For years during and after the abuse, the woman said she would look in the mirror and see “a girl who didn’t want to live in her own skin,” the New York Times reported. “I would cry until the tears ran dry,” she told the court. But now, she said, she can see someone “who finally stood up and spoke out,” on behalf of both herself and “the other silent victims.”
Weberman, an unlicensed therapist, was found guilty in December 2012 of 59 counts of sexual abuse, which carry a maximum combined sentence of 117 years. He was convicted of engaging in sexual misdeeds that included oral sex, groping and acting out pornographic videos, all during the therapy sessions that were meant to help the girl become more religious. The abuse lasted three years.
But as painful as the appearance was at Weberman’s sentencing hearing, so too was the harsh cultural ostracism that the victim and her family suffered for her testimony. As members of the Orthodox Jewish Satmar Hasidic community, the victim told the court, she and her family were harassed and shunned for reporting Weberman, also a member of the Hasidic community. And, according to trial testimony, her parents’ business was threatened, leading to fears that the family would no longer be able to support itself.
The Weberman case is symptomatic of the difficulties that government prosecutors face in bringing sexual assault charges against a member of an insular religious community. As with many communities, the majority of sexual abuse crimes against children go unreported. But in religious communities, the fear of ostracism carries additional weight.
Child abuse experts also say that when there’s one child sexual predator in a religious organization, there could also be more. Sexual predators, they say, tend to hide within a culture or religious hierarchy that either ignores or in some way condones their crimes. Members of religious communities that prefer to resolve their problems internally are particularly disinclined to report sexual predators within their midst, experts say.
“In some ways, religion is a family,” says San Diego forensic psychologist Glenn Lipson, who specializes in sexual misconduct issues. “In families, people can deny something is going on because they don’t want to see it and because admitting it would mean their world would collapse. The same can be true for religious communities, where people celebrate births and marriages together. There can be the same response—deny it, ignore it, reassign people.”
This July, 19 former Yeshiva University High School students filed a federal lawsuit claiming two school rabbis abused them in the 1970s and 1980s. The lawsuit accuses the school’s leadership of ignoring the abuse.
And the vast Roman Catholic Church sexual scandal has shown that childhood sexual abuse can be found in any culture, including one that is founded on religious tenets.
CHANGING POLITICAL EQUATION
“There is a problem that needs to be addressed in society,” says New York City attorney Nathan Dershowitz. “Many religious communities have cultural factors that affect how they react to certain behavior within their community. We in the United States talk about freedom of religion, but we fail to appreciate the way religion affects a community and how it responds to the secular world.”
Marci Hamilton, a law professor specializing in religion and the law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, says there’s mounting political pressure on prosecutors to pursue child sexual abuse cases, no matter what religious group or powerful person is involved.
“My view is that for a long time the public had a Pollyanna attitude toward religion and that Pollyanna attitude toward religion gave cover for religious groups to engage in activities that we now find totally unacceptable,” says Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law.
“But now that we know—through repeated cases and media coverage—that religious leaders are capable of covering up for child predators, the political equation has changed,” Hamilton says. “It is now more politically dangerous to permit the cover-up to continue than it is to prosecute abusers and those who have let abusers have access to children.”
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