In a split decision, a New Jersey appeals court dismissed one of two child endangerment charges against Baruch Lanner, the rabbi who was convicted of sexually abusing two girls at Hillel, the Ocean Township, N.J., yeshiva high school where he was principal from 1982 to 1997, but upheld the rest of the conviction.
Barring successful appeals, Rabbi Lanner must still serve a seven-year sentence and be registered as a sex offender under Megan’s Law.
The three-member Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled Feb. 10 that Rabbi Lanner, 55, should not have been convicted of child endangerment involving the younger of two students, known as M.C., who testified against him.
The judges said in their 32-page decision that because the jury acquitted Rabbi Lanner of sexually related offenses with regard to the teenager — she was 14 at the time in 1996 — it could not then convict him of endangering her welfare.
Although the office of state Attorney General Peter Harvey argued that the jury convicted Rabbi Lanner of “harassment by offensive touching,” the court said the jury was not presented with anything that would lead it to conclude that “offensive touching” also constituted “sexual conduct.”
M.C. had testified that Rabbi Lanner repeatedly called her home to say he loved her and wanted to marry her, but the appeals court said the trial judge “confined the claimed endangerment solely to the asserted physical contact” and not the phone calls.
The court dismissed arguments that the two cases against Rabbi Lanner should have been tried separately, that the judge had given the jurors’ improper instructions and the judge had erred as well in permitting the state to call a rebuttal witness to undermine the testimony of a defense witness.
Both sides claimed a degree of victory this week, with prosecutors noting that the guilty charge of criminal sexual contact had been upheld and the rabbi still faced a prison term of seven years. But in a statement, Victoria Eiger, a New York City attorney representing Rabbi Lanner, said the decision “vindicated” her client of one charge and “he will continue until he is vindicated on the charges brought by the second complainant.”
Nathan Dershowitz, another of Rabbi Lanner’s lawyers, said he found “serious factual errors” in the appeals court decision and would file a petition asking for reconsideration. He insisted, for instance, that the rebuttal witness should never have been allowed.
Rabbi Lanner is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 23 for sentencing.
Dershowitz said he would seek a delay and a continuation of bail for Rabbi Lanner’s pending appeal. The attorney also said he would seek permission from justices of the Supreme Court of New Jersey to appeal the conviction to them.
In addition, Dershowitz said he would be asking the trial judge, Paul Chaiet, to reconsider the seven-year sentence he imposed “because clearly the judge considered as part of his sentencing process the fact that there were two victims and not one.”
Rabbi Lanner has been free pending the results of the appeal since a few days after he began serving his prison sentence in October 2002 following a trial that stemmed from a series of articles in The Jewish Week.
The articles alleged that the rabbi had abused young people in his charge during his three decades as a top official of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an arm of the Orthodox Union. One article focused on M.C.’s allegations while a student at Hillel.
In addition to the two charges of child endangerment, Rabbi Lanner was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and criminal sexual contact with the older of the two students.
John Hagerty, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, said his office is “reviewing the decision to determine whether there will be an appeal” of the dismissal of the child endangerment charge.
Both sides have 45 days to seek an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The parents of M.C. issued a statement to The Jewish Week.
“It is unfortunate that the people with access to very high-priced attorneys can manipulate judgments on legal technicalities,” the statement said. “However, we remain confident that justice has been served and that the Jewish community remains protected.”
“We are all granted opportunities in life to right wrongs and improve the world,” they wrote. “That is an important part of the concept of tikkun olam [repair of the world]. Two very courageous young ladies took that opportunity to heart not only to improve the world but to protect the Jewish community. Each had her role to play and each accepted her responsibility. It took the efforts of both of them, together, to rid our community of this serious problem. The world is a better place and Jewish children are safer today because of their actions and we are so very proud of them both. They are heroes to us and should be considered the same by the entire community.”
Several alleged victims told The Jewish Week they are more concerned that the courts continue to declare that Rabbi Lanner is guilty of a crime than that he actually serve time in jail.
“It’s not about revenge,” one woman said. “I just don’t want him coming back to the community claiming he’s been vindicated.”