SALT LAKE CITY — For most of his life, Rabbi Avrohom “Avremi” Zippel could not look his abuser in the eye.
As a child, he had a pit in his stomach each morning she arrived at his family’s Salt Lake City home. As a teenager returning from a religious boarding school to find her there, his cheeks flushed and he stared at his shoes. Even as a young leader in Utah’s Orthodox Jewish community, he avoided her gaze.
That changed about two years ago when his former longtime nanny, Alavina Fungaihea Florreich, first appeared in court to face seven felony charges tied to yearslong sexual abuse of the young Zippel. In the initial hearing, Florreich became the one to avoid his gaze, he recalled just before she was sentenced Thursday to 25 years and up to life in the Utah State Prison.
“I saw myself for who I was, and not for the version of myself you had created in both of our heads,” the rabbi told his former caretaker in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. Where she had seen terror, shame and powerlessness, he saw strength, hope and determination.
A jury in November found Florreich, 70, guilty of five counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony, and two counts of forcible sex abuse, a second-degree felony.
Rabbi Zippel’s decision to come forward publicly in a February 2019 Deseret News article also set off a #MeToo movement within the Orthodox Jewish world. He didn’t know of anyone in his own religious community who had been through the same thing, he has said, and he wanted to be able to comfort others.
He won the support of other high-profile survivors. Elizabeth Smart has praised his courage and attended a 2019 hearing in which he testified, and Deondra Brown was among his supporters in the courtroom Thursday, her eyes liquid.
Rabbi Zippel said he now plans to support others in similar ways.
“There is good that can be accomplished here,” he said outside the courtroom. “Why I had to be the one to have to undergo that sort of childhood to bring about that good is mysterious to me. I do feel like it’s my responsibility to figure that out — to the best of my ability — for the rest of my life.”
Rabbi Zippel testified at trial that the sexual encounters with his former nanny first began when he was 8 years old and Florreich guided his hand to touch her inappropriately while watching a movie. It continued over nearly a decade, mostly in a guest bathroom at his home.
Whole Florreich admitted to some of the sexual contact in a 2018 interview with Salt Lake police, she insisted she was responding to the child’s curiosity. Her attorneys argued she was simply trying to appease the child in order to keep her job.
Rabbi Zippel acknowledged he sometimes sought out the contact and took steps to keep the encounters secret, even though his faith strictly forbid such contact. On Thursday, he described the torment he felt as a child, fearing he might die as punishment for his behavior. As he grew older, a self-loathing internal voice never fully quieted despite strong support from his family.
In an impassioned statement, the rabbi told his former caretaker he forgives her, in large part so that he can heal.
But Rabbi Zippel said Thursday he endured another form of abuse at trial as defense attorneys characterized him as an aggressor who pressured his nanny to engage in sexual contact and later sought out #MeToo stardom, a legal strategy he fears might silence other victims.
Florreich, originally of Tonga but a longtime Utah resident, wept throughout the hearing and maintained her behavior was not criminal.
“Your honor, I’m asking you to please have mercy on me. I’m old and so helpless,” she said. Her husband of 46 years is sick, she added. “This has been the longest and hardest time for us, to be separated when I’m in jail.”
She thanked the Zippel family for employing her and said she believed it to be part of a joke when she touched the child. Her husband Rodger Florreich called the charges “ridiculous” and said he and his wife lived in Utah for 25 years, with smaller stints in Tonga, Australia, Chicago and Arizona.
“Wherever we went and lived, everyone adored Vina,” he said, sobbing. “There has only been one person who had a grudge against her.”
Her attorney Jonathan Nish asked the judge for the minimum possible sentence, calling Florreich someone “who has done an extraordinary amount of good throughout her life” and noting there’s a chance that his 70-year-old client could die in prison.
Just before sentencing Florreich, 3rd District Judge Vernice Trease said a defendant must accept responsibility in order to receive probation and treatment instead of prison time for some of her convictions.
“That is not something that has been shown in this case,” Trease said.
She ordered Florreich to consecutive terms of least five years and up to life in the Utah State Prison for each count of aggravated sexual abuse; plus concurrent terms of at least one and up to 15 years for the remaining two counts.