Yeshiva U. Sex Abuse Probe Stalls Amid Fear and Mistrust
It has been more than four months since Yeshiva University hired an international law firm to investigate allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse at a Y.U.-run high school.
Yet investigators working for the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell still have not contacted several former Y.U. school staff and students who described the abuse in a series of articles published in the Forward last year.
Meanwhile, many other former students who have been contacted say they refused to cooperate with investigators because they do not trust Y.U.’s motives. Such mistrust has only increased since Y.U. retained another international law firm, Greenberg Traurig, to fight a possible multiparty civil lawsuit.
Barry Singer, a former student who has spoken to a Y.U. investigator, said the investigator “made it clear that she had nothing to do with any sort of defense that Yeshiva might mount.” But, Singer added, she also told him that Greenberg Traurig “can use whatever they gather” to defend against a civil lawsuit.
Singer said he believed that the investigator, Lisa Friel, a sex abuse expert hired by Sullivan & Cromwell to assist with its investigation, was well intentioned. But he added that Friel has no control over how much of the information she gathers will be made public.
“It’s not really about her investigation at all,” Singer said. “It’s about [the Y.U. board], of course, and what they do with it.”
Despite protests from Y.U. alumni, Y.U.’s board has not committed to making the results of its investigation public. Instead, the board’s most recent statement, published in January, said. “We expect the findings of the investigation will be communicated to the public following completion of the investigation.”
The board will not say which of its members are overseeing the investigation. Several board members reached by the Forward declined to comment. Jayne Beker, who is listed as a board member on Y.U.’s website, said she knew nothing about the investigation and had not taken part in board meetings for some time. Ronald P. Stanton, a chairman emeritus, declined to answer any questions. “I can’t help you, sorry.” Stanton said, and then cut off the call.
Y.U.’s board launched what it called an “independent investigation” into the alleged abuse in December 2012. The investigation followed an article in the Forward citing several men who said they were abused by two former staff members at Y.U.’s High School for Boys, in Manhattan.
Since then, about 20 former students have told the Forward they were emotionally, physically or sexually abused by Rabbi Macy Gordon, a former Talmud teacher, or by Rabbi George Finkelstein, the school’s former principal, over a period spanning three decades. Both men, who deny the allegations, served at the school for about 25 years. Gordon left the school around 1984. Finkelstein left the school in 1995.
Several former students said they or their parents informed Y.U. staff members of the abuse either at the time or after they left the school, but no action was taken.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was president of Y.U. from 1976 until 2003 and is now chancellor, appeared to suggest in a December interview at his home that the abuse was even more widespread. Lamm told the Forward that during his tenure, law enforcement officials were never notified, despite “charges of improper sexual activity” made against staff “not only at [Y.U.’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school.”
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a dean of Y.U.’s rabbinical school, told the New York Times in December that in addition to rabbis Gordon and Finkelstein he knew of another staff member who was dismissed for inappropriate behavior with students.
In the wake of the allegations, Y.U.’s board swiftly assured staff, students and alumni that Sullivan & Cromwell had been hired “to conduct a full and independent investigation of the allegations as well as to review our current policies and procedures.”
In statements posted to Y.U.’s website, the board assured alumni that it would “only be satisfied with a broad and far-reaching investigation” and that Sullivan & Cromwell had been given “the unrestricted authority to pursue any leads that may shed light on all matters related to the investigation.”
But the Forward has found that many people who were named months ago as having information about the abuse have yet to be contacted.
Elan Adler, a director of Y.U.’s school dormitory from 1981 to 1986, told the Forward in December that some boys complained to him about Finkelstein’s “inappropriately aggressive” wrestling. In an April 23 email, Adler said that investigators had not contacted him and that he had no idea an investigation had been launched.
Coby Hakalir, a former high school student, told the Forward in December about an atmosphere of “constant [fear]” that pervaded the school during the 1990s. Hakalir said on April 23 that he did not know an investigation was being conducted. “It’s not that hard to find me,” he added. Investigators contacted him on April 30, after the Forward asked about his case.
Investigators have also failed so far to pursue obvious leads that people familiar with Y.U. might explore. Abuse victims in the Orthodox community often turn to Rabbi Yosef Blau, a long-standing victims advocate who has been a spiritual adviser at Y.U. for almost 40 years. The Forward is aware of at least one person who contacted Blau during the past few years to say that a Y.U. staff member abused him decades ago. However, investigators have not contacted Blau.
Blau said that he had not taken the initiative to contact investigators, because they are only interested in “people who were personally abused.” In fact, the investigators’ mandate is much wider; they have interviewed several former students who have secondhand knowledge of abuse. “I can’t tell you for sure what are the full guidelines given to the law firm and how they chose to function,” Blau said. “Did they send a message to people working at Y.U., asking for anyone who knows anything to please contact us? I don’t recall that.”
