Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When the Media Gets It Right

One of the nagging questions that still remain with us about the Rabbi Baruch Lanner sex abuse case at NCSY is whether it was handled properly. For those who aren’t familiar with the case, Rabbi Lanner who worked for NCSY was eventually convicted of sex abuse and sentenced to prison.

The charge is often made that exposure by the media to this incident could have been avoided. It is possible that the problem could have been dealt with properly in some other less damaging way. They feel those other avenues were not properly explored. Thus there was - and still is - strong criticism of the Jewish Week publisher, Gary Rosenblatt who broke the story. That was followed by a New York Times article about Orthodox criticism of the the Jewish Week for publishing it. The public was made aware and the rest is history.

The damage to NCSY was immediate. This very popular youth group and Kiruv organization suffered a loss - both financial and in membership. Should publicity have been minimized at that time so as to avoid the damage?

The answer, I’m afraid, is no. Not in the case of this particular abuser and in this particular institution.

Not that I don’t agree in theory. Of course if a problem like this can be resolved quickly and discreetly without damaging the good work done by an organization like NCSY, it should. Nobody is a bigger supporter of NCSY than I am.

But in this case the abuser was involved in abuse for a very long time. People knew about it and looked the other way. Had it been left in house, seeking to minimize the damage, the hierarchy might still be looking the other way.

If memory serves - accusations of abuse by NCSYers were brushed aside for years. In some cases victims who accused Rabbi Lanner of abuse were vilified. He was considered a valuable asset to NCSY and ironically was very successful at Kiruv. So even though there was some suspicion about him, the hierarchy did not want to lose this talented employee. So they looked the other way.

Their intentions were good but their judgments were terrible. They either didn’t believe it - or the extent of it - or discounted the abuse. They probably thought more people would be Mekurav - won over to religious observance - by retention of Rabbi Lanner than by his dismissal. They therefore refused to see the truth that was staring them in the face - blinded by good intentions.

So Rabbi Lanner stayed in his position for years continuing to abuse some of his NCSYers along the way. People all the way up and down the hierarchy at NCSY were aware of this man’s abusive behavior - if not the full extent of it - and pretty much ignored it.

It wasn’t until his actions were submitted by the media to the light of public exposure that the problem was taken care of. He was dismissed, prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison.

One may not like the way Gary Rosenblatt deals with the Charedi community or his perceived antipathy toward some of Yeshiva University's Roshei Yeshiva. But he was right on this one. The story was picked up by the New York Times and the rest is history.

NCSY survived and is now thriving because they finally did the right thing. The OU - the parent organization of NCSY - established a blue ribbon commission to investigate the truth of the accusations and to determine whether the OU and NCSY leadership had properly reacted to earlier complaints. It was headed by current Yeshiva University president, Richard Joel.

The entire affair was studied and analyzed. Recommendations were made and put in place, and heads rolled! …all the way up to the top! Had there been no exposure, the abuser might still be there. This is a true tribute to good investigative journalism

The Mashgiach of Yeshivas Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan, Rabbi Yosef Blau has weighed in on the matter. A discussion of this issue took place on a private e-mail list. I asked for his permission to post his reply here and he granted it. And I fully agree with him. Here - with some very minor editing - is what he said:

I have been asked to comment on Gary Rosenblatt's series of articles about Baruch Lanner June 2000. Knowing the background of the story and his willingness not to go to print if the OU would act decisively I can only applaud Gary Rosenblatt for his concern for survivors and potential victims. If the story had not appeared it is possible that Rabbi Lanner would be presently working for NCSY.

The question that disturbs me is why the Orthodox community has learned so little many scandals and almost eight years later? It would be better if proper procedures would exist for responding to allegations of sexual abuse and newspaper reports would not be necessary. The Chilul HaShem is caused by the abusers, their enablers and those who cover up.

After each new account steps are announced by little really changes. If rabbis in Baltimore issue a strong statement no corresponding statement is made in New York. Even in Baltimore the recognition that abusers have to be reported to the police, which is the clear Psak since they are an ongoing danger to others, has become muddled. Instead of blaming the reporters and the bloggers let us seriously confront the problem and protect our children.