An effort is under way, prompted by rabbinical colleagues of Baruch Lanner, to secure a plea bargain on behalf of the rabbi indicted last March for abusing teens.
According to one scenario, Rabbi Lanner, who is scheduled to go on trial this spring in Monmouth County, N.J., would publicly admit his guilt and avoid serving a jail sentence in the United States by agreeing to enter a prison-based rehabilitation program in Israel.
Advocates say the benefits of such an arrangement are that it would secure a guilty plea, establishing the rabbi’s culpability for actions he has consistently denied, while at the same time ensuring that he not spend time in a U.S. jail. It would also give him the opportunity to repair his life in a new setting, they say.
Neither Rabbi Lanner nor his lawyers are participating in these efforts, according to his attorney Julian Wilsey.
But on learning of the proposal, a number of alleged former victims of Rabbi Lanner, and several communal leaders, expressed outrage that respected rabbis would support such an effort, focusing their concern on an alleged abuser rather than possible future victims in Israel.
“What bothers me most is that rabbis are leading this effort,” said Judy Klitsner, an alleged victim of Rabbi Lanner who lives in Israel. “Some rabbis have protected him throughout the years and are still looking for ways to protect him from the consequences of his own actions.”
Klitsner said she was also concerned that Rabbi Lanner, whose reputation is not as well known in Israel, would inevitably gain a position there teaching and working with young people.
“We’d be right back where we started,” placing young men and women in jeopardy, she said.
“On behalf of the victims of Lanner now living in Israel,” she said, “we don’t want him here, and we put no stock in rehabilitative efforts.”
Similarly, Marcie Lenk, another alleged victim, faulted rabbis for failing to grasp the seriousness of Rabbi Lanner’s offenses, as detailed in public and private reports by the Orthodox Union’s special commission.
Comparing the case to that of a Catholic priest in Boston who was moved from parish to parish by his archdiocese over a period of 30 years as reports came in about his sexual abuse of young boys, Lenk said that by advocating Rabbi Lanner go to Israel, the rabbis “want to move him to the next parish” rather than remove him from working with youngsters.
Lenk said she finds it difficult to believe Rabbi Lanner “has been or will be rehabilitated,” not only because medical experts say such a behavioral change is extremely rare but because “he has never shown remorse, never apologized and never admitted” serious wrongdoing.
Though none of the parties involved would discuss the matter on the record, according to informed sources Nosson Friedman, a respected member of the Orthodox community who has voluntarily helped Jews in prison the last dozen years, was approached several months ago by two faculty members at Yeshiva University who expressed concern about the possibility of Rabbi Lanner going to jail.
They are Rabbi Heshie Reichman, a cousin of Rabbi Lanner, and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, a longtime supporter who housed Rabbi Lanner after the accused rabbi’s divorce two years ago.
Friedman agreed to pursue the matter on a volunteer basis, firmly believing that Jews should not be in prison because they are treated badly there and that everything possible should be done to prevent such situations. He has met with Rabbi Lanner and one of his attorneys and with several other sympathetic rabbis on the Yeshiva University faculty long associated with Rabbi Lanner.
Friedman has met as well with health care professionals and community leaders in an effort to come up with a proposal agreeable to all parties. If and when that happens, the prosecutors in the case would be approached before trial. The prosecution typically initiates a plea bargain.
What upsets Richard Joel, the chairman of the special OU commission and a former prosecutor, in this instance is “the notion that people in the Jewish community would take a proactive role in this matter with an eye toward the treatment of the defendant rather than concern for the community. I find this highly inappropriate.
“The Jewish community has to make sure it pays attention to the issues of abuse rather than the abuser,” he said.
[As part of a panel at an Edah-sponsored program at the JCC in Manhattan last week on “Moral Offenses by Religious Leaders,” Joel, in discussing the Lanner case, emphasized that each member of the community is responsible to prevent immoral behavior. “Leaders are not the issue,” he said. “We are. The client is not the professional, it’s the children, it’s the community.” (See story on next page.)
Murray Sragow, coordinator of a group of concerned National Conference of Synagogue Youth parents in New Jersey, said he is bothered that “the rabbis seem to acknowledge Lanner has a problem but are unwilling to deal with it themselves and want to shift it to others. Whether it is willful blindness on their part or a lack of appreciation for who Lanner is, it is hard for me to believe that rabbis would act this way if they understood the danger he represents.”
According to sources, Friedman has been in touch with Herut Lapid, a well-known advocate of prison rehabilitation in Israel who has a program in Ramla. During a YU student solidarity trip to Israel in January, Rabbis Reichman and Yudin met with Lapid, but whether or not he would accept Rabbi Lanner into his program as part of a negotiated deal is unclear. Lapid could not be reached for comment.
More recently, an alternative and more stringent plan reportedly has been discussed by Friedman. In this scenario, Rabbi Lanner would remain in America, pleading guilty in court as well as in a public forum to victims, and agreeing to follow the recommendations of a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he would present a risk to the community.
At this point, Friedman appears to be working on this issue independently, with advice from others but not in cooperation with Rabbi Lanner’s attorneys, hoping to build support for a solution that would keep the rabbi out of jail while holding him responsible for his alleged actions.
Health professionals and social workers place great value on the benefits, for victims and perpetrators, in having an alleged abuser state clearly and definitively that he and he alone was responsible for his actions, and that the victim (or survivor, the preferred term among professionals) was in no way responsible for the abuse that took place.
“This is a primary basis of treatment,” said David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel Children’s Home and Family Service in Brooklyn, which deals with problems of abuse in the Orthodox community.
In general, Mandel said, “the survivor needs to hear it and the perpetrator needs to admit it.”
Rabbi Lanner was indicted last March by a Monmouth County grand jury on six criminal counts — two counts each of aggravated criminal sexual conduct, criminal sexual conduct and endangering the welfare of a child. The crimes are second-, third- and fourth-degree offenses. A second-degree offense carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
The rabbi is scheduled to go on trial this spring for alleged offenses against two teenage girls who were students in the 1990s at the Hillel Yeshiva High School in Deal, N.J., where Rabbi Lanner served as principal for 15 years, leaving amid a cloud of suspicion in 1997.
The new professional head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, said his organization has no position on the Lanner trial or possible plea bargain.
“It is up to the justice system to determine his innocence or guilt,” Rabbi Weinreb said. “We are moving ahead with a nine-point plan for NCSY in acting on the recommendations of the special commission.”
While not commenting on the Lanner case or making any value judgments on the matter, Rabbi Weinreb, who is also a psychotherapist, said “the community should take all precautions” against allowing predators “to abuse innocent victims.”