Scandal prompts top Orthodox official to resign

NEW YORK, Jan. 23 (JTA) – The executive vice president of the Orthodox Union has resigned – apparently under pressure – in the latest development in a case that has gripped the centrist Orthodox group for months.

Rabbi Raphael Butler had come under fire for not disciplining Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a high-ranking professional in the O.U.’s youth group who has been accused of sexually harassing, molesting and physically abusing scores of teen-agers.

Lanner, who had served as director of regions for the O.U.’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, resigned in July, shortly after an article detailing the allegations against him appeared in the New York Jewish Week.

Butler, who became the O.U.’s top professional in 1994 after more than 13 years of work in the organization, submitted a resignation letter last Friday.

High-level Orthodox officials said Butler had the support of a majority of the O.U.’s executive committee, which was to vote Feb. 4 on his employment status.

But the Orthodox rabbinic arm and the O.U.’s immediate past president exerted strong pressure to push Butler out, the officials said.

Butler’s resignation came three and a half weeks after an O.U.- appointed commission released an executive summary of a report that found “profound errors of judgment” in the way the organization’s leaders dealt with Lanner.

O.U. officials have apologized for Lanner’s behavior, and hosted a public forum on the topic at the organization’s biennial convention over New Year’s weekend.

Butler’s departure is the first concrete change at the Orthodox Union since the completion of the report, which was based on interviews with 175 people.

Lanner refused to be interviewed for the commission report. His lawyer submitted a 10-page document stating that Lanner denies committing any crime but “acknowledges that in the past his conduct, on occasion, was inappropriate.”

Butler will remain for a transition period while the board searches for a replacement.

O.U. officials would not disclose details of Butler’s severance package. Several sources close to the situation said they expect that he will easily find another job in the Orthodox world.

A number of people in the organization, as well as some of Lanner’s alleged victims, have argued that the commission’s executive summary implicates Butler for not responding to red flags, though it does not mention names.

Butler’s resignation letter, which was released to the public, does not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

It indicates that he is leaving “to prevent the divisiveness and rancor that threaten the mission” of the Orthodox Union.

The decision to quit, Butler wrote, is “intended to shift the focus away from personalities and toward addressing the Orthodox Union’s charge of Avodat Hakodesh,” or holy work.

The letter also alludes to an “outpouring of support” from within the “movement” and from people on a 13-member committee that is deciding how to implement the report’s recommendations.

In a short letter “reluctantly” accepting the resignation, O.U. President Harvey Blitz praised Butler for work that has “resulted in the exceptional growth and development” of the Orthodox Union.

According to high-level Orthodox officials, former O.U. President Mandell Ganchrow and Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, pushed for Butler’s resignation.

When asked about Butler’s departure, both would only say they thought it would help the Orthodox Union to move forward.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a necessary process to re-establish the trust, commitment and involvement of the community,” Dworken said. “I believe it truly shows a clear-cut willingness to take responsibility for the entire affair.”

Some critics of the Orthodox Union took issue with what they called Butler’s failure to acknowledge any guilt.

“It didn’t sound to me as if this was a case of the O.U. holding anyone responsible, which was what we’d been asking for,” said Murray Sragow, a leader with the New Jersey region of NCSY and the administrator of an e-mail list focusing on the Lanner issue.

Sragow said he nonetheless assumes that Butler indeed was forced out behind the scenes, and that Butler’s letter was simply an effort by the organization to be “pleasant” and allow him to save face.

Butler did not return phone calls from JTA seeking comment.

Blitz, who became O.U. president at the end of December, said the organization’s executive committee was scheduled to discuss the employment status of Butler and other people mentioned in the full Lanner report at a Feb. 4 meeting.

However, he said, Butler “had substantial support within the organization for remaining in a significant programmatic position,” and probably would not have been fired.

One executive committee member suggested that Butler is “taking the fall for a lot of people.”

But Sragow said that “if they’d wanted a fall guy, they wouldn’t have chosen” Butler.

Butler was “more valued” by O.U. officials than any other employee, Sragow said, so the fact that he is leaving “gives me the sense that anyone else who needs to be dealt with, will.”

Blitz also disagreed that Butler had become a fall guy.

“I don’t think he’s taking all the blame, and even if he were doing that, we shouldn’t let him,” he said. “We need to have an honest evaluation of what needs to be done.”

Elie Hiller, one of the first alleged victims to go public with his accusations against Lanner, said he is pleased to see Butler go, despite the fact that, in Hiller’s opinion, he is being allowed to save face by resigning without acknowledging wrongdoing.

However, Hiller said he would like to see the Orthodox Union take stronger action, such as releasing the full 332-page commission report and condemning Butler.

Since Lanner’s alleged abuses were publicized last summer, “all that’s happened is the criminal resigned and the person who oversaw the criminal resigned,” Hiller said. “It doesn’t look like any strong action was taken by the O.U.”

A committee of 13 board members, among the few people who have seen the full report, is expected to make recommendations to the executive committee in February on implementing the report.

In addition, Blitz has announced plans to overhaul virtually all aspects of the O.U. management, and is currently appointing committees to do so.

The executive summary of the report found Lanner guilty of several kinds of abuse, and asserted that “certain members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership share responsibility for Lanner’s misconduct,” which allegedly occurred over a period of 30 years.

The summary also noted 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.”

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