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O.U. hopes its steps will end harassment affair

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NEW YORK, March 6 (JTA) – The Orthodox Union has decided not to discipline any of its staff for failing to stop a high-ranking professional accused last summer of harassing and molesting scores of teen-agers in its youth group.

But the organization will bar from its youth commission certain board members who – while they may not have known the full extent of Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s alleged misdeeds – failed to act upon “red flags.”

With these decisions, as well as plans to revamp the organization and implement new safeguards against sexual abuse, the O.U. hopes to lay to rest the controversy that has swirled around it since the accusations against Lanner surfaced publicly last summer.

However, some grass-roots activists say the O.U. leadership still has not assumed enough responsibility for Lanner’s alleged abuses.

The recent decisions come more than two months after an outside report found Lanner, the charismatic former director of regions for the O.U.’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, guilty of several kinds of abuse.

An executive summary of the report was released in December. The summary also asserted that “certain members of the O.U. and NCSY leadership share responsibility for Lanner’s misconduct.”

The report called on the O.U. to hold “individuals who failed to take action against Lanner responsible for their conduct,” but did not specify how.

The recent decisions – taken on the recommendations of 13 executive committee members assigned to act on the report – follow a “leadership review.”

While no one is being fired, three key staff changes have been made since the misconduct allegations surfaced publicly last summer.

Lanner denied most of the charges against him, but resigned in July. The O.U.’s executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler – who many people say was negligent in supervising Lanner – resigned in late January.

Butler’s resignation officially was voluntary, but insiders say key leaders within the O.U. and the Rabbinical Council of America, a group of Orthodox rabbis, pressured him to quit.

Butler will remain with the O.U. part time until late April, and is receiving a severance package. A search committee is being formed to find a replacement.

Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, the O.U.’s senior executive, retired at the end of December. Stolper preceded Butler as the organization’s executive vice president and supervised Lanner until 1994.

The committee assigned to make recommendations from the December report “looked at the professional staff and what the report said, and decided there was no need to terminate anyone still working there,” said Harvey Blitz, the O.U.’s president.

Blitz, cited in the report as someone who failed to act upon “red flags,” was careful to note that the committee did not “reach any conclusion” about whether Stolper or Butler should have been disciplined had they not retired.

He also emphasized that the decision to bar approximately half a dozen unnamed lay leaders from serving on the youth commission does not mean the O.U. considers them guilty of anything.

Rather, Blitz said, the O.U. wants to bring fresh faces to the youth commission to regain parents’ trust.

Murray Sragow, a parent active in the New Jersey region of NCSY and coordinator of an e-mail list for people concerned about the Lanner affair, said he remains disappointed that O.U. leaders have not taken greater responsibility for tolerating or not noticing Lanner’s conduct.

O.U. officials appeared at a recent meeting for New Jersey parents and expressed their sorrow for the pain allegedly caused by Lanner. Still, it sounded “like they were talking about some earthquake that happened in India,” Sragow said.

Sragow said he would like the O.U. to admit publicly that Lanner’s behavior was recognized – at least on some level – yet tolerated. He also would like Blitz, who for much of Lanner’s tenure was the volunteer overseeing NCSY, to admit that he was not sufficiently vigilant.

Blitz said he “could have performed better” in overseeing NCSY, but is not prepared to assume complete guilt for the Lanner affair.

The O.U. now has a “zero tolerance” policy for abuse, and is taking several steps to prevent abuse in the future, Blitz said.

Next week, it will appoint two outside monitors – a man and a woman – to whom people can report abuse complaints if they are uncomfortable going directly to O.U. staff. It also is starting to train youth advisers to recognize and prevent abuse.

According to Blitz, organizational changes will ensure stronger lines of communication and greater accountability between employees and the staff or lay leaders who oversee them.

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