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Lewiston sexual assault case gaining in national attention

A judge's gavel

An official complaint has been lodged against Niagara County Judge Matthew Murphy in the case of Christopher Belter, 20, of Lewiston. The case is gaining national attention, as Belter twice received probation for sexual assaults against four teenage girls instead of jail time.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly talked with John Bellochio, New Jersey's co-director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which filed the complaint Sunday.

WBFO's Marian Hetherly talks with John Bellochio, New Jersey's co-director of SNAP

MH: So this case is a little complicated because first there was the admission of guilt back in 2019. There was a plea deal, on which Christopher Belter received two years interim probation. And last month, he admitted to violating his probation by watching online porn. Judge Murphy this time required Belter to register as a sex offender, but also gave him probation — this time, eight years. And you guys now have filed an official complaint against judge Murphy. Can you explain what that is, please, and why you filed it?

JB: The complaint basically says that Judge Murphy's decision batters the integrity of the judicial system and undermines people's faith in it. And that was filed with the state of New York yesterday. Judicial code of conduct, per the rules of the chief judge of the State of New York, requires a judge to at all times create the appearance of integrity, and all of their actions must underscore the integrity of equal justice under law and must advocate for a justice system that serves all the people well. We don't see the victims being served well by that (probation) and, from everything that I have read the victims have said, certainly the victims seem to agree with that statement.

MH: However, this originally came about because of a plea deal back in 2019. Shouldn't the criticism be directed towards that instead of Judge Murphy?

JB: No, the judge has the ability to reject the plea deal. The judge has the ability to send the attorneys back and to renegotiate once. That was not done and they chose to proceed. The bottom line is Judge Murphy said he agonized over the sentence he imposed and he said that he wasn't ashamed to admit that. And then you look at what the survivors say. And I thought that they wrote the crimes were so sick, nothing could save them. So they thought, after four years this would happen is incredibly insulting. So the plea bargain shouldn't have been made. And the sentence that was given out does not restore people's confidence in the justice system. That's not exactly a winning sign for American democracy. Because it used to be in times past, when the legislative legislative branch went off the rails and the executive branch went off the rails, Americans looked at the Supreme Court and the judiciary to be the neutral first chamber of sober second thought. Clearly, that's not the case here.

MH: Will you be filing a complaint against those involved in the original plea deal? There is a code of conduct for attorneys.

JB: Yes, there are codes for attorneys, but the reality is whether or not that plea deal was accepted by the bench. That was up to judge Murphy,

MH: It was a difficult case, because all of those involved were under age 18 at the time of the assaults. However, some are pointing towards the fact that this is a white young man and he is from a well-to-do family. Did that play somewhat in your complaint? Or is it from your perspective as a survivor of priest abuse?

JB: His financial standing has nothing at all to do with that. I mean, I wouldn't care if you lived under a bridge. It's still inappropriate.

MH: And you also mentioned that, even though Judge Murphy is scheduled for his mandatory retirement at the end of this month, that he should be suspended immediately, correct?

JB: I stand by the statement that Judge Murphy should take stock of what's around him and do the right thing and just step off the bench now, because that would seem to be the best sort of obvious reward. Or if not, then the chief judge should suspend him from the bench, pending his retirement.

MH: Why is a New Jersey network of priest abuse survivors choosing to get involved in this sexual assault case here in New York?

JB: Because victims are victims, okay? Victims are victims, regardless of where victimized or by whom. The reason victims don't come forward against the church is exactly because of things like this. The fear that the old boys network will protect them, with fear that judges are aligned with the powerful and that they will not be taken seriously, if they're in belief at all. And, you know, regarding this being in New York, it wouldn't matter to me if the judge gave the decision on Jupiter, it doesn't matter. Sexual assault knows no state boundary.

We look at the terrible incident that happened with the football players in Ohio, where the young lady was taken across state lines, to West Virginia. Thousands of people from throughout the country involved themselves in that matter, as they should have, because locally, nothing was happening. And eventually, people were removed from their positions. And over time, that small river community in Ohio will heal. So justice doesn't know the boundary, doesn't know where the state line is. That's not the way that I operate and I don't know many advocates for justice of do operate that way. And if you look at this case, and you look at it from beginning to end, you say, well, this kid, his family has social standing, not even him. Imagine if I accused Monsignor so and so.

MH: Is there anything else that you wanted to say about this case, about your group?

JB: Yes, there is something else I'd like to say about this case. This case proves what underscores why so many victims are afraid to come forward at various different junctures in times, because of the system. The system is stacked against them. The system is politicized. The system is integrated into social standing, and therefore the victims have a terrible fear that powerful people will not be held to account. And while this young man's family may have a great deal of influence in that part of New York State, Niagara County, there are people who have claims against various archbishops cardinals, etc., who are significantly more influential and powerful than these people sitting in Niagara County. And if the proper sentence can't even be administered in the interest of justice for something like this, somebody out there is thinking, well, who's going to believe it when I accuse this high-ranking prophet who abused me or covered up my abuse? And so that's why it's important that we continue to do these things.