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Sex-abuse Conviction of Rabbi Closes Difficult Chapter for Orthodox

July 10, 2002
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The recent sex-abuse conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner for groping two teen-age girls closed a highly disturbing chapter for the centrist Orthodox world.

But it remains to be seen how deeply the controversy will transform the community.

Lanner was found guilty June 27 in a Monmouth County, N.J., Superior Court of endangering the welfare of two girls between 1992 and 1996, while he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva.

He also was their supervisor at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth wing of the Orthodox Union.

Lanner, 52, who has long maintained his innocence and whose lawyers said he will likely appeal, was also convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and sexual contact against one of the girls.

Freed on $100,000 bail, he is set to be sentenced Sept. 13. He faces between 10 and 20 years in jail and a maximum $300,000 fine.

The Lanner case not only stirred a rare public airing of the issue in the Jewish community, it also provoked intense debate in the community because Lanner allegedly abused scores of teen-agers over 30 years.

The scandal surfaced in June 2000 when the New York Jewish Week first reported the complaints against Lanner.

As public reaction swelled, the O.U. appointed the NCSY Special Commission on the Lanner case, and in December 2000 the panel released part of a scathing 332-page report blaming O.U. leaders for ignoring reports of Lanner’s abuse and urging major organizational reforms.

In at least four instances, NCSY and O.U. officials were “put on direct and specific notice of serious sexual misconduct” by Lanner but failed to heed such “red flags,” the report said.

Lanner, who worked for the Etz Chaim, N.J., branch of the NCSY and was principal at the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean Township, N.J., left the yeshiva in 1997 and resigned from his NCSY position the day the Jewish Week story appeared.

Shockwaves reverberated through the O.U. after the charges became public and the group’s executive vice president, Raphael Butler, eventually resigned.

Some say that under Butler’s successor, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U. has worked hard to repair its reputation by instituting measures ensuring that complaints get aired and addressed.

Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, who chaired the Lanner commission, said the O.U. has begun to act.

“The best thing to be said is that changes are still a work in progress,” Joel says. “Weinreb really understands the dimensions of the challenge and has really begun the process of making the changes necessary at NCSY.”

According to the O.U.’s new president, Harvey Blitz, the NCSY has instituted mandatory sensitivity training for all teen advisers, has created “ombusdmen” to hear complaints and has put in place formal procedures regarding sexual misconduct.

“I think there’s been a significant change in attitude,” Blitz said. “I think we’re making substantial progress in changing the overall culture, but it takes time.”

That remains one of the bigger questions the NCSY and O.U. face: Can a large organization with members in 1,000 congregations nationwide transform deeply ingrained cultural biases against publicizing such behavior?

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, who broke the story and has covered the case extensively, said such changes don’t come easily.

“Certainly, the whole Jewish community is aware of the Lanner case and there have been some positive results because of that,” Rosenblatt said.

“It was Rabbi Weinreb who said that when something like this happens, don’t go to your rabbi, go to the authorities. That’s a simple but important message.”

Yet if another sex-abuse scandal were to surface, Rosenblatt said, “I’m not sure how the community would deal differently with it. I still think there’s a natural resistance to going public.”

One vocal critic of the NCSY’s response in the Lanner matter, however, voiced optimism that Lanner’s conviction will make it easier for victims in other cases to go public.

“I would hope that the Lanner conviction demonstrates to victims that, even though their persecutors are respected members of the community, they can still get their stories to be believed,” said Murray Sragow, a member of an NCSY parental advisory committee.

Sragow is confident that structural changes in NCSY should prevent potential problems from being ignored.

He said that during the past two years several complaints of “inappropriate” behavior against NCSY teen advisers have surfaced, though none with the seriousness of the Lanner charges.

One case involved an NCSY adviser asking a teen-ager on a date, he said.

Blitz of the O.U. acknowledged there have been “some” new complains of inappropriate behavior, but he would not comment on the specific instance Sragow mentioned.

Such complaints should surface in an environment that has grown highly “sensitized” to abuses, he added.

The NCSY has gone to such lengths to avoid potential improprieties that advisers are banned from speaking with children in an area not visible to other people, he said.

However, Sragow added that the Lanner case convinced him that parents should investigate any organization before entrusting their children to its care.

“The fact that someone is a priest or a rabbi means nothing,” he said.

One of Lanner’s alleged victims, Elie Hiller, who maintains that Lanner physically abused him 13 years ago, said he is encouraged by the convictions, limited as they were because only two women had agreed to take their case to court.

“Hopefully, others will be encouraged and emboldened to come forward,” he said.

Like others, Hiller is waiting to see what substantive changes will take place in the community.

“Realistically, it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “We’re talking about overturning a culture, and that will take a lot more than one or two people to change.”

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