Friday, April 26, 2002

Pressure Builds on O.U. Ahead of Rabbi's Sex Abuse Trial

Pressure Builds on O.U. Ahead of Rabbi's Sex Abuse TrialBy Nacha Catton
Forward - April 26, 2002

With the sex abuse trial of former Orthodox Union youth group leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner set to start June 3, alleged victims are claiming that the organization has not done enough to address the scandal.

Several of Lanner's alleged victims say the O.U. has yet to apologize officially or accept blame for failing to remove Lanner, who allegedly abused dozens of young people over a 30-year period as the director of regions of the union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

They are also calling on the O.U. to announce publicly that it will, regardless of the outcome of Lanner's legal trial, stand by the conclusions of a special commission appointed by the organization which determined that Lanner had been sexually, physically and emotionally "abusive."

The union was generally praised for the recent appointment of Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb as the its top professional and for several recent reorganizational steps. But with the national media often invoking the Lanner case in their reports on the spreading sexual abuse and cover-up scandal in the Catholic Church, several critics claim that the organization still seems more worried about protecting its reputation than in making redress to current youth group members and Lanner's alleged victims.

"The O.U. is more concerned with being sued than with any sense of justice or decency or caring about the victims," said Marcie Lenk, a doctoral candidate in religion at Harvard University. Lenk alleges that when she was a teenager active in NCSY in New Jersey, Lanner constantly made lewd comments to her, and would rub up against her while they passed through doorways.

"The O.U. should be saying, 'The trial is irrelevant,'" said Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual counselor to students at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. "They should say, 'We accept the report. We recognize all these people are victims and whatever happens in this trial will not change the fact that this man will have nothing to do with Jewish children.'"

In response to the complaints, O.U. President Harvey Blitz said, "I have apologized on behalf of myself and the organization many times. Maybe I haven't captured the right words, but I've tried to convey a deep felt sorrow and regret over what happened. We should have responded to what we knew quicker and more firmly as an organization. We have organizational responsibility for what happened."

Richard Joel, chair of the special commission and an outspoken critic of the way the O.U. initially handled the scandal, came to the organization's defense.

"The O.U. is really en route to taking serious steps to see that [such abuses] do not recur. I don't think there should be any fear that Baruch Lanner will be back at work at the O.U. or anywhere else," said Joel, who is also president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. "I made a statement a few months ago that I'm impatient, but I know what it takes to evolve a culture of an organization, and I think they should be given an opportunity to move to their next step."

Lanner, who resigned from NCSY in 2001, has pleaded innocent to charges that he fondled two female students while principal of Hillel Yeshiva in Monmouth County, N.J.

Several alleged victims and their supporters worry that if Lanner is acquitted in the trial, which focuses only on the charges brought by the two girls, he will challenge the findings of the O.U. commission, which stated that Lanner "engaged in a pattern of inappropriate and abusive behavior (emotional, physical, and sexual) towards a number of NCSY students." Critics want the O.U. to state publicly that it will stand by the commission's report even if Lanner is found not guilty.

Asked whether the O.U. should make such a statement, Joel said, "Frankly, I think it's important to distance the way the Jewish community deals with the issue of Jewish education from the particulars of the trial involving Baruch Lanner."

Critics of the O.U. say that fears of potential lawsuits have prevented the organization from issuing an adequate apology and accepting responsibility for the scandal.

"Their general apologies are very carefully worded so as not to presume any guilt on their part," Lenk said. "Many people are still in power in the O.U. who were vehicles through whom Lanner was able to hurt people."

"There may be lawsuits to force them to take responsibility," Lenk said. Asked if she plans to sue, Lenk said, "We'll see."

Weinreb, the O.U.'s executive vice president, told the Forward that his organization is committed to following the commission's recommendation regardless of the court's verdict. "The Lanner trial, whatever its outcome, will not affect our commitment to zero tolerance of any kind of abuse," Weinreb said. "We stand by the commission report."

But another of Lanner's alleged victims, Elie Hiller, from the northern New Jersey township of Teaneck, is not impressed with the steps taken by the O.U.

"There are a lot of apologetic words but no accountability for their actions and inactions," Hiller said, referring to public apologies from Blitz.

In one letter sent by O.U. to complainants who spoke with the special commission, the organization stated, "We apologize from the depths of our hearts and souls. And as an expression of this regret, we pledge to attempt to learn from the past."

Hiller derided the apology as insufficient. "That's like me hitting you over the head with a baseball bat and saying I'm sorry you're hurt instead of I'm sorry I harmed you," Hiller said.

Several of the commission recommendations have already been implemented, including the appointment of a neutral ombudsman and ombudswoman to receive complaints of abuse. Local commissions are being established to give parents a greater say in how the youth group is run and group leaders have been receiving training in a variety of areas related to abuse prevention.

But Blau has already called into question the neutrality of the newly appointed ombudswoman. Blau complained that she previously worked as a school psychologist at Manhattan Day School under Rabbi David Kaminetsky, who was the principal at the time and is now the national director of NCSY.

Kaminetsky responded: "She's absolutely independent. There's no relationship now. I have 30 years of experience in the field and contact with many other people. We chose her because we knew she could do the job."

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