Rabbi Baruch Lanner’s attorney this week went public in seeking to portray his client as the victim of an “atmosphere” that fosters a sense of “guilt by innuendo.”
In a lengthy letter to The Jewish Week, Nathan Dershowitz of the New York City law firm Dershowitz, Eiger & Adelson sought to distinguish between the criminal charges Rabbi Lanner faced in New Jersey last year and other accusations that have been made against him.
Dershowitz questioned the veracity of the two young women who accused Rabbi Lanner of sexual abuse in the criminal case, and characterized a 1989 ad hoc bet din [religious court] ruling as one that cleared the rabbi of “all aveiros chamuros [serious sins].”
Dershowitz seeks to counter “the significant confusion in the public mind about these two different matters,” pointing out that Rabbi Lanner expects to be exonerated in the criminal case and that the bet din findings did not relate to “serious criminal sexually abusive behavior” on the rabbi’s part. (See page 6 for a shortened version of the letter.)
Rabbi Lanner was convicted of sexual abuse against the two former Hillel Yeshiva High School students in Ocean Township, N.J., and sentenced to seven years in prison. He is free, pending appeal, and according to Dershowitz, “anyone who reads the record in that case must conclude that there are serious factual questions as to whether his two accusers were telling the truth.”
Two appellate court judges ruled that Rabbi Lanner should be released on bail since there are sufficient legal issues to be reviewed on the appeal.
In the case of the bet din, which became the subject of renewed interest in recent days after a group of former National Conference on Synagogue Youth employees and alleged victims criticized the lead judge for its conduct, Dershowitz wrote that Rabbi Lanner was found to have used “inappropriate … salty language” and engaged in “horseplay with youngsters,” but was “exonerated” of all “serious sins.”
Aside from the two young women in the criminal case, Dershowitz said he has seen no allegations of Rabbi Lanner sexually abusing females “during the last 20 years.”
And he noted that two of the rabbis on the three-man bet din, Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Yosef Blau, recommended Rabbi Lanner “for various positions” even after the bet din.
Dershowitz charged that “the assumptions of guilt because of atmospherics is [sic] unfair to Rabbi Lanner, to the bet din, and to the organizations with which Rabbi Lanner was affiliated.” He concluded by wondering, “if and when” Rabbi Lanner is cleared of criminal charges, “who will stand in line to give him back his reputation.”
Apparently not Rabbi Blau, who criticized the Dershowitz letter as “clearly a manipulation on Baruch Lanner’s part” in a “pathetic” attempt to position himself as a respected member of the community should he be exonerated in the criminal case.
Rabbi Blau pointed out that the letter made no mention of The Jewish Week articles in the summer of 2000 chronicling Rabbi Lanner’s years of alleged abusive behavior toward teens or the December 2000 findings of a special commission of the Orthodox Union, whose extensive report concluded that the youth leader was guilty of a wide range of abuse of teens — physical, sexual and psychological — over many years.
According to the OU report, 10 women testified “that Lanner engaged in sexually abusive behavior toward them in his NCSY career” and “credible testimony” came from witnesses “describing abusive sexual conduct by Lanner toward 16 additional girls.”
The report characterized the findings of the 1989 bet din as substantiating that Rabbi Lanner “kneed teens in the groin,” used “salty language” and “engaged in ‘crude talk with sexual overtones.’ ”
Rabbi Blau said that in a meeting within weeks after the bet din, when confronted with letters from women describing past sexual and physical abuse, Rabbi Lanner admitted to him and Rabbi Willig that such incidents took place in the past, but asserted he had received psychological help and was no longer a threat.
Rabbi Willig did not return phone calls Tuesday and has a policy of not speaking to the press.
“The reason I believe the two women who came forward and brought charges” in the New Jersey criminal case, “even though I don’t know them,” said Rabbi Blau, “is that they were totally consistent with and follow the same pattern of behavior as that [of how Rabbi Lanner treated] the many women I do know and have spoken with.”
Rabbi Blau said he did recommend Rabbi Lanner for a position as principal of a school in Australia in 1991, two years after the bet din met.
“It was a mistake on my part,” Rabbi Blau said, “and part of the learning process for me to understand how sick Baruch was.”
Rabbi Blau said he was motivated by the belief in teshuvah, or repentance, and noted that Maimonides instructs a person seeking to repent to start over in a new environment.
“I thought it would be a good idea for Baruch to start over, far from here, but I was wrong. It was very hard me as a rabbi to accept that a person, especially a rabbi, probably is incapable of changing,” Rabbi Blau said.
Dershowitz told The Jewish Week in a phone interview that the OU report was “very, very vaguely written” and he has “problems” with it. He said he was prompted to write the letter now because of the “totally misleading” sense, from recent articles and reports, that Rabbi Lanner has been “a predator” of females “in the last 20 years.”
The leaders of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Lanner’s employer for 30 years, have made clear that regardless of the results of the criminal trial in New Jersey, they believe he has a long history as an abuser and is not qualified to work with young people.
Harvey Blitz, president of the OU, told The Jewish Week on the eve of the June 2002 New Jersey trial that “Lanner did terrible things. Our views are not changed on that, and it is inconceivable to me that anyone would hire him to work with students. We’re not walking away from our responsibility.”
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Weinreb, executive vice president of the OU and a clinical psychotherapist, said scientific evidence makes clear that sex abusers cannot be rehabilitated.
Richard Joel, the chairman of the OU special commission, said there is “voluminous and irrefutable evidence” that Rabbi Lanner engaged in “horrific behavior.” He noted that the New Jersey trial was “about one specific incident” and “not the Lanner history.”
Critics of Rabbi Willig, the lead judge in the 1989 bet din, are hoping that he, too, will publicly endorse the OU findings and declare Rabbi Lanner guilty not only of the narrow findings of the religious court but of being an ongoing danger to the community.
They accuse Rabbi Willig of conducting an unfair trial; advancing the impression over the years that Rabbi Lanner was not found guilty of any serious charges; serving as a reference for Rabbi Lanner; and refusing to discuss the issue.
A group of former NCSY employees and victims met privately with Rabbi Willig in recent weeks and urged him to give an accounting of his behavior, asserting that his public silence amounted to a tacit approval for Rabbi Lanner to continue to work with teens between 1989 and 2000.
At a public lecture on Jewish parenting last week, Rabbi Willig praised Elie Hiller, the whistle-blower in the bet din case, but did not address the actions of the court.
Rabbi Blau has said in the past that the court was ill equipped to deal with the case, should never have taken it and was misled by many of those who testified on Rabbi Lanner’s behalf.
He came to regret the court decision and took it upon himself to monitor Rabbi Lanner’s behavior for more than a decade, acknowledging that he was less than successful in effecting change, though he did counsel many young people who felt bitterness or remorse over the outcome.