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Effects of Cantor's Sexual Abuse Described By Three Of His Victims

Jun 22, 2002 | The Jewish Exponent

Three tearful young women described the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their synagogue''s cantor during a June 7 sentencing hearing for Philip Wittlin.

Wittlin, who for more than 30 years was the cantor of Chisuk Emuna Congregation in Harrisburg, will serve a minimum of 15 months in a state correctional facility and 20 years probation as part of a plea agreement. He was further ordered to pay the costs of prosecution and a number of fines.

Wittlin pleaded guilty in February to a number of charges, including five counts of corruption of minors and two counts of aggravated indecent assault, stemming from the abuse of two girls. He is believed to have abused a handful of other girls since the late 1960s, though the statue of limitations on those crimes has expired.

For three of the victims, their families and supporters, the sentencing hearing proved long and hard. The girls — now ages 13, 18 and 21 — entered the courtroom early in the morning clutching pieces of paper on which they''d written victim-impact statements. But it would take till midafternoon before they could read them to Judge Joseph Kleinfelter.

When they began talking, sobs echoed through the courtroom.

The 13-year-old said, "for the last nine months, I''ve been a scared, depressed young kid. People don''t know the suffering I''ve gone through."

She talked about the friendship her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives, had with Wittlin, and how he seemed like a "pretty nice guy, loved by all."

"I still do not understand why he would do this to me," she said. "I have been depressed, sad and sometimes even angry."

"I''ve tried committing suicide," she added, and suffered nightmares and flashbacks "that scare me."

Sobbing, the girl''s aunt, who also offered a statement, said that Wittlin "was my friend, my clergy and my confidant. He knew my family, my niece, and he took away the innocence of my niece. … Phil, I don''t why [you] would do this to sweet, innocent young girls."

Another of Wittlin''s victims approached the judge and began crying uncontrollably. After a few moments, the judge asked her if she''d like to have the statement read, but the girl said she could do it.

Her voice quavering at times, she said: "I''ve distanced myself from people because I think they will hurt me.

"I feel disgust and anger toward my body. I''m scared to be touched. … I can''t understand why this happened to me or what I did wrong."

In issuing his sentence, Kleinfelter said that "we find that the defendant did promote, for the primary purpose of victimization, his relationship with the victims and their families.

" … For a period of 30 years or more, he took his position of trust and responsibility and used it for his own sexual gratification."

Prior to Kleinfelter''s ruling, Wittlin offered a brief statement. "I know my actions have caused a lot of pain to many people," he said. "I want them to know from the bottom of my heart how sorry I am."

The judge, however, seemed skeptical of his remorse.

Following the formal sentencing, Kleinfelter looked at the defendant and said, "If you''re a man of any character or conscience, your sentence is you''ll have to go through life with the words of these victims ringing in your ears."

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