Freehold, N.J.: Marcie Lenk’s first response on hearing of the guilty verdict last Thursday in the trial of her former mentor, Rabbi Baruch Lanner, on child sexual abuse charges was a sense of relief.
Lenk, a 36-year-old Ph.D. candidate in religion at Harvard University, has been part of an informal network of former National Conference of Synagogue Youth members who have been struggling for many years to convince Orthodox authorities to prevent the 52-year-old Rabbi Lanner from having any contact with children.
"I felt that his ability to hurt more kids is over," said the Teaneck, N.J., native, who says she was abused by Rabbi Lanner as a teenager.
Juror Nancy Cangiano told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview Monday that she believed the jury made a "good decision" to convict, particularly on learning after the trial in Monmouth County that Rabbi Lanner has a long history of abuse allegations. That history was inadmissible in court.
"It was a hard decision to make, especially about a person in that position as a rabbi. I felt bad having to do it," said Cangiano, of Manalapan, adding that she believed the panel of six men and six women "did the right thing."
After two days of deliberation, the jury in Superior Court in Freehold convicted Rabbi Lanner of sexually abusing two teenage girls while they were his students between 1992 and 1996 at Hillel High School in Ocean Township, and under his supervision at NCSY, the teen arm of the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lanner was found guilty of endangering the welfare of both girls, the most serious charge. In addition, he was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and sexual contact against one of the girls, but was acquitted of those charges against the other. Rabbi Lanner also was convicted of harassment against the second girl.
The rabbi is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13. He faces a maximum 20 years in prison on the two endangering convictions, as well as up to $300,000 in fines.
However, court experts said they expected the prison term would be considerably less, given that this is a first offense and Rabbi Lanner’s standing as a clergyman.
Defense attorney Marvin Schechter said the five-person defense team is considering an appeal.
Speaking to the press for the first time, shortly after his conviction, Rabbi Lanner cited the blessing, "Blessed art Thou, God, the true judge," customarily recited on hearing of a death or other bad news.
Rabbi Lanner was released on his own recognizance, but his passport was held by prosecutors. The rabbi and his mother, Augusta, are liable for $100,000 if he flees.
Assistant Monmouth County Prosecutor Peter Boser said Rabbi Lanner cannot have unsupervised contact with children under 18 years of age. He is also expected to undergo psychological evaluation at a sexual treatment center in Woodbridge, N.J.
During the two-week trial before Judge Paul Chaiet, the women, now 23 and 21, testified that Rabbi Lanner touched their private parts through their clothing and had phone conversations with them of a sexual nature.
The women said that when they rebuffed the rabbi’s advances, he retaliated against them in school and at events of NCSY, where they were also members.
"We are very gratified with the outcome of the verdict," said the parents of the 21-year-old, saying they feel she has been vindicated. They expressed the hope that "this has been a cleansing experience for her and that she can now move forward."
The victims testified it was a June 2000 Jewish Week investigation of Rabbi Lanner, which contained interviews with dozens of people who said that he had sexually, physically or psychologically abused them while they were teens, which spurred them to press charges.
Rabbi Lanner resigned the day the article appeared. Several weeks later, the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office launched an investigation.
On Dec. 26, 2000, the OU issued a report accusing Rabbi Lanner of sexually abusing women and girls and physically abusing boys and girls. The report revealed that OU and NCSY officials had known of the rabbi’s behavior but failed to stop it.
Several former alleged victims told The Jewish Week the guilty verdict gave them a feeling of validation, but they don’t believe the issue, with its ramifications for the Orthodox and wider Jewish community, is over.
"I hope this conviction sounds a warning to those who allow themselves to remain blind to the abuses going on around them," said Judy Klitsner, an alleged victim as a teen in the 1970s who, as an Israeli educator, has been outspoken on the Lanner issue. She called for the formation of a vehicle that would "handle such problems long before they reach the stage of criminal proceedings."
She and other alleged victims bemoaned how long it took for Rabbi Lanner to be punished, decades after the initial complaints and 13 years after several victims testified against the rabbi at a bet din, or religious court, which took no action against him.
"What the rabbis didn’t understand in 1989, this jury did now," said one alleged victim.
"I feel that in the end, an impartial jury decided we were not crazy," Lenk said, "even though the jury doesn’t know about us," referring to victims from the 1970s and ’80s.
"But those girls who were brave enough to testify, they were us. We were them."
Judge Chaiet has barred the media from disclosing the victim’s full names.
Despite never hearing about the past allegations, the jury had an inkling there was a deeper story they were not privy to about Rabbi Lanner, Cangiano said, because attorneys from both sides made vague references to Jewish Week articles. But she said the jury based its verdict on their reading of the law, as charged by Chaiet, and the credibility of the two victims.
Cangiano said the jury was not swayed by the defense contention that Rabbi Lanner could not have molested the girls because the Venetian blinds on his window-enclosed office were always up, making such behavior impossible.
"There were enough blind spots in the room that something could have happened if somebody wanted it to," Cangiano said the jury concluded.
The defense had also contended that the victims had bad grades and sought revenge on Rabbi Lanner for ruining their high school years.
"We plowed through the smokescreens that were there," Cangiano said.
Fred Zemel, a Lanner attorney, told the Washington Post that he believed the jury was influenced by heavy news coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.
"It was in the back of everyone’s mind," he said after the trial. "This was a lynch mob and they lynched him."
But Cangiano said the national scandal of clergy sexually abusing children currently rocking the Church was not a factor in the jury’s deliberations.
"Nobody brought it up," she said. "I think people tried to not think about that."
Cangiano said the issue was the credibility of the two women and the corroborating testimony of the two other prosecution witnesses (the mother of the 21-year-old and a male friend of the 23-year-old) vs. Rabbi Lanner’s 14 witnesses, which included rabbis, yeshiva high school teachers and past and present NCSY student leaders and officials.
Witnesses for Rabbi Lanner included Rabbi Matthew Tropp, currently director of NCSY’s New Jersey region; Rabbi Ari Winter, who heads NCSY’s summer program in Israel for girls; Rabbi Nisanel Yudin, assistant principal at the Frisch High School in Paramus; Rabbi Perry Tershwel, principal of a yeshiva high school in Boca Raton, Fla.; Rabbi Jonathan Zakutinsky a former Hillel teacher and New Jersey NCSY leader; and Shimmie Kaminetsky, an official with Senior NCSY.
"I have no joy in Rabbi Lanner going to prison," said Elie Hiller, a former NCSY employee who said the rabbi abused him as a youth and who has been fighting for years to get action by Orthodox authorities. "I finally feel believed, and this puts it on the record."
- Harvard University
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Ocean Township
- Peter Boser
- Paul Chaiet
- Marvin Schechter
- Nancy Cangiano
- Judy Klitsner
- Marcie Lenk
- Baruch Lanner
- New York
- New Jersey
- Staff Writer