|NEW YORK, Aug. 9 (JTA) — The case
of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox Union official who was accused of molesting
more than 20 teen-age girls over a period of 30 years, was a watershed event
in forcing the centrist Orthodox world to begin dealing more seriously with
What many people found most disturbing about the Lanner case were the allegations that victims' complaints had gone unheeded.
The National Conference of Synagogue Youth Special Commission investigating
the O.U.'s handling of the Lanner case reported that it had received evidence
of four occasions where some leaders were "put on direct and specific notice
of serious sexual misconduct by Lanner, but did not remove him from his position
Lanner, who has kept a low profile in the past year, refused to
be interviewed by the commission, headed by Richard Joel, president and international
director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Instead, Lanner sent the commission a 10-page document stating
in part that, while he denied having committed any crime, he "acknowledges
that in the past his conduct, on occasion, was inappropriate."
Marcie Lenk, one of many women who has publicly accused Lanner
of past sexual abuse, met Lanner when he was a rabbi at Lenk's Orthodox high
school in Paramus, N.J., and also knew him through his work at NCSY.
When Lenk, along with a handful of Lanner's other victims, first
came forward in the late 1980s, "Orthodox rabbis were just not interested
in hearing about it," she said.
Until this year, the O.U. had no system for fielding complaints
and never educated NCSY members about what to do if they were abused or harrassed.
Now, according to O.U. President Harvey Blitz, the group has staff
and adviser training sessions about sexual abuse, formal procedures on sexual
misconduct policies and male and female "ombudsmen" whom teens are instructed
to contact if they are ever "made to feel uncomfortable in any way."
However, many victims and their advocates have criticized the O.U.
for not responding more promptly and for being slow to publicly apologize
for failing to stop Lanner's abuse.
Lanner resigned last summer under pressure — but, some critics
note, he was not fired and has not had his ordination revoked. Lanner's supervisor,
O.U. Executive Vice President Rabbi Raphael Butler, also was not fired, though
when he resigned in December insiders said it was due to pressure from within
the O.U. and centrist Orthodoxy's Rabbinical Council of America.
The Lanner case also showed the shortcomings of relying on the system of Batei Din, or religious courts.
According to Lenk and Dr. Susan Shulman, a pediatrician who served
on the nine-member NCSY Special Commission, one problem with having religious
courts hear such cases is that accusers more frequently are charged with
slander than alleged perpetrators are charged with abuse.
That happened in 1989 to Lenk and Elie Hiller, who has said he was physically assaulted by Lanner.
Lanner also was accused of physically and verbally — though not sexually — abusing boys.
When Hiller heard that an institution in Teaneck, N.J., was considering
hiring Lanner, he wrote a scathing letter detailing some of Lanner's alleged
offenses. In response, Lanner sought to clear his name in a Beit Din at Yeshiva
The Beit Din ordered Lenk and Hiller never to speak publicly about Lanner's alleged abuses, an order they ignored.
According to NCSY Special Commission report, some in the O.U. interpreted
that 1989 ruling as a "complete exoneration of Lanner and as a mandate for
allowing Lanner to continue his work for NCSY."
The court judgment "found some troubling allegations to be true"
but did not address Lanner's suitability as a youth leader. Still, when questions
about Lanner's conduct surfaced, some officials within the O.U. wrongly said
that the rabbinical court — which had disbanded — "was playing an ongoing
role in monitoring Lanner and was approving Lanner's continued employment,"
according to the commission report.
Lanner currently faces charges in a New Jersey court of sexually
abusing two teen-age girls while he was principal of a Jewish day school.
If convicted, he faces up to 40 years in prison. He is pleading not guilty.