Y.U. Report on Sex Abuse Draws Mixed Reaction From Modern Orthodox

Some Say Administration Keeping Lid on Crucial Findings

Regret and Shame: Yeshiva U. President Richard Joel expressed regret and shame over the findings of the report, even though it states that conditions improved under his leadership.
yeshiva university
Regret and Shame: Yeshiva U. President Richard Joel expressed regret and shame over the findings of the report, even though it states that conditions improved under his leadership.

By Paul Berger

Published August 28, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.

The Modern Orthodox community has broadly welcomed a long-awaited report into allegations that Yeshiva University staff physically and sexually abused numerous students over several decades. But the report, which withheld most of the findings uncovered by investigators, was not enough to mollify some current and former Y.U. students and victims of abuse.

“More will need to be said” in the future, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the main clergy association for Modern Orthodox rabbis. But Goldin hailed the report, released August 26, as a “critical milestone” in Y.U.’s handling of the abuse allegations.

Y.U. cited a pending lawsuit as its reason for not releasing the specific findings by the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which conducted the investigation. The 21-page report instead offered a three-paragraph summary of the investigation, stating that “multiple incidents of varying types of sexual and physical abuse took place” from the mid-1970s through the 1990s at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan, “in certain instances, after members of the administration had been made aware of such conduct.”

New Semester, Old Scandal from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

The report added that until 2001, “there were multiple instances in which the University either failed to appropriately act to protect the safety of its students or did not respond to the allegations at all.” In addition, the report stated that investigators found “that, during the relevant time period, sexual and physical abuse took place at other schools comprising the University as well.”

For now, Goldin said, Y.U.’s statement had to be “viewed against the backdrop of the litigation” and people have to “recognize there’s not going to be a detailed clarity because of legal concerns.” Despite this constraint, Goldin said, the report was “very sobering in its limited findings.”

“The report clearly admits wrongdoing on the part of the university,” Goldin said.

In contrast, Y.U.’s student newspaper, The Commentator, stated that the decision by a so-called Special Committee of the school’s board of trustees to withhold the law firm’s findings was “casting doubt on the true independence of the investigation.”

The Commentator’s story, by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Gavriel Brown, noted that the report released by Y.U. cited the names of just two alleged abusers — rabbis George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon — who were first identified in a December 2012 investigative story published by the Forward, which led the school to commission the investigation.

“But [it] does not mention Richard Andron, a third alleged perpetrator,” the article stated. “The report does not detail the actions of Rabbis Norman Lamm, Israel Miller, Mayer Twersky, Yosef Blau, David Weinback, Robert Hirt or Herschel Schachter”—all senior Y.U. staff or officials—“who were accused of failing to act upon information given to them about abuse in the 148-page lawsuit filed by alleged victims.”

Click to see the rest of the section, Click for more stories about abuse at Y.U.

“Unlike the lawsuit,” the article stated, “the report does not mention any dates, locations, and details of abuse. It does not detail information about where additional abuse happened at Yeshiva University.”

Brown told the Forward that while he had total confidence that physical and sexual abuse could not go unpunished at Y.U. today, the report was too frustratingly short on detail. “To me, we’re back at square one,” Brown said. “The lesson of this was that these people [Y.U. administrators and staff] put the institution above the students, and what do we see now?” The institution appears to be doing the same again, he said.

Y.U. never publicly promised to release the full investigation that Cromwell & Sullivan submitted. In a statement released shortly after it hired the law firm in January, the school’s board of trustees said only, “We expect the findings of the investigation will be communicated to the public following completion of the investigation.”

But the report Y.U. ultimately released stated, “It was the intention of the Board of Trustees to have made public a report which would have set forth the specific details of the extensive interviews conducted and documents reviewed by the Investigative Team.” It was, the report said, the lawsuit filed against the school in July by former Y.U. high school students who claimed they had been sexually abused that led the board’s Special Committee to release the investigators’ findings “in summary fashion.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who now number 34, are seeking $380 million in damages. One of the plaintiffs, who asked that his identity not be revealed because he is not identified in the lawsuit, said: “If [the Modern Orthodox community] accepts this kind of report, it shows they condone sexual abuse because instead of openness we have a complete, total coverup again.”

But Juda Engelmayer, a former Y.U. high school student who was initially cynical about the investigation after being interviewed by Y.U.’s investigation team earlier this year, said he was impressed with the report. “They seem to indicate serious things happened,” said Engelmayer, who contacted investigators because he knew, secondhand, of abuse.

