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 sexual abuse.
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 with NCSY.”
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 University.
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.