The conviction of prominent Satmar Hasidic school counselor Nechemya Weberman for child sex abuse caps a year in which giant strides were taken to push back the sex abuse of children in institutional settings. Weberman is a depraved pedophile who deserves the maximum sentence, but the most important part of this story lies in the facts that the Brooklyn District Attorney finally brought a prosecution against someone in the politically-powerful Satmar community, and that the victim’s family stood behind her.
Before this case, the situation was bleak in the Satmar community, where members, led by their rabbis, shared a commitment to keeping sex abuse and incest a secret from the outside world. The rabbis had the hubris to place the religious enclave above the needs of each child, thereby giving pedophiles like Weberman the space they needed to prey on children. With this brave survivor pressing charges, and a conviction successfully procured, we moved closer to justice for the victims in this insular community.
Moreover, there were other signs arising from this case that tell us that the world has forever changed for such victims. Not only did the victim here step forward, as so many have now done in the institutions that have covered up abuse, but her family supported her. Her mother actually applauded her daughter’s bravery, and her parents stood behind her. That is a sign of a shift in the tectonic plates of our society.
Like the game-changing documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, which I reviewed in this prior column here at Justia’s Verdict, this case educated the public once again about the features of the abuse that happens in close-knit communities.
The predators are wily, as they place themselves in positions of authority where a child has few defenses, and then look for the child who is different, and unlikely to fight back. In this case, the girl who suffered abuse had asked innocent, but probing questions about religion at her school, and was rewarded by being sent to counselor Weberman, along with criticism and a sense that the principal did not approve of her. She was labeled a “rebel,” although her mother now explains that, “She wasn’t a rebel at all. She was a shy, very smart child. She likes to know. Very bright child.”
The Groundwork That Has Allowed Child Sex Abuse Prosecutions to Be Brought Even Against Religious Authority Figures
The groundwork for this historic case has been laid over the last decade, starting with the now-iconic Boston Globe revelations about the Catholic bishops’ complicity in the sex abuse of children by priests in the Boston Archdiocese. As that story was replicated in one American diocese after another, the public became more and more educated about such crimes, and the victims in other institutions started to emerge from the shadows. Now, virtually every religious organization has had to deal with this issue in some form. And those with theological beliefs that require them to keep scandal from seeping outside the organization, like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have had pronounced problems.
Just over a year ago, that pattern was also revealed at Penn State, where football was tantamount to a religion, and where the men in power permitted children to suffer while protecting the team, or, in other words, their own power. When the Jerry Sandusky story broke, you did not need a playbook to understand it, because the pattern of abuse and cover-up had been laid out, in all of its details, in one religious organization after another.
This past summer, the Summer of 2012 saw the parallel tracks of the criminal acts in the Catholic Church and Penn State cases intersect when on the very same day, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse, and Msgr. William Lynn was convicted of covering up abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, as I discussed in this column. We now await in 2013 the trials of the high-level administrators who contributed to making the conditions right for Sandusky to abuse multiple children.
Then, the Fall of 2012 witnessed the historic release of the Boy Scouts’ “perversion files,” which document decades of knowledge of abuse by Scout leaders in the organization, and, as usual, far too little attention paid to the protection of the children in the organization’s care. The first case in Philadelphia was filed yesterday.
In another leap forward when it come to educating the public on this issue, next week, finally, the secret archive files of the Catholic Church’s Los Angeles Archdiocese will be released to the public, as part of the Church’s historic settlement, five year ago, with hundreds of clergy child-sex-abuse survivors. The Church paid quickly, but then litigated and stalled on the files, proving that these institutions are far more invested in retaining their secrets than they are in compensating their victims.
These issues have seeped into every part of our culture. Yesterday, I was at a meeting where one of the ground rules that were laid down by the organizer was “ELMO,”an acronym allowing a participant to be able to say “Enough, let’s move on,” if the discussion got bogged down. That used to be a cute acronym, reminding us of the lovable Sesame Street character. Sadly, it is now a reminder that four victims now have come out, accusing Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash, of sexual abuse. All of our sacred spaces have been defiled by the screed of child sex abuse, but survivors are taking back the space as their own, and demanding true justice from a society that has let them suffer in silence for decades.
The Final Two Frontiers When It Comes to Child Sex Abuse in America: Combatting Incest and Effecting Legal Reform
Two frontiers still remain in the fight against child sex abuse in America. The first is the place that hosts even more abuse than our revered institutions do: the home. Incest is still a nearly-taboo word, and those victims have had the hardest time going public, in part because they are dependent on their abusers, and in part because they are so isolated. But many, like “The 5 Browns,” a classical piano group composed of five siblings, have done so.
There is much to be done to improve our culture’s reporting of abuse, as well as our safety net for kids who are being abused. The answer does not lie in expediencies that would only make the family stay together at a profound expense to the abused child. The family institution, like the large institutions involved in child sex abuse, does not deserve abject deference when a child is being hurt.
The second frontier is the legal reform that is needed to stop the abuse, deter the institutions the first instinct of which is self-preservation, and punish the adults who perpetrate abuse or create the conditions for it. Institutions are fighting against such reforms, with the Catholic bishops most recently driving the Pennsylvania Task Force off-track on the issue of statute-of-limitations reform. The Task Force’s Report, which contains reforms that are no-brainers and should have been passed years ago, eschews statute-of-limitations “window” legislation that would create opportunities for victims whose cases would otherwise have ben barred by statutes of limitations to obtain justice. The contention of the bishops is that creating such a window is “unconstitutional.” But under Pennsylvania law, that is a lie, and one that is perpetrated regularly, and only, by the bishops. We will know that the era of institution-based child sex abuse is over when legislators listen to survivors, not bishops, on this one issue.
Right now, in Massachusetts, survivors, their supporters, and many organizations that are intent on the protection of children, are rightfully demanding that the state legislature finally enact proposed statute-of-limitations window legislation, which I discussed in this column. It is a simple procedural fix that grants the victims who have been shut out of court the ability to choose justice. The vast majority of victims, in most states, have been shut down by a system that gives pedophiles a free pass when the statute of limitations expires on their victims’ claims. Institutions that have covered up abuse prefer to keep their victims out of court, but legislators are finally coming to the victims’ rescue. Massachusetts may well lead the way for the victims at the end of 2012, by enacting child-sex-abuse statute-of-limitations reform, which would only make sense, given that the avalanche of public information about the realities of child sex abuse started in Boston in 2002.
Similar legislation was passed in Hawaii in April, with victims already naming a bishop and non-Catholic perpetrators. In addition, measures to the same effect await passage in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. If all goes as planned in the state legislature, then one year from now, I intend to write a column declaring 2013 the Year of Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims.