Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Brooklyn district attorney, facing a wave of public criticism about his handling of sexual abuse allegations in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, has 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, says 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 Weberman, and then said that she was abused by him during therapy sessions. The charges are the first time in at least two decades that Hynes has charged Hasidic Jews with intimidation of a witness in a sexual abuse case, even though victims, their advocates and prosecutors say that intimidation has long been a major obstacle to prosecution of abuse among ultra-Orthodox Jews. Recently, Hynes has been saying that the intimidation of witnesses in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is worse than in the world of organized crime. 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 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 that 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 have pleaded not guilty in a Brooklyn courtroom packed with benches full of their supporters, dressed in the dark clothing worn by Hasidic men. A prosecutor, Josh Hanshaft, said that 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, 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. The intimidation charges, a moment of triumph for 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 Jewish community. Now, Hynes’s office is suffering an embarrassing reversal in another abuse case involving an Orthodox Jewish accuser. After revelations that Hynes’s office had failed to share exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys, lawyers said that all charges against four black 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 Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, by her Williamsburg religious school. Her parents were told that she would be expelled from school unless they paid $150 an hour for him to provide her with therapy. Instead, 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 girl then changed schools and told a licensed therapist what had happened. The therapist reported the girl’s allegations to the police. After Weberman’s arrest in 2011, a campaign of intimidation began against the accuser, her boyfriend and her family members. Prominent Hasidic Jews publicly proclaimed their support for Weberman, and, on May 16, 2012 hosted hundreds of Hasidic men at a local wedding hall to raise money for 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. Men from the neighborhood had offered him $500,000 if he could persuade the girl to drop her case. Victims’ advocates said that they were glad that 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 Hynes for bringing the intimidation case, because, he said, “in the Williamsburg Hasidic community, intimidation is rampant.”

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