The nation’s leading Orthodox rabbinical organization is being accused of betraying women who say they were sexually abused or harassed by a prominent New York rabbi hailed for counseling women about their troubled marriages.
Critics of the Rabbinical Council of America are blasting the group for giving Rabbi Mordecai Tendler and his attorney, Arnold Kriss, a copy of an internal report on the sexual harassment allegations, including the names of women who claimed Tendler harassed them. Kriss has vehemently denied the allegations against his client.
The RCA — the major association of Modern Orthodox rabbis — is being roundly criticized by outside experts, as well several women who say that when they cooperated with the investigation they never gave permission for their names to be shared. Tendler, the scion of a prominent rabbinic family, is the son of Yeshiva University Professor Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a leading Orthodox expert on bioethical issues, and a grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Orthodox world’s most respected religious arbiter for much of the 20th century.
Based on past experiences with Tendler and with his supporters, several women who cooperated with the RCA investigation said that they are scared about possible retaliation against them.
One of the alleged victims who cooperated with the investigation, Jillian Gordon, 42, slammed the RCA’s decision to give Tendler the report as “a betrayal of women, an act of extreme negligence and indiscretion, and a violation of privacy.”
“Frankly I felt re-victimized,” said Gordon, who accused Tendler of sexually harassing her after she turned to him for marriage counseling.
Several national experts on religious abuse told the Forward that they believe disclosing the report without the victims’ permission, as is charged, violates generally accepted standards on how complaints from alleged abuse victims should be handled. At the very least, the experts said, the women should have been asked whether they wanted their names to be released to Tendler, and they should have been given the chance to withdraw their complaint if they did not.
The RCA “blew this big-time,” said Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn. attorney who for two decades has represented survivors of sexual abuse by clergy from all religions.
Marci Hamilton, an expert in religious abuse cases and a professor at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, sounded a similar note. The allegations against the RCA constitute “gross negligence on the part of the religious organization,” she said.
“It’s incredible. Supposedly these are religious organizations that are oriented to helping the weak, but nobody seems to care about [the women],” Hamilton said. By giving Tendler the names of his accusers, she said, the RCA appears to have “failed in its legal, moral and religious obligations.”
The president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Carol Newman, said that “if it turns out that names were released, it calls into question the ability of the RCA to confront allegations of rabbinic abuse in a fair and equitable manner, and will have terrible long-term implications.”
The RCA’s decision to turn over the report to Tendler was first cited last week by The New York Jewish Week. An August 27 article in the Forward first revealed the RCA investigation and the allegations against Tendler.
The mounting controversy threatens not only to embarrass a prominent rabbinic family, but also to undermine the credibility of the RCA. With more than 1,000 members, the Orthodox rabbinical council deals with a wide range of religious and social issues, in addition to sponsoring an influential rabbinical court.
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, told the Forward that it is the policy of the organization not to discuss internal investigations. Herring would not comment on how long the investigation would take.
The RCA’s ethics committee is reportedly scheduled to hold a meeting this month regarding the allegations and the report.
One high-ranking RCA official, who asked not to be identified, defended the organization’s decision to hand over the report to Tendler.
“There is nothing unusual about an accused person getting information in order to help him defend himself,” the high-ranking RCA official said. “This is true both in secular law and in Jewish law, which presumes that an accused person has a right to defend himself.”
The RCA official added: “Hypothetically speaking, I can’t imagine how a person making an accusation could expect that it would not be presented to the accused, unless, of course, in extreme cases, like organized crime, where the witnesses need to be protected.”
Hamilton, the Cardozo professor, rejected the attempt to compare the current situation to a criminal case.
“This constant analogy to criminal law just breaks down,” Hamilton said. She stated that in a criminal proceeding, a victim must agree to cooperate in order for the prosecutor to proceed and press charges.
Hamilton said “that’s a far cry from agreeing to be identified and named to the accused. If someone does not want to press charges against criminal behavior, they have that choice.”
A respected authority on his grandfather’s writings and a part-time instructor at Y.U., Tendler also has emerged as a leading defender of the increasingly beleaguered Modern Orthodox community of Monsey, N.Y., in its communal turf struggles against the dominant ultra-Orthodox majority. Tendler is the founder and religious leader of Kehillat New Hempstead, a Modern Orthodox congregation near Monsey. During his tenure there, he has earned praise from Orthodox feminist leaders for his open-minded approach to women’s issues. He composed a popular prayer on behalf of agunot , or women who have been unable to secure a religious divorce decree from their husbands.
RCA insiders say the worst they could do is expel Tendler from the organization — a decision that would not directly impact his pulpit position.
The report comprising the women’s names, which was passed along to Tendler last month, contained interviews with at least eight alleged victims, sources familiar with the case told the Forward.
Dallas-based sexual abuse investigation agency Praesidium, Inc. was hired by the RCA to look into the women’s complaints. It built upon an earlier case file compiled in late 2003 by a vice president of the RCA, Rabbi Mark Dratch.
This past summer, Praesidium conducted telephone interviews with alleged victims and other witnesses concerning supposed incidents spanning the last 12 years.
Several women told the Forward that they believed they had been assured by Praesidium, as well as by a high-ranking RCA official, that their names would be kept confidential.
Praesidium officials declined to comment.
Sources familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that after Tendler’s lawyer, Kriss, demanded the document, the RCA decided to give Praesidium’s report to Tendler without consulting the women. Kriss contended that he had a right to prepare a defense for his client, and an RCA legal adviser agreed, the sources said.
Kriss refused to discuss the report during a phone interview with the Forward last week. “I certainly have no comment as to whether there is or there isn’t a report,” he said.
According to sources familiar with the situation, in June the RCA hired Praesidium in an attempt to assure all parties that the investigation was impartial. The firm boasts of having investigated more than 400 cases of abuse, including cases involving the pedophile scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.
Several women said that they were interviewed by Praesidium’s senior vice president, Jane Hickerson.
Hickerson declined to discuss the company’s general policies and procedures in handling abuse cases, including issues of confidentiality. “Our standard policy is we don’t respond,” to media questions, she said last week. Hickerson referred questions to Monica Applewhite, president of the company’s religious services, who did not return phone calls.
One alleged victim who was interviewed by Praesidium said an RCA official previously had promised that her name would be kept confidential and that “Rabbi Tendler wouldn’t see it.”
“So later,” the alleged victim said, “when the [Praesidium] investigator came to hear my story, I understood that the information would still remain out of Tendler’s hands.”
The woman, a former member of Tendler’s congregation, said that after she and her husband started going to Tendler for counseling, the rabbi started studying Torah with her and would occasionally rub up against her, as if by accident.
“One day as we were learning together, he propositioned me,” she said.
The woman said that soon after confronting Tendler about his behavior, the rabbi phoned her husband, accused him of “behaving very arrogantly” and threatened to have him excommunicated. In addition, she said, Tendler warned that “my husband would lose his job” and would be unable to find a place to pray in Monsey.
American Jewish Congress general counsel Marc Stern, who has been acting as counsel to the RCA committee investigating the allegations against Tendler, refused to comment on the case or on the procedures being followed by the RCA.
However, in a letter to the Forward responding to the August article on the investigation into the allegations against Tendler, Stern appeared to outline the RCA’s general approach. “The RCA is determined to protect the rights and dignity of both complainants and the accused,” he wrote. “The investigation is a manifestation of the RCA’s commitment to vigorously pursuing accusations of misconduct against its members in a manner consistent with halacha [Jewish law], including procedural fairness to all concerned.”
Stern added: “Complaints against rabbis should not be treated as presumptively unfounded. Equally, rabbis should not be presumed guilty in the press merely because a complaint alleging misconduct has been filed.”
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, criticized such attempts at balance. “This mistaken notion that somehow everyone’s rights here deserve equal weight, is simply not true,” Clohessy said. The accused rabbi’s interests “pale before the interests of the safety of vulnerable women.”