Thursday, May 17, 2012

An Unlicensed Therapist

53 year old Rabbi Nechemya Weberman (pictured) is a respected Chasidic man who counsels teenagers in his community of Williamsburg. Williamsburg is the enclave of Satmar Chasidim. Rabbi Weberman is unlicensed and does not do this for a living. Nonetheless he seems to have a successful practice there for many years. I suppose that his focus is to keep at risk teenagers on the religious path in a psychologically healthy way. People who know him trust him.

Why an unlicensed non professional is trusted so much is in itself a troubling question, but not unsurprising for a community that takes pride in isolating itself from the rest of the world.

Other than that everything is just fine except for one thing. From the NBC television affiliate in New York:

Weberman was arrested last year after a 16-year-old girl said he forced her to perform oral sex and other acts during counseling meetings.

He has been treating this young teenage girl since she was 12 years old.

Everyone in this community who knows him has been saying that it is impossible that this man did anything like that. He is simply not capable of it. So they decided to have a fund-raiser help him raise money for his defense.

This outraged many victim advocates since the Chasidic community has a history of post abuse – abuse. They refuse to report anyone in their community accused of a sex crime to the police. And if anyone does, they harass them and even ostracize them from their community. This policy was documented in a recent New York Times article.

The fund raiser was announced and posters in Yiddish were put up all over the neighborhood. The alleged victim was branded a liar and considered a traitor to the Chasidic version of Orthodox Jewish belief.

Yesterday, in the heart of Williamsburg thousands of Rabbi Webberman’s supporters showed up to support him–both morally and financially.  But about a hundred countprosters showed up too. They supported the alleged victim. From the New York Times:

They called the girl a liar and got into a dispute with Pearl Engelman, a victims’ advocate who was at the protest. “How do you know he is innocent?” Mrs. Engelman asked. “Because you know him? That is proof?”

Emotions ran high:

At about 8 p.m., a Hasidic man from the fund-raiser rushed the protesters’ barricades. The police grabbed him, put him in handcuffs and led him away. 

No one is more upset than I am at the injustices that communities like this do to victims of abuse and their supporters. No one is more upset than I am at the cover-ups and skewed values that are the cause of that approach.  At the same time I am also very concerned about false accusations. No fair minded person should ignore that possibility. It has happened.

Was this one false? I have no clue. But the fact is that ultimately the right thing was done here. Notwithstanding this community’s chagrin –the crime was reported to the police and Mr. Weberman will have to stand trial. I’m sure they are very angry at that and consider it Mesirah. And I am equally convinced that those responsible will be completely shunned by them. But now justice will be done. 


The question in my mind is whether there was anything wrong with raising funds for Rabbi Weberman’s defense? The answer is – no! Every man accused of any crime in this country is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And every man is entitled to the best defense he can afford. There is nothing wrong with people who believe in his innocence to raise funds for his defense. In my view the counter-protest that was done with the best of intentions was misplaced.

If this man is guilty it will come out in court. If there is evidence of abuse it will be presented. If there are other victims they should be encouraged to testify about a pattern of abuse. I have not heard anything about other victims.

Let the advocates use their energies to help the prosecution do their job rather than protest the perfectly legitimate right of others to support someone they believe is innocent.

I am with victims advocates on many fronts. I supported the Markey Bill that would have extended the statute of limitations for victims to sue their abusers and enablers. I support the idea of reporting abusers to the police without any delays or detours. I support identifying arrested abusers so that the public can be better protected. I abhor the obstacles being put in the way of victims getting justice by any community. And I abhor the overall disdain Chasidim in particular have for American secular authorities - as though they were living in Czarist Russia!

I completely sympathize with the feelings of the protesters. They have seen time and again one obstacle after another placed in front of victims by communities like this. So it is understandable that they come out strongly in support of the alleged victim.

But I do not support protesting a fundraising event for the defendant. The protesters have no current way of knowing all the facts of the case. Let the justice system take its course. Let the prosecutors do their job. Rabbi Weberman deserves his day in court. And he deserves the same right to counsel that every other citizen accused of a crime does.

If he’s found guilty, let him rot in jail. If his is found not guilty – he ought to be left alone and allowed to restore his reputation. One thing is certain. Life will never be the same for this man again.

Update: After reading some of the comments, I have to agree that the public nature of this fundraiser could very likely have been a form of harassment against the victim and her supporters. So at the end of the day, there was a positive benefit to their protest. But that does not detract from the problem of protesting the fundraiser itself. That still makes it look like the protesters have already judged the defendant guilty and want to undermine his defense. And that takes away from their credibility.

What I do hope happens is that the energy expended here continues at trial and that the victim will have as many supporters present in the courtroom as the defendant will.