‘There’s No Statute Of Limitations On Teshuva’
Over the last two decades, significant progress has been made in dealing with sexual abuse by clergy in the Orthodox community. But not enough.
Seeking justice: The women who filed a civil lawsuit in recent days say they hope their effort will help change the culture of the Orthodox community from within. (Stock photo/Shutterstock)
Journalists often spend their days chasing down stories. But there are times when it seems like a story pursues us.
That’s how I’ve felt about the scandal surrounding Baruch Lanner, a rabbi who abused teens in his charge sexually, physically and emotionally for more than three decades. And got away with it despite numerous and long-standing complaints from the victims to those who could and should have acted to protect them.
I helped expose those actions through an investigative report in The Jewish Week (see link below to “Stolen Innocence,” June 23, 2000), which led to Lanner’s forced resignation, and in time, arrest and conviction for crimes of abuse committed in the mid-1990s. He served nearly three years in jail for his actions.
In recent days, I became involved again in this painful matter when I was informed that a lawsuit was being brought in civil court Nov. 30 against Lanner and three institutions that had employed him: the Orthodox Union; its youth arm, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY); and the Hillel Yeshiva High School of Ocean, N.J. (See links below.)
The suit was filed just prior to the deadline for New Jersey’s two-year “lookback” window, which permitted sexual abuse victims from decades past to come forward and sue their abusers and enablers. Previously, a statute of limitations in the state had prohibited such suits.
I write here today less in my professional role than as a member of the community addressing an ongoing problem. I still cling to the belief that we are all responsible for the welfare of our youth and committed to traditional Jewish values and ethics that, transcending legal issues, are the foundation of our faith.
Indeed, as one of the women I interviewed in recent days pointed out to me, “there is no statute of limitations on Jewish law – or teshuva.”
The decision to go forward with the lawsuit weighed heavily on the women. They were hesitant not only in stirring up painful emotions and going public, but because they are aware that some in their communities may view their action as a betrayal of prominent Orthodox institutions.
“I tell clients in cases like this that they’re not betraying their religion or church or God,” said Basyle Tchividjian, a grandson of famed evangelist Rev. Billy Graham and one of three attorneys representing the plaintiff in the lawsuit. To the contrary, “I tell them that they are the ones who were betrayed – spiritually as well in other ways by religious leaders and institutions they were taught to respect and obey.”
It’s been almost 22 years since I first heard allegations about the predatory behavior of Baruch Lanner, a charismatic youth leader and educator who had been widely admired, if not revered, for his successes.
I’ve spent much time during the last two decades reporting and reflecting on too many cases of sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders across the denominations -- not because I enjoy the issue but rather because I abhor it.
I’ve spoken to teen victims who, so many years later, recall with sadness how they came to lose faith in their leaders, and sometimes in their religion. I’m still shaken by stories from women and men who suffered abuse and manipulation from rabbinic leaders they had trusted. I’ve seen how some of our synagogues, schools, camps and prominent institutions, however well-intentioned, have taken more steps to protect their financial and legal interests than fulfill their obligation to protect young people.
And I’ve felt the reluctance in our community to call for the full reckoning that has been avoided for too long -- one that would have organizations accused of intentional or benign inaction offer full and personal apologies to victims, hold community forums to discuss what happened, and offer reforms not only in written policies but in sincere ways that reflect the core values of their worthy institutions.
‘Profound Errors Of Judgment’
The Jewish Week’s reporting in 2000 received praise and gratitude in many quarters for exposing wrongdoing, and condemnation from others, including rabbis, who classified the articles as lashon hara, the Biblical prohibition against gossip and derogatory speech. My reputation, and that of The Jewish Week, was tarnished by those who felt our coverage of child sexual abuse cases reflected an anti-Orthodox bias. It was a criticism that lingered as we continued to report on such cases, though I maintain our work helped protect Orthodox children and was consistent with, rather than a violation of, Jewish law.
The reporting on the Lanner case received several national awards and was cited in Jewish media as “a watershed” in the way the Orthodox community addresses sexual abuse.
But I believe there’s still a long way to go.
For every case that is made public, how many instances are there where an abuser has been quietly dismissed by the synagogue or school, only to move on to another town and continue to abuse?
Clearly, though, significant progress has been made in the last two decades. It began with the OU’s creation of a commission to investigate the Lanner allegations in the wake of The Jewish Week expose’. Though not fully independent -- it included three board members -- the nine-member group hired an outside law firm and made public a 54-page executive summary that:
. confirmed The Jewish Week reporting;
. determined that “some lay and professional leadership of the OU and NCSY made profound errors of judgment in the handling of Lanner throughout his career,” often protecting him rather than terminating his employment;
. and called for significant reforms within NCSY and OU’s governance and management.
However, the full, 331-page report, which is believed to have dealt with internal problems of the OU, was never made public. This air of secrecy has led to ongoing speculation about what information was deemed so disturbing that it had to be kept under wraps.
