What goes through the mind of someone who tries to bully a woman who says she has been sexually assaulted into staying quiet? What about adults who turn on a child who says that he or she has been hurt? Have they really persuaded themselves that the attacker is innocent, sometimes even as they try to shut down the most preliminary investigation? Do they believe fully that something happened, and would even concede that it was bad—just not worth punishing or embarrassing or even inconveniencing the perpetrator? Is the problem that doing so would disrupt the order of their own world, their office or family gatherings, their place of worship or locker rooms? Even then, why do they get angry at the victim, rather than at the perpetrator?
That is the great remaining question in a case in Brooklyn that concluded on Tuesday. Nechemya Weberman, who had been found guilty of fifty-nine counts of child sexual abuse, was sentenced to a hundred and three years in prison. The victim and her family, like Weberman, are members of the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg—which came together to lash out at her, not to protect her. The girl, who is now eighteen, testified in open court, even as Weberman’s supporters took photographs of her on the stand (for which they are now facing contempt charges). She described how she was abused for three years, starting when she was twelve, in what were supposed to be therapy sessions required by her school. With the door closed, Weberman forced her to perform oral sex on him and act out pornography. When she went to a different school and talked to its therapist, the story came out. Although Weberman’s trial is over, four other men have been charged with witness-tampering after they were, according to prosecutors, recorded alternately threatening and trying to bribe the young man to whom she is now married. Among other things, they allegedly said that they’d arrange for the café he managed to lose its kosher certification, and pushed the couple to leave the country. (They have pleaded not guilty.)
But the shakedown visits were only part of it. Almost more confounding than what some of Weberman’s associates are charged with doing in a private room is what the girl’s neighbors had no hesitation about doing in public. Her family was openly scorned. Thousands of people showed up at a local wedding hall to raise money for Weberman. According to the Times, “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 real accusation seems to have been that she pursued charges rather than, say, talk to a rabbi. The Weberman trial came at a juncture when the failure of the Brooklyn D.A.’s office to prosecute child-sexual-abuse cases in the Orthodox community had become conspicuous. This was made clear by a two-part series last spring, in the Times, which drew on years of reporting by Jewish community papers and efforts by victims to be heard. The belief of rabbinical authorities that they, and not the civil system, should handle (or, too often, cover up) such cases was central, but the enforcement mechanism was the pressure of neighbors and colleagues, which could be frank in its cruelty.
In the Weberman case, prosecutors reportedly know of more alleged victims who were too afraid to come forward. The D.A.’s office had, for years, treated the fear of victims as an out, rather than as an impetus for their own action. In that sense, the witness-tampering case now pending might be as significant as that of Weberman himself.
This isn’t just about the Hasidic community, or even just closed religious communities more generally. Along with the news about the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o—that his supposed girlfriend, a car-crash and leukemia victim, was a hoax—were reminders of the actual death of a real young woman, Elizabeth Seeberg. She said that a Notre Dame player had assaulted her; she was answered with texts telling her, “Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea,” and foot-dragging from the campus police. They only interviewed the player after she had killed herself. Victims remember what happens to victims—one reason that isolation can be an enemy of justice. Melinda Henneberger, who has reported extensively on the Notre Dame case, described an incident a few months after Seeberg’s death, in which a freshman told her R.A., who then drove her to the hospital, that she had been raped by a football player:
I also spoke to the R.A.’s parents, who met the young woman that same night, when their daughter brought her to their home after leaving the hospital. They said they saw—and reported to athletic officials—a hailstorm of texts from other players, warning the young woman not to report what had happened: “They were trying to silence this girl,” the R.A.’s father told me. And did; no criminal complaint was ever filed.
The freshman told the R.A. that she’d thought of what had happened to Seeberg. It is worth considering that “hailstorm of texts from other players” alongside the team’s participation regarding Manti Te’o. As Gail Collins of the Times noted, the original narrative of Te’o’s relationship glorified the image of “a girlfriend so lacking in neediness that you don’t even have to visit her in the hospital while she’s in a coma followed by leukemia”—or miss a practice to attend her funeral. Concurrent with that is the way even friends can turn on a woman who needs—and deserves—help. But there is something far more profound at stake than the choice between a person you’ve decided makes your life more complicated and one who, you think, makes it easier or just leaves it unchanged. The attraction of smooth surfaces—complicity disguised as politeness—can be the most corrupting thing of all, leaving one in dark and distorted place.
Why is the victim treated as the troublemaker? There is moral laziness, and a deferral to privilege, to tradition, or to one’s own interests, that disguises itself as loyalty, from Williamsburg to South Bend. And there is the illusion that being community-minded means protecting the strongest, rather than the most vulnerable members of a community.