They still don’t get it. That’s what some critics are saying this week about the Orthodox Union’s official "it’s not us" reaction to the sex abuse conviction of its former national youth leader, Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
The rabbi, 52, a longtime senior official at the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, was convicted last Thursday on six counts of sexual abuse of two teenage girls in the mid-1990s. The girls were students at the New Jersey yeshiva high school Rabbi Lanner served as principal, as well as members of the NCSY Etz Chaim chapter he led for many years.
A statement on the OU Web site (www.ou.org) distancing the organization from its disgraced former youth leader evoked the negative reaction.
"The guilty verdict in the Monmouth County, NJ, criminal trial of Rabbi Baruch Lanner does not relate to his activities as an employee of the Orthodox Union (OU) or National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), but rather refers to his role as a principal in a Deal, NJ, school," the OU statement began.
"Once again they are hiding the fact that during the trial there was testimony about alleged abuses or harassment [by Rabbi Lanner] during NCSY events," said Elie Hiller, a former NCSY employee.
Hiller noted that during Rabbi Lanner’s two-week trial, current and former NCSY officials, including New Jersey director Rabbi Matthew Tropp, testified on behalf of Rabbi Lanner.
Rabbi Tropp and senior NCSY official Shimmie Kaminetsky told the court no NCSY students ever complained to them that Rabbi Lanner made inappropriate sexual advances. But two NCSY students testified they complained to the NCSY leaders and were ignored.
Rabbi Tropp also testified that he did not believe he was bound by New Jersey law calling for citizens to report child abuse allegations to the state.
In response, some critics are calling for Rabbi Tropp’s ouster from NCSY.
Rabbi Tropp did not return a phone call for comment.
OU executive director Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said Tuesday he is in the process of examining Rabbi Tropp’s court testimony and overall NCSY performance.
Rabbi Weinreb called Rabbi Tropp’s work record "excellent. He’s done a fine job and we’re not going to rush to judgment."
Rabbi Weinreb said critics should focus on the second paragraph of the Web site statement, where the OU restates its commitment to the findings of a special internal commission that concluded Rabbi Lanner abused teens over many years and was not qualified to work with young people.
The statement also says the OU is committed "to the reforms it is making and its ongoing effort to help the broader Jewish community recognize and correct abuse of all types."
"The issue for us is not the results of this trial … but the results of the commission," Rabbi Weinreb said, adding: "Obviously there are implications [for NCSY] but that’s not the main point."
He said he could see how some might view the first paragraph of the OU statement as "a cop-out, which it’s not," but stressed that NCSY is doing its best "to have our act together and move forward."
In addition to strengthening NCSY rules and procedures, Rabbi Weinreb said, "We’re trying to change a culture, and it’s going to take some time. It’s not a matter of firing 20 people."
Still, Murray Sragow, a member of the New Jersey/NCSY parental oversight committee, expressed frustration that "the OU continues to follow its pattern of two years ago [when the story first came to light], which is to distance itself and say this doesn’t affect us. The victims [in the Monmouth County trial] themselves were of the opinion that NCSY and the school were intertwined."
Sragow believes the OU posted the disclaimer for legal reasons, to minimize its legal liability in potential civil lawsuits against Rabbi Lanner.
"They should do what’s right, and do teshuvah [repentance] and give a full admission of wrongdoing, whatever the consequences," Sragow said.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, a member of a 1989 rabbinical court that took no action against Rabbi Lanner but who has actively pursued the case since, said the Jewish community needs to acknowledge that "our community failed and our institutions failed."
He called for reflecting on the broader implications of the Lanner case and recognizing there are other rabbis, teachers and youth leaders posing risks to children.
Rabbi Blau suggested rabbinical schools train rabbis to deal with young people, and for the community to create an "effective reporting mechanism, broader than one organization, that is respected by the community and that people can turn to." It should, he said, be comprised of rabbis, psychologists and other leaders, including women, "who are sensitive to the issue."
"We have to make fundamental changes," he said, "but nothing has happened" to prevent the next case of abuse. "Do we have to wait for another newspaper investigation or jury trial?"