“Because of what I do,” added Engelmayer, a public relations executive, “I understand that when there’s a lawsuit present, there are things you cannot say. As principled and as high a road as you might want to take, that might not be in Y.U.’s best interest.”

“Now, we have to see how they choose to address the victims,” Engelmayer said.

Last year, a report into allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up over many years at Penn State University was released fully and without preconditions by the school, despite pending legal action. In that case, former FBI director Louis Freeh, published a damning, 144-page report that blamed key Penn State administrators, including its president and the school’s revered longtime football coach, Joe Paterno, for covering up abuse allegations over 14 years.

In the Forward’s December 2012 article, Rabbi Norman Lamm, a former president of Y.U., said that during his tenure, which ran from 1976 to 2003, he dealt with credible allegations of improper behavior against staff by quietly allowing them to leave and find jobs elsewhere. The allegations were made against staff “not only at [Y.U.’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school,” Lamm said.

Lamm presided over three Y.U. high schools — two boys schools and one school for girls — three undergraduate schools and several other schools such as the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

In the December article and in subsequent reports, the Forward interviewed about 20 students who said they were abused by Finkelstein and by Gordon, a senior Talmud instructor, covering a period from the late 1970’s into the early 1990’s. Finkelstein, an administrator, served as the school’s principal during part of this time.

There was initial skepticism when Y.U. announced it would commission an independent investigation. Y.U.’s board issued a statement in January that said: “The Board of Trustees is fully aware that it will be judged on the manner in which it conducts this critical and sensitive matter and, in that connection, will, as always, seek to meet, if not exceed, the best possible practices employed by institutions that have confronted similar circumstances.”

Sullivan & Cromwell hired Lisa Friel, a former head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s sex crimes unit, to assist with the investigation. Friel heads up a sexual misconduct consulting and investigations division of T & M Protection Resources.

The investigative team conducted more than 145 interviews and sifted through tens of thousands of paper documents, including items from university archives, personnel and payroll files.

The report stated that the team reviewed 70,000 emails “that hit on a broadly-defined set of targeted search terms” dating back to 2003. But it said that the period in which Y.U. failed to deal adequately with abuse ended in 2001. The report noted that 70 people either did not respond or declined to be interviewed by investigators. It said that the attorneys who represent former students suing Y.U. did not make their clients available for interview.

At least one of those students, Barry Singer, told the Forward that he was interviewed by investigators in February. Kevin Mulhearn, who represents the majority of the alleged victims, said that he provided investigators with a fact sheet, detailing the assaults against each of his clients and the reports of the assaults that they made to Y.U.

Y.U.’s president, Richard Joel, issued a statement August 26 expressing his “deepest and most heartfelt remorse” for the findings of the Sullivan & Cromwell report which, he said, “serve as a source of profound shame and sadness for our institution.”

Joel said that Y.U.’s board and community “truly hope that our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims.” Joel, who took over the Y.U. presidency in 2003, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief when the report was published.

The report absolves the current administration of any blame.

“The University’s response to allegations of physical and sexual abuse that occurred at the University since 2001… significantly improved,” the report found. “Indeed, with respect to all such allegations, the Investigative Team found that the University acted decisively to address the allegations and to ensure the safety of the University’s students.”

The bulk of the report focused on Y.U.’s existing policies and guidelines on bullying, harassment and physical and sexual abuse.

The report praised Y.U.’s current guidelines before offering a raft of measures that would improve student safety and wellbeing. The measures were intended for students of Y.U.’s boys and girls high schools only. The report noted that further examination of similar guidelines for Y.U.’s schools of higher education was needed.

Y.U. will not reveal which of its board members served on the Special Committee overseeing the investigation.

Although the Sullivan & Cromwell report stated that details could not be revealed because of pending litigation, the report did not say whether further information would be released once litigation was complete.

The Forward sent a list of questions to Y.U.’s executive director of communications and public affairs, Michael Scagnoli, on August 26 and August 27. The Forward asked:

*Which members of YU’s board are on the committee that oversaw the investigation team?

*How many alleged abusers have been identified by the investigation team?

*How many victims have been identified by the investigation team?

*In addition to Y.U.’s Manhattan high school for boys, at which other Y.U. schools were instances of physical and sexual abuse discovered?

*Once the litigation is complete, will YU commit to releasing the report in full?

Scagnoli did not respond.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger



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