After months of anticipation, a 17-year-old girl took the stand in the sexual abuse trial of a respected counselor from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community that authorities say has historically avoided such prosecutions by keeping members quiet.
In a packed courtroom filled mostly with her supporters, the teen took the stand against Nechemya Weberman, an unlicensed religious counselor in the Satmar community, an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism.
Weberman is accused of sexually abusing the girl dozens of times in his home and office over a three-year span beginning when she was 12 years old. The girl, who turns 18 next week, is not being identified because she is the victim of a sexual-abuse crime.
The teen testified she was taken to see Weberman after school leaders deemed her a problem after she questioned her religion.
“I had a lot of questions about religion. … How do you know God exists?” she said, adding that in response her teacher “yelled at me and sent me to the principal. It happened to me a lot of times.”
She started seeing Weberman in March 2007, first twice a week and sometimes up to four times a week.
Speaking in almost inaudible tones and at times struggling to hold back tears, she described the alleged abuse in detail for more than three hours.
“I just froze,” she said about their first encounter. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know how to fight back. I was numb.”
“He would continue touching me all the time,” she said, adding later, “I wanted to die rather than live with myself.” The testimony brought many in the audience to tears, with court officers having to quiet attendees for whispering loudly during breaks in testimony.
The case is one of the few that Brooklyn prosecutors say they have been able to bring to fruition because going after sexual predators in the community has been difficult without cooperation from residents.
In the lead up to the trial, District Attorney Charles Hynes said prosecutions in the community can be more difficult than even organized-crime investigations, in which he can at least offer a witness-protection program.
The case has caused deep divisions among Williamsburg’s Hasidim, with some rallying behind Weberman, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense and subjecting the accuser to threats and name-calling.
Four men were charged earlier this year after they allegedly tried to buy the silence of the girl and her now-husband. The girl was married in October.
On Tuesday, the girl talked about what a difficult decision it was to have to testify against Weberman.
The girl testified that her parents had suggested she drop the case as recently as six months ago, taking her to a Rabbi, who tried to get her to drop the case.
When asked by a prosecutor what was the benefit of proceeding, she answered, “peace.”
Asked about the pressure to drop the case, she gave several examples, including “intimidation,” “intimidation of my parents,” “loss of business,” “having my nieces kicked out of school.”
Defense attorneys have argued that the girl has singled out Weberman and the Satmar religious community because of its ultra-orthodox policies.
Tuesday is the second day of a trial that is expected to last a week. Weberman is also expected to take the stand in his defense.
Prosecutors finished their direct examination Tuesday morning. The girl is back on the stand Tuesday afternoon, being questioned by Weberman’s attorneys.