On January 30, a federal court judge threw out the $680 million lawsuit brought against Yeshiva University by 34 former students of its high school for boys who claimed they were sexually abused in the 1970s and ’80s.
The suit also pinpointed Y.U. officials, trustees, board members and faculty as responsible for a “massive cover-up” of the abuse. As expected, the judge pointed out in his 52-page opinion that the statute of limitations had expired decades ago.
I was one of those abused in the early ’70s, though I chose not to be part of the lawsuit. But now that “we are moving forward,” as a Y.U. press release declared, I suggest it is important that the leadership of the self-proclaimed “North America’s Torah-informed institution” (“Torah informed,” for those who may not know, is Jewish insider language for “most authentically religious and ethical”) understand, as should leadership of many religious institutions these days guilty of such crimes, that from God’s perspective there is no statute of limitations.
Decades-long tolerance of abuse of teenage boys is never merely a legal issue. In the court of the ethical, psychological, and spiritual, Y.U., like myriad religious institutions plagued by this behavior, is more than guilty. Y.U has exhibited a real lack of transparency in this case, neither releasing the full text of an independent investigation carried out last year nor making public the names of the board committee members specially appointed to deal with this issue.
Actions like these make the university perpetrators of exactly what allows sexual abuse to continue for years — secrecy. It is a privileging and protecting of institutional reputation over people victimized by Y.U.’s “religious” leadership. (It should be clear that there was no legal reason to keep the full report secret, as it had no bearing on whether or not the statute of limitations had expired. Also, if the ruling had been that the statute of limitations had not expired, Y.U. would have had to disclose the report in discovery anyway.)
Y.U. could have been a model for how traditional religious institutions deal with young people who have been sexually molested by self-styled holy men while other selfstyled holy men shielded the abusers from judicial consequences. All religious institutions, especially those with traditional systems of hierarchy and strong male authority, need to go beyond the letter of the law and engage in repentance and in serious ethical and spiritual reflection befitting theological schools.
It is time for religious institutions to seriously question the relationship between sexual abuse of teenage boys and range of other factors — a patriarchal worldview, sexual repression, the belief leadership holds that “God is with me,” the belief that forgiveness is but a confession or a prayer away, access to young peoplewho accept authority, the dynamics of faith, which, to a child, perhaps makes sexual requests no more bizarre than any number of other extreme rituals, the unquestioning trust of people in its clergy, religious people’s aversion to learning the distasteful truth about a religious leader, the reluctance to go to the police and start a scandal, since religious institutions also do so much good.
By not examining these various dynamics and making these nasty crimes merely American legal issues and carefully crafted public relations challenges, religious institutions like Y.U. show that their wisdom and ways (their Torah) can’t actually function in the contemporary world. Rather than being sacred, life-affirming, wisdom-based institutions, they are models of shame and defamation of the spiritual and ethical — of the very God they imagine knowing. They simply ensure that Americans will increasingly disconnect from and be suspicious of organized religion.
But then, for decades now we have known that those who claim with most certainty and fierceness to know God’s will and who see themselves most clearly as God’s chosen actually most embarrass the God they claim to know and are so much less worthy than those over whom they imagine to be so superior.
Irwin Kula is a rabbi and the president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.