Some Is Illuminated
Breaking the silence around sexual abuse, one Facebook post at a time
The turn-by-turn breakdown of how abuse gets covered up is a genre that is both distressingly necessary to execute repeatedly and one that crosses closed cultures – football, the Vatican, our own ultra-Orthodox brethren. Abusers take advantage of authority, intimacy, trust; the community denies, protects its own, shames accusers until shamed by outsiders.
When it comes to Brooklyn and when it’s not a hometown paper – when it’s the AP, carried in places where this particular, outrageous permutation is not a familiar pain — you get helpful explanatory dispatches as if from another planet: “Step onto a Williamsburg street and tall guys in skinny jeans and tattoos are mingling with a flush of men in dark coats and hats carrying prayer books and speaking Yiddish. The Hasidic Jews appear to outsiders as though they come from another time,” with itemized clothing customs included.
And there is the obligatory defense that this is a very nice community, shame about the sex abuse cover up. Pearl Engelman, who memorably told the Times, “There is no nice way of saying it… Our community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful,” performs a similar function for the AP, where she is paraphrased as follows: “the community is overwhelmingly good and believes people must be educated about the crime to start standing up for the victims.”
In the meantime, there is the case of 53-year-old Nechemya Weberman, and the occasion is his forthcoming trial for the abuse of a girl whom he was assigned to counsel when she was 12. After the abuse began, the AP reports, “the girl started dressing immodestly, was deemed a troublemaker and removed from her school — one Weberman was affiliated with — and sent to another, family friends said.” The community has rallied around him, and a fundraiser for his defense drew over a thousand.
The accuser’s boyfriend, Hershy Deutsch is one of many connected to her who say they’ve been intimidated, but according to the Guardian, he countered the pro-Weberman headlines in the Orthodox press with a counter-demonstration organized on Facebook. That’s the same space where Horace Mann alumni swarmed over the weekend in response to Israeli-born writer Amos Kamil’s staggering investigation in the New York Times magazine of sexual abuse and misconduct at that school. Groups like “Processing Horace Mann” and individual Facebook pages were the staging ground for intense discussions of the allegations – and more than a few firsthand stories.
There are many differences in the particulars and the mechanisms of secrecy in these upsetting tales, but both show how institutional norms that can be value-neutral or positive – community cohesion, loyalty, respect for authority – are distorted to enable repeat offenders. We keep seeing the rupture of the secrecy that makes it all possible, through journalistic investigation and digital threats to traditional voices. (No wonder some of them would like the latter to go away). The question is, how many times will we have to read the same story before something really changes?
Related: The Horace Mann School’s Secret History of Sexual Abuse [NYT]