The umbrella organization for nearly 1,000 American Orthodox synagogues is promising change in the wake of a long-awaited report highly critical of the movement’s handling of complaints about the sexual abuse of teen-agers.
The talk of change – along with an apology for past mistakes – came in response to the report, released this week, critiquing the Orthodox Union’s failure to discipline a high-ranking staff member who for years allegedly sexually harassed and molested teen-agers in its youth group.
The group says it is beginning a “review of its leadership” and will revamp its management and governance.
The O.U.-commissioned report, and the response, are expected to dominate the organization’s biennial convention this weekend in Rye, N.Y., a suburb of New York City.
But it is unclear at this point whether the response will include disciplining or firing specific individuals, what the timetable is for changes and whether the organization will be able to restore its tarnished credibility in the Jewish world.
The 54-page public report is a summary of a much longer document culminating from a four-month investigation by special commission appointed by the O.U. The O.U. is keeping under wraps that document, which includes names of victims and details of the alleged misconduct as well as what O.U. officials “knew or should have known” about Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
The commission, headed by Richard Joel, the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was appointed this summer following a series of articles that appeared in the New York Jewish Week about Lanner, a longtime professional with the Orthodox movement’s youth group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.
The Jewish Week articles, based on interviews with more than 12 former NCSY members, told of Lanner kissing and fondling scores of teen-age girls, repeatedly kicking boys in the groin, wielding a knife against a young man and propositioning girls.
The sources, many of whom allowed their names to be published, told the Jewish Week they were angry and frustrated at the O.U.’s failure to act on complaints about Lanner’s behavior.
Lanner, a charismatic figure with a reputation for being able to spark enthusiasm for traditional Jewish observance, resigned the day after the article was published and refused to be interviewed by the special commission.
However, his lawyer sent the commission a 10-page document stating in part that, while Lanner denies having committed any crime, he “acknowledges that in the past his conduct, on occasion, was inappropriate.”
Approximately 40,000 teens and children participate in NCSY activities.
The commission report, based on interviews with 175 people, finds Lanner guilty of several kinds of abuse and asserts that “certain members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership share responsibility for Lanner’s misconduct,” which occurred over a period of 30 years.
Although focusing on the O.U.’s response to Lanner, the report also notes a larger problem of “poor management practices,” a lack of accountability by professionals to volunteer leadership, lack of involvement by lay leaders in matters of governance, lack of financial controls and a “total absence of any policies regarding basic ethical issues” in both the O.U. and NCSY.
It also urges the O.U. to “hold individuals who failed to take action against Lanner responsible for their conduct,” but does not specify how.
Among the report’s key findings:
Lanner sexually abused women and teen-age girls, physically abused boys and girls, “attempted to control the lives of NCSY students” and “initiated sexual discussions with girls.” He also behaved in a generally “crude and vulgar” fashion and engaged in various financial misconduct, including possible theft of funds solicited as NCSY contributions.
The O.U. and NCSY had direct knowledge of Lanner’s sexual abuse of girls, yet the professional leadership failed to communicate critical information to the lay, or voluntary, leadership.
Senior O.U. and NCSY professionals “misrepresented” findings of a 1989 rabbinical court ruling on Lanner’s behavior, inaccurately telling people that the ruling served as a mandate for Lanner to continue his employment and that his behavior was being monitored by the rabbinical court.
The O.U. and NCSY lost objectivity in evaluating Lanner because of a “perception that he was indispensable” and because of his “personal relationships with management.” In addition, the O.U. and NCSY “failed to foster an environment in which students and advisors felt free to report misconduct without suffering retribution.”
The O.U. and NCSY’s management and structure have not kept up with growth – both lack effective management structures, lines of reporting, accountability and evaluation, effective training programs, financial controls and policies and procedures governing critical issues.
The report offers a number of specific recommendations for both the O.U. and NCSY, mainly in strengthening the management structure to allow greater accountability, drafting a code of conduct and implementing formal policies for addressing complaints about staff members.
It is unclear the extent to which the recommendations will be implemented and how soon.
The O.U. has appointed a 13-member committee of board members to review the report and recommend how to implement it, said the O.U.’s president of six years, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow.
Asked whether any O.U. employees will be disciplined or fired as a result of the report, Ganchrow said in an interview Tuesday that is “part of the area we’re considering.”
Ganchrow expressed confidence that the O.U. would restore its credibility and noted that participation rates in NCSY – and even attendance at the group’s annual fund-raising dinner – have not declined this year, despite the exposure of Lanner.
“These are difficult times for us, but at the end we’re going to come out much stronger,” he said.
The O.U. is posting the public report on its Web site (www.ou.org), and issued a news release quoting Ganchrow as saying that the report “provides a thorough road map of ways we can improve the management and operations of our organization” and that it will take the O.U. “several months to consider and implement the changes that are necessary to improve our operations.”
“We sincerely apologize for the pain and suffering these young people experienced as a result of Rabbi Lanner’s actions,” Ganchrow said. “We also wish to apologize to the families of these young people who entrusted their children to us.”
The O.U. release announced an upcoming “review of its leadership in order to implement any changes that may be necessary” and plans to develop “new policies and procedures for all O.U. programs and staff.”
It also noted that in the months preceding the report, NCSY has already instituted a number of new programs. These include: a comprehensive sexual harassment policy for staff, sensitivity training program for staff, stricter hiring policies and training programs for youth group advisers and plans to appoint an ombudsman to investigate any allegations brought to his or her attention.
Ganchrow will retire from the presidency at the upcoming convention and be replaced by Harvey Blitz.
In the O.U. news release, Blitz said, “The new administration will promptly and carefully study the Commission’s recommendations and adopt and implement them appropriately to ensure that the Orthodox Union becomes a more responsible and responsive organization.”