There was one brief but telling moment of dramatic confrontation Sunday night between Rabbi Mordechai Willig and one of his critics over his conduct as the lead judge in a 1989 bet din dealing with abuse charges against Rabbi Baruch Lanner.
At the end of his 30-minute presentation on Jewish parenting at Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, N.J., and the outset of a question-and-answer segment, a woman in the standing-room-only audience of several hundred stepped forward to ask the rabbi, a highly respected rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, if he takes any responsibility for not warning parents that Rabbi Lanner abused children.
Rabbi Willig responded by re-reading a brief, prepared statement that he had read at the outset of his remarks, noting that it is not “appropriate to comment publicly at this time” since he was in the midst of meetings with a group critical of his behavior on the bet din, or rabbinical court.
When the woman, who is part of the group, repeated her question and said her child had been a victim of Rabbi Lanner years after the bet din had met, Rabbi Willig did not respond.
“More silence,” she said angrily, as her words hung in the air.
The group of 19 former NCSY employees or victims last week accused Rabbi Willig of withholding from the public the bet din finding that Rabbi Lanner was guilty of abuse. The decision, they said, endangered another generation of young people in the 1990s. The 19 said they chose to speak out now in response to Rabbi Willig giving talks on Jewish parenting without mentioning what they believe is his flawed role with the bet din.
Rabbi Lanner was convicted in June of sexually abusing two female students