grasp the complicated issues. They plan to appeal.
"We firmly believe that the jury got an unfairly sanitized version of the facts," attorney George Farkas said. "As a result, the truth did not come out and the struggle continues in full force to free this innocent man."
The trial put a spotlight on the insular Satmar Hasidic sect, and its strict rules that govern clothing, social customs and interaction with the outside world.
The accuser, now 18, told authorities that Weberman abused her repeatedly behind his locked office door from the time she was 12 until she was 15. She had been ordered to see him by her school because she had been asking questions about her religion and was dressing immodestly according to the sect's customs, and she needed to be helped back on the right path. Weberman was not a licensed counselor but spent decades working with couples and families in his community.
Assistant District Attorney Linda Weinman said Weberman abused his role as a confidant and teacher, intimidating the girl to satisfy his sexual needs.
"The defendant took this young girl with a fiery spirit and he broke her," Weinman said.
But there was no physical evidence regarding the suspected abuse. Defense attorney Stacey Richman said the case boiled down to a simple "he said," `'she said," and the girl was a petulant, calculating liar.
"The only evidence in this case of sexual abuse is the word of (the girl)," Richman said. "She's making things up in front of you as they occur."
Brooklyn is home to the largest community of ultra-orthodox Jews outside Israel, more than 250,000, and the Satmar sect is one faction clustered mostly in the Williamsburg neighborhood. The group has its own ambulances, volunteer police and rabbinical courts. Women dress modestly and cover their heads. Men wear earlocks and dark clothing. Men and women rarely interact in public; in the packed courtroom, the women sat in one row and the men another even though it often meant Weberman's family sat next to supporters of the girl.
"It's really a sad day for our community that a person did such heinous deeds," said Judy Genut, a Hasidic woman who had been to court to support the young woman. "We are a wonderful people, and a wonderful community, and this has been embarrassing."
Questioning faith or customs is strictly forbidden, according to trial testimony, and the sect has what's known as a "modesty squad" that admonishes followers who break the rules.
The girl, who is now married, testified for four days, chronicling abuse that she said lasted for three years. Weberman would take off her clothes and touch her, force her to perform oral sex and re-enact scenes from porn films, she said. She didn't know what to do; he was a well-respected member of the community, and she was "a piece of dirt," she said.
"My body just froze. I didn't know how to respond," she said. "I just felt I wanted to die."
The allegations surfaced last year when the girl told a guidance counselor at a different school that she'd been molested, and later that she was molested by Weberman. She eventually went to police.
Weberman also testified, saying he "never, ever" abused the girl. Defense attorneys said she was angry that he had betrayed her trust, telling her parents about a boyfriend, and had conspired to help get the boy arrested. The charges were later dropped, and the girl then accused Weberman of sex abuse out of revenge, and a hatred for her community, the defense said.
The guarded society strongly discourages going to outside authorities. The girl testified she was branded a traitor and was shunned for going to police. Her father lost his job and her nieces were kicked out of school, she said. Three men were charged with criminal contempt for photographing the girl and posting her picture online during her testimony. Before the trial, District Attorney Charles Hynes charged other men with trying to bribe her with $500,000 to drop the case.
Genut and other supporters were doubtful that the case would make it easier for others to come forward – but remained hopeful.
"I don't know how it will change," Genut said.
"There is such intimidation to sweep it under the rug," she said. "But it only takes one pioneer."
Hynes said he hoped the courage of the girl, and the trial outcome, would encourage other victims to come forward, and he urged the Satmar community to reform its rules restricting families to go to outside authorities. He said he's not clear how widespread sexual abuse is in the community, but there was at least one more victim of Weberman's who has not come forward.
"What the leaders have to understand is we will never get to the bottom of this until there is total cooperation," he said.