Richard Joel Knew About Yeshiva Sex Abuse Allegations, Documents Show
When an investigative team appointed by Yeshiva University reported in August that the school had “failed to appropriately act to protect the safety of its students or did not respond” to credible allegations that they’d been sexually abused, it drew an important caveat: This dereliction of responsibility had continued, the investigators said, “until 2001.”
After that, “the University acted decisively to address the allegations,” the investigators stated.
As a result of these findings, Y.U.’s current president, Richard Joel, was spared any stigma stemming from the scandal, which involved several decades of alleged sexual abuse by faculty and staff. The problem was pegged instead to the tenure of his predecessor, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
But internal documents obtained by the Forward indicate that, in fact, Joel, who arrived at Y.U. in 2003, was told both before and after he became president about allegations against Rabbi George Finkelstein, the former principal of a Y.U. high school — and that he declined to intervene in the first instance or respond in the second.
The documents show that Mordechai Twersky, a Y.U. alum who is now one of 34 former students suing Y.U. for having failed to protect them, approached Joel in 2000 and again in 2004 to complain about the abuse he had suffered as a high school student at Finkelstein’s hands. But Joel did not take those complaints seriously, according to the documents.
“I spoke with him a bit,” Joel explained in a 2004 email to a colleague, describing a complaint Twersky made to him years before he took up his post at Y.U. “[I] told him to get on with his life, that I didn’t see a case and that Finkelstein was out of the education business.”
A Forward investigation at the beginning of this year revealed that as recently as 2009, a police complaint was made against Finkelstein by a young man in Israel, where Finkelstein worked as director general of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Israeli police dropped that case because of insufficient evidence.
Today, Finkelstein is at the center of a $380 million lawsuit brought by the former Y.U. students in federal court in New York.
Twenty-nine of those men say they were abused by Finkelstein, who was forced out of Y.U.’s Manhattan high school for boys in 1995 after 27 years service. Many of the former students described how Finkelstein wrestled them to the floor in a Y.U. school office or at Finkelstein’s home and, while fully clothed, rubbed his erect penis against their body.
Karen Bitar, a lawyer representing Y.U., recently told a federal judge that while Y.U. took the allegations seriously, the events took place at a time “when the [mores] or what was deemed typical or appropriate was much different than what it is today.”
A Y.U. spokesman declined to comment for this story.
The documents obtained by the Forward show that as recently as 2004, Y.U. administrators discussed allegations that Finkelstein wrestled with a student in a high school office. But Y.U. does not appear to have fully investigated those allegations until a series of articles appeared in the Forward, beginning in December 2012.
The articles named Finkelstein and another former member of Y.U. staff, Rabbi Macy Gordon, as alleged abusers. Until recently, Y.U. awarded scholarships in each of their names. Richard Andron, a regular visitor to Y.U.’s high school dormitory, is also named in the lawsuit.
Y.U.’s subsequent eight-month internal investigation, overseen by a select committee of Y.U.’s board of trustees, found “multiple incidents of varying types of sexual and physical abuse” committed by various unnamed people from the mid-1970s through the 1990s at Y.U.’s high school and at other, unnamed, Y.U. institutions.
Y.U. has released only a three-paragraph summary of the investigation’s findings regarding the abuse allegations. It declined to make the report itself public, citing the pending lawsuit. But in the summary, Y.U.’s investigators drew a clear line between the school’s handling of such allegations before and after 2001.
In a 2004 email, Twersky wrote to Joel to remind him of a time three years previously when he consulted Joel “about three personal instances of sexual harassment” committed by Finkelstein.
At the time, Twersky turned to Joel — who was then head of Hillel, the national college campus outreach program — because Joel had just completed a landmark investigation into allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse against Rabbi Baruch Lanner a Modern Orthodox educator and youth leader.
Now, in 2004, Twersky said that he was contacting Joel again — this time as Y.U.’s president — about Finkelstein because he intended to sue Y.U.
A few hours after Joel received Twersky’s email, he forwarded it to Sheldon Socol, Y.U.’s vice president of business affairs.
“Sheldon, this fellow called me three years ago, while fresh from the Lanner case to ask my advice re suing Y.U. over alleged harassment by George Finkelstein — to wit, wrestling with him in the principal’s office,” Joel wrote. It was in the note to Socol that Joel said he told Twersky three years ago “to get on with his life.” He asked Socol how to proceed now.
In his response, Socol told Joel not to reply to Twersky.
“There was prior correspondence with him years ago and Israel Miller [a former senior vice president of Y.U., who died in 2002] met with him,” Socol replied. “It was then decided after listening to Twersky’s claim that it lacked substance and Twersky was so advised.”
Socol added that he would “try to locate the file on the matter.” But, he told Joel “you, as President, should not (at this point) become directly involved.”
According to Twersky, Joel never responded to his 2004 email.
Asked if Y.U.’s investigators had been given access to the 2004 email, Michael Scagnoli, the school’s chief spokesman, said, “As you know, we cannot comment on any matters relating to the litigation.”
In previous interviews with the Forward, Twersky said that Miller invited him to visit in Jerusalem, in 2000. The visit was a response to a correspondence Twersky sent to Y.U.’s then-president, Lamm, complaining of being abused by Finkelstein.
Twersky said Miller dissuaded him from taking legal action.
Y.U. has never acknowledged receiving these complaints or dealing with them. But the newly disclosed email appears to support Twersky’s claim.
The Forward has also obtained a copy of the August 2000 email Twersky sent to Lamm.
In that email, Twersky refers to a complaint he made to Lamm about Finkelstein soon after Twersky left the high school, during the early 1980’s.
They were “incidents you said you simply refused to believe,” Twersky wrote to Lamm.
In his 2000 email, Twersky tells Lamm that he does not intend to “blow the lid off the Finkelstein story and raise profound questions about who at the University at all levels knew what and when.”
But Twersky added that he had spent a great deal of money on bills for psychologists and an attorney because of his abuse. “I do think I am entitled to financial compensation for what was done to me,” he wrote. The documents have come to light at a critical time for both sides in the lawsuit.
A federal judge is due to rule shortly on a motion submitted by Y.U. for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that the statute of limitations has passed. In New York, both civil and criminal cases of child sexual abuse must be brought before a victim turns 23.
Y.U.’s lawyers say the students, who are now mostly in their forties and fifites, waited decades too long to bring their lawsuit.
Kevin Mulhearn, a lawyer for the students, says that the statute of limitations does not apply, because Y.U. fraudulently covered up the abuse.
Mulhearn’s request to seek discovery of internal Y.U. documents that he argued would allow him to prove his case was denied by the judge.
Karen Burstein, a former judge, said that the recently emerged emails would have no effect on the motion to dismiss the case that is still pending before the court.
But Burstein, a former Democratic nominee for New York State attorney general, said the “disturbing” documents are indicative of “a possible coverup.” She said that they suggest “intentional acts by the university to forestall litigation by dissuading people from believing they had a case.”