But the commission did address in its executive report “a significant issue facing our entire community,” namely “the failure to take responsibility” in cases of abuse that go unreported. As an example, it noted “the number of people who told members of this commission, ‘everyone knew about Lanner,’ were legion.”
A New Vocabulary
That report was issued in December 2000. Where are we today?
In the wake of the Lanner case, a wide range of Jewish schools, camps and other institutions responded in a timely manner, developing more detailed policies regarding staff behavior, and training educators and youth leaders to identify signs of potential abusive behavior.
It’s worth noting that at that time there was little vocabulary beyond “inappropriate behavior” to discuss sexual abuse, and few guidelines that were specified and put into practice.
Over time we learned about “grooming,” how predators cultivate a relationship with a potential victim, and often, the family. We came to understand that it is not unusual for years to go by before victims are emotionally prepared to speak of their trauma. And we realized that an inspiring charismatic personality, even one who does holy work, can also have a dark side.
Today, we have become educated in the language associated with child sexual abuse, and more attuned to recognize it and speak out. Jewish media has played a greater role in covering cases. Perhaps most significant is the creation and/or strengthening of Jewish anti-abuse groups, including Sacred Spaces, a non-profit “committed to helping to create safe and respectful Jewish institutions … to prevent and respond to cases of sexual abuse and other abuses of power.”
Shira Berkovits, a psychologist and attorney, is founding president and CEO of the group, which works with more than 430 organizations. She noted that “much progress has been made” over the last two decades in dealing with abuse. She cited, most recently, “the incredible courage” within the Reform and Conservative movements in initiating “denomination-wide cheshbon hanefesh” (accounting of the soul) that has been supported within their communities. The two movements are investigating and making known their resolute actions taken in cases of sexual abuse among their clergy and others, present and past, including those in top leadership positions.
Several of the Lanner victims who filed the civil lawsuit said they would like to see Orthodox community leaders take on the kind of difficult introspection that the Reform and Conservative communities have initiated and made public.
“It really comes down to doing the right thing,” one said.
Berkovits shared a more positive perspective. “In the Orthodox community,” she said, “response to recent public cases looks drastically different, and better, than it might have a decade ago.” (She cited the case of Chaim Walder, a popular charedi Israeli author of children’s books, accused of sexual abuse of young girls. Eichler’s Judaica bookstore in Boro Park announced two weeks ago that it was removing Walder’s books from its shelves, and several leading charedi Israeli rabbis have banned his work.)
Berkovits noted, though, that “with all this change, there continues to be deep work that needs to be done.” In cases of complaints of sexual abuse, organizations should be guided by “their values and Jewish ethics, not their general counsel or a PR firm,” she said.
How Do We Measure Teshuva?
In a similar vein, David Bashevkin, director of education at NCSY for the last decade and author of “Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought,” wrote an Oped column for the Wall Street Journal in 2019 that called for including the element of atonement in conversations about sexual misbehavior.
“Talking about sin allows people to step away from the binary of legal innocence and guilt, and consider the moral gradations of their behavior,” he wrote. “We react to being accused of a crime by asserting our innocence, but when the source of our guilt is our internal moral compass, the only defense is the hard and messy work of introspection. Whereas crime begets punishment, sin begets repentance.”
But how do we assess the authenticity of a person’s, or an organization’s, declarations of apology and commitment to change?
Traditional Jewish texts have much to say about the issue. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, writing in the 12th century in Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance), says sinners should confess and disclose their sins publicly, and that for those who hide their sins, their repentance is incomplete.
(Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University who played a key role in a 1989 beit din that failed to act on allegations of Lanner’s abuse, deserves credit for the courage he showed in following the edict of Maimonides. In 2003, under pressure from former victims to speak out, he did so in front of hundreds of students and others, publicly acknowledging the “blind spot” that he said led him to believe Lanner rather than the victims.)
Berkovits says actions of contrition should apply to organizations as well as individuals since “they’re composed of individuals.” She would ask of organizations: “Have they taken responsibility publicly, or instead sought to minimize the harm done by saying things like ‘this happened long ago,’ ‘others are at fault here,’ ‘technically, this wasn’t illegal,’ etc.?”
On hearing her comments, I thought of the sadness and frustration in the voices of Lanner victims back in 2000 who said they never received direct apologies or offers of assistance from the OU or NCSY after their experiences decades earlier became known.
That disappointment, and the sense that not enough has changed since, remains with the women who filed the lawsuit. They emphasized to me that their goal in coming forward now is neither financial gain nor revenge.
As an admirer of these women for their courage in having spoken out two decades ago and for stepping into the glare of public scrutiny today, I believe they are sincere in their expressed quest to help change the culture of the Orthodox community from within.
I leave the last word to one of the women, who told me she and the others hope that issues of safety will be “grounded in Jewish ethics and sources, not because someone is watching these organizations or suing them but because it is what God and our religion demands of us.”
Link to ‘Stolen Innocence’ (June 23, 2000), click on the sentence below:
Link to “Orthodox Union and its Youth Group Sued … (Nov. 29, 2021, The Jewish Week/JTA)
Dec. 1: Fifth woman joins suit, which now include yeshiva as defendant