Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sex Abuse, Yeshiva University, and Satmar

The 2 accused rabbis against a backdrop of YU - courtesy the Forward
I am getting so tired of this subject. It seems like there is an endless list of sex abuse victims coming forward. The minute one case is resolved – up comes another one. Much as I’d like to move on to other things - the subject is too important for me to ignore. The latest one involves an institution that is in my own Hashkafic backyard, Yeshiva University.

I know there will be a lot made of revelations in today’s Forward. About 30 years ago in the 70s there were two faculty members at YU’s high school who were accused of sex abuse by some students.  Then President Rabbi Norman Lamm was informed about it and allowed them to leave the school quietly. The abuse was not reported to the police. Nor anyone else for that matter – allowing these 2 men to find jobs elsewhere. They both continued to have thriving careers and both ultimately immigrated to Israel.

The school, the victims, and their families all agreed to keep these allegations quiet for the benefit of all. And it stayed quiet until now.

The behavior of the school was inappropriate. We all know now that abuse victims do not benefit by keeping quiet. We also know that pedophiles do not stop with one victim but continue to abuse and molest others throughout their lives. We also know (and perhaps YU should have known even then) that it is unethical to allow accused sex abusers to look for other Chinuch jobs without informing the scholastic and academic communities about them.  

Dr. Lamm felt at the time however that it was the responsibility of the schools that hire them to first do background checks. Had YU been contacted they would have certainly made the hiring institution aware of the reason they left the school.

That was the way things were done then. Nothing really out of the ordinary for the time. Of course today, it would not be handled that way. Certainly not by YU whose president, Richard Joel headed a blue ribbon commission that investigated how NCSY handled a sex abuse case.  They came down very hard on NCSY leadership that covered up the abuse by one of its top counselors for many years – allowing it to continue. Heads rolled at NCSY at the time. Followed by new and very strict guidelines put in place so that this would never happen again. The abuser was tried, convicted, and spent many years in prison for his crimes.

There are descriptions of the abuse by one of those YU high school rabbis spelled out in detail in the Forward article. Without getting too graphic it mostly involved wrestling with his students and inappropriate physical contact. Both accused rabbis deny the allegations. And I have no clue if they continued their nefarious ways after they left. I do not know of any other accusations. There is one encounter by a victim that describes a more aggressive act. 

The accused denies all of this. He even says that he did not leave his job at the YU high school because of any allegations - but because of his divorce. But the way he denied those allegations sounded very ambiguous. He kept saying things like, “to the best of my memory” or “It depends on how you define inappropriate”.  That's not very forceful denial when you know you are innocent of any wrong doing. It sounds more like a Jerry Sandusky type denial of “We were just horsing around.”  This fellow is still teaching Torah in Israel!

But still, compare the charges Weberman was convicted of with the accusations against the accusations against those 2 rabbis. And compare the way the leadership Satmar reacted to their current case with way the leadership of YU reacted to the accusations about what happened 30 years ago. From the Forward
Y.U. President Richard Joel said in a statement issued on December 3 that the school was “looking with concern into the questions” the Forward had raised. 
I am not letting YU off the hook here. But I trust Richard Joel who has proven his integrity in these matters. I wish I could say the same about Satmar leadership. Wouldn’t it be nice if they came out with a huge mea culpa and a promise to reform the way they handle these things? But I tend to doubt that things will ever really change based on their history and general attitude about the outside world.

That said, I have heard that Rabbi David Niederman (who I have recently been told is the real power in  Satmar and their notorious Tznius Vaad and not the Williamsburg Satmar Rebbe) has promised to hire professional counselors for victims of abuse in the future. If he is really the power there, I’m not sure I trust a man with his track record on sex abuse. But who knows? Maybe things will change now because of this…

Meanwhile I think they are really going to take a big financial hit when they are sued in civil court for damages. It seems to me that all the stuff that came out in trial makes that a real possibility.

I don’t know if the victim in the YU case will ultimately sue YU for ‘sweeping his abuse under the rug’ over 30years ago. I’m not even sure he can - if I understand the statute of limitations here. Nor am I sure he would win the case if he could sue them. YU did nothing wrong based on the approach to sex abuse of that time. Nonetheless I applaud the fact that YU President Joel has made a public apology to those victims and listed all the preventive measures it has built into the system. Now it’s Satmar’s turn to do the same.

Updated at 12:13 PM CST