Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Heart Felt Apology: One Given – One Needed

One of the most painful things for victims of sex abuse (aside from the actual abuse) is the lack of any sincere public apologies from the rabbinic leaders who allowed abuse to continue via their inaction. The most famous result of their inaction is the case of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko. He was accused by a victim of sexual abuse. After consultation with rabbinic leaders both here and in Israel Rabbi Kolko was allowed to continue as a Rebbe in a Yeshiva and continue sexually abusing or molesting young students.

It took an expose in a Jewish blog followed by an explosive article in a national magazine to once and for all end his career (which included a 20 year period on ongoing sexual abuse). That event set into motion a change in the way these things are now handled among these rabbinic leaders. While there is still work to be done – we’ve come a long way.

But the one thing that has not happened is the kind of thing that happened back in 2004 in the Yeshiva University Beis HaMedrash. It was an extraordinary event. A YU Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, called for a meeting. To an overflow crowd he publicly apologized on behalf of all 3 members of that Beis Din for their role in the Lanner affair.

They admitted that during the 1989 proceedings, they had made "errors in judgment and procedure that caused unnecessary pain and aggravation." They formally apologized to Elie Hiller, who brought the initial allegations of abuse against Rabbi Lanner, and to witnesses, victims, and their families.

It was a similar circumstance. Rabbi Baruch Lanner was abusing young women in his charge as an NCSY official. (I believe it was for a period of 20 years in his case too). When an adolescent young woman complained about him in 1989 - formal charges were brought before a Beis Din. It consisted of 3 rabbis: Mordechai Willig, Yosef Blau, and Aaron Levine. They exonerated Rabbi Lanner. This enabled him to continue his abuse.

It took some great investigative reporting by the Jewish Week and then the New York Times to finally get some justice. Rabbi Lanner was convicted of sex abuse and sentenced to a 7 year prison term. He has served 3 years of that sentence in prison and is currently serving the rest on parole.

That event caused heads to roll at NCSY. A blue ribbon panel was commissioned by the OU - NCSY’s parent organization - to investigate who knew; what did they know; and when did they know it. It was headed by Richard Joel – the current President of YU. The investigation revealed that the cover up went all the way to the top. Heads rolled and new guidelines were put in place to prevent anything like that from ever happening again. These guidelines are now scrupulously followed.

But the initial Beis Din that exonerated Rabbi Lanner had not apologized until that day in 2004. And it was a remarkable event. It takes a lot of courage to admit a mistake that resulted in extending the reign of sex abuse by an abuser. Rabbi Willig pulled no punches and apologized profusely on behalf of all three members of the Beis Din. Some had criticized him - accusing him of doing so only because of mounting public pressure. Others questioned why he didn’t use a larger venue - anticipating the overflow crowd. Many who wanted to attend – could not be accommodated. But these issues are irrelevant to the amazing apology of a respected Rosh Yeshiva to such a grievous error in judgment. The far more appropriate reaction was described in the artilce:

"There is no greater form of mussar than a rebbe giving mussar to himself in front of his students," opined Ephraim Shapiro YC '01. "Rabbi Willig's sorely-needed message to his talmidim that no one is infallible is best served up as a mussar shmooze in their makom torah rather than a press conference." YSU vice president Yaakov Green concurred. "Coming from a former NCSY'er and a current NCSY administrator, I thought it was one of the most powerful and appropriate messages to be delivered in a Sichas Mussar. To hear a gadol BaTorah and one of a handful of poskei hador get up in front of an enormous crowd of his own talmidim and unequivocally admit his mistakes sends the message that not only are gedolim not infallible, but that it is the fact that they are able to admit their mistakes that makes them gedolim.

Imagine if this were an article in the Yated or in Hamodia. And imagine it was describing the words of an Agudah Moetzes member or any other rabbinic leader of that stature about their role in the Kolko affair. Substitute any name in place of Rabbi Willing in the article. Substitute the Lakewood Beis HaMedrash for the YU Beis HaMedrash. I think it would make a difference to the victims who suffered abuse because of their silence – to hear an Agudah Moetzes member talk like that.

As it stands now there is much bitterness among the victims. They feel ignored – even cast aside as in the rabbinic attempts to thwart a bill from passing in the New York State Assembly. The Markey Bill would have allowed a one year window of opportunity to sue abusers and their enablers whose time has expired due to the statute of limitations.

These victims need healing. Their lives have been unalterably affected by sex abuse. Though many of them have managed to get on with their lives – the pain and anguish of those memories is seared into their brains. Added to that is the pain of silence by the rabbinic leadership which continues to eat away at them. How can they feel anything but disappointment and anger?! Healing can only begin with the kind of sincere and heartfelt public apology issued by Rabbi Willig back in 2004. I agree with Yaakov Green - it is the fact that they are able to admit their mistakes that makes them gedolim.