Perhaps the most striking omission is the investigators’ failure thus far to contact Mordechai Twersky. Twersky wrote about his allegations of abuse at Y.U.’s high school in an online publication, the Y.U. Beacon, in February last year. Since then, he has been quoted extensively in the Forward about the abuse he says he suffered and also about his repeated attempts to alert first Lamm and then the current Y.U. president, Richard Joel.
Twersky is among about 20 former students who have retained a lawyer to launch a possible multiparty lawsuit against Y.U. He said that the potential lawsuit, as well as his deep mistrust of Y.U., meant that he would likely decline to speak to investigators. Nevertheless, he said, the symbolism of investigators “not reaching out” to him is striking.
Certainly, the investigation has been complicated by the potential lawsuit.
Abuse victims in New York have until their 23rd birthday to bring a civil claim of child sexual abuse. But that has not stopped some victims from winning settlements in cases where alleged incidents fall well beyond the statute of limitations.
Kevin Mulhearn won just such a settlement last year on behalf of 12 men who said they were sexually abused by football coach Philip Foglietta at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day School.
Now, he represents the former Y.U. students who, Mulhearn said, have helped him compile a dossier showing that Y.U. administrators “facilitated, condoned and excused” the abuse of students over decades.
Such a lawsuit could be embarrassing for some of Modern Orthodoxy’s most respected leaders. It could also deal a blow to Y.U.’s fundraising at a critical time.
Y.U., which recently launched a drive to raise $600 million toward a capital campaign and scholarships, has suffered significant financial problems lately. In June 2011, a Moody’s Investors Service analyst reported that “Yeshiva is reporting the largest operating cash flow deficits of any research university rated by Moody’s.” The analyst downgraded Y.U.’s credit rating, noting that “significant operating deficits and very thin operating cash flow are key components to the rating downgrade and maintenance of the negative outlook.”
The Y.U. investigation is being led by Karen Seymour, a co-managing partner of Sullivan & Cromwell’s litigation group. Seymour, who specializes in internal investigations, said she could not say when the investigation might be completed. “We want to follow all the leads, and so we’re still in the midst of a very active investigation,” she said. “We’re moving as quickly as we can, because we want to get this completed.”
Seymour was reluctant to disclose many details of the investigation on the record. But she did reassure victims who were reticent to talk to her out of fear that their information could be turned against them during a civil lawsuit that their identities would be “anonymized.” She reiterated that the information is not being “gathered for the purposes of the defense.”
Still, many former students say they do not trust a law firm paid by Y.U. to conduct a truly independent investigation. “I did not trust that through my talking to them I would reach any sort of closure,” said one former student, who is in his late 40s and who did not wish to be named, in an email. “I had no assurances as to what Y.U. would do with any information I shared with them.”
The man said that the Forward’s articles about Y.U. had reawakened terrible memories that he had suppressed for decades. “People can’t and do not realize that the mind can hide something like this for years and then suffer flashbacks,” he said.
“I have been seeing a therapist since December and have been diagnosed with [post-traumatic stress disorder],” he added. “It keeps me awake some nights, or I wake up having had a nightmare. I am typing this with one hand because I finally snapped and punched a… wall and broke my hand about three weeks ago.”
After more than four months, Y.U.’s investigation is now longer than a three-month probe that Deerfield Academy, an elite Massachusetts boarding school, conducted into abuse allegations at its campus. It is also just one month short of a five-month investigation into abuse at the Orthodox Union’s youth organization, NCSY, which was led by Joel before he became president of Y.U.
At its current pace, the Y.U. investigation threatens to take as long as the probe into abuse at Penn State University, led by former FBI director Louis Freeh. Although that investigation, which took about eight months, included more than 400 interviews and the examination of more than 3.5 million emails and documents.
Asked how Y.U.’s investigation was progressing and when it might be completed, a Y.U. spokesman said the probe “continues to be ongoing, and as soon as it has been completed in the proper way and to the satisfaction of investigators, we will have an update to offer.” Asked whether there was a conflict of interest between Sullivan & Cromwell, whose mission is to shed light on the abuse, and Greenberg Traurig, whose mission is to protect Y.U from abuse claims, the spokesman did not respond.
A spokesman for Greenberg Traurig said no one from the firm was available to comment.
Some former students who have spoken to Y.U.’s investigators remain cynical. Although Juda Engelmayer was not abused at Y.U., he said that he contacted investigators because he knew, secondhand, of abuse. Engelmayer said he was disappointed by the investigators’ line of questioning. He said that the questions seemed more designed to explain why abusive behavior might have taken place than to seriously investigate what happened. “I don’t think they’re being genuine,” Engelmayer said.
Others were more sanguine. Neal Lehrman, who also knew secondhand of abuse, said that Friel appeared to be sincere. “She said, ‘The only thing I can tell you is I have been doing this for 25 years and I am not staking my reputation on something that’s going to be swallowed up,’” Lehrman said. When he last corresponded with Friel, she told him that the investigative team continued to interview “numerous people a week” and that the investigation would be complete “in about a month.”
That was on March 5.