Last year, when Pennsylvania State University finally acknowledged that it needed to thoroughly probe allegations that one of its top coaches had abused boys in his care, it turned to former FBI chief Louis Freeh to conduct the investigation. Eight months later, after he and his team interviewed 430 witnesses and examined 3.5 million emails and documents, Freeh issued a 267-page report and discussed it at a televised news conference. Openness, personified.
Contrast that with the way Yeshiva University is responding to the allegations reported in the Forward that two of its staff members repeatedly abused students at its Manhattan high school for boys, and then allowed the alleged abusers to leave quietly. Y.U.’s board of trustees hired a respected international law firm, which in turn hired an abuse expert, to conduct what it calls a “full and completely independent investigation.” But the university will not say what will happen to the final report, whether it will be delivered orally or in writing, or whether it will ever be made public.
Yeshiva University is arguably the most important educational institution in the Orthodox world. It owes its students, its alumni, its many donors and supporters a far more transparent accounting of why abusive behavior was apparently allowed to persist for decades in what appeared to be known to everyone but those in charge.
And Y.U. does not have to look only to Penn State as a model, which is, after all, a massive public institution operating outside the framework of Jewish law. Instead, it can look closer to home, to the commission charged with investigating allegations of sexual abuse and financial improprieties by Rabbi Baruch Lanner when he was head of the Orthodox Jewish youth group now known as NCSY.
NCSY is sponsored by the Orthodox Union, and after The New York Jewish Week exposed Lanner in a brave series published in 2000, the O.U. appointed a nine-member special commission. Five of those members had no ties whatsoever to the O.U. (Y.U. won’t say if the law firm it hired, Sullivan & Cromwell, has ties to the university.)
The law firm brought on to assist the investigation reported to the special commission, not to the O.U. (Sullivan & Cromwell report to the Y.U. board.)
The commission interviewed 175 witnesses and estimated that it reviewed 50,000 pages of documents gathered from the O.U. national office, the regional office in New Jersey where Lanner worked, and from various witnesses.
The stark conclusions — that Lanner had, indeed, abused NCSY youngsters and had diverted donations for personal use — were made public in a 54-page executive summary that still is available from the O.U. (The full 332-page report has never been released.) No such transparency is promised by Y.U. so far.
There’s another reason that this analogy is instructive. The chair of the Lanner Commission was Richard Joel, then the president and international director of Hillel. Joel is now president of Y.U. If anyone should know about the need for a truly independent investigation of charges involving harm to children and young adults, it is he.
So the Forward asked Joel in an email: “How can the public be assured that the investigation conducted by Sullivan & Cromwell will be as independent as the Lanner report?” He declined to answer.
There’s another issue here that needs addressing. The allegations against the Y.U. high school rabbis concerned incidents from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Some of those who apologize for the school’s apparent indifference to the charges say that’s because it was a different time, a time when our society was not as sensitive to child sexual abuse and was less inclined to believe such stories from youngsters.
There’s no doubt that awareness has heightened after scandals at Penn State, and before that, within the Catholic Church. But to imply that such actions were universally acceptable and therefore understandably ignored is not only a moral abdication. It defies federal and state law.
According to Sandi McLeod, a technical specialist at the Child Welfare Information Gateway, “by 1967, an estimated 44 states had adopted some form of legislation requiring professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect.”
New York State was one of them. Then in 1974, the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act required all states to implement mandatory reporting of abuse by appropriate professionals. Teachers and school administrators, of course, are among those professionals.
Did all school officials follow these rules? Obviously not. But they should have. It was the law. It remains the law. The issue was clearly important and public enough for the majority of states to tackle it even before Congress did. And that was nearly 40 years ago.
So the argument that “things were different then” and that abuse can be explained or excused is merely a deplorable attempt to avoid true accountability. Yeshiva University has much more to do if it is genuinely going to come clean about its past and protect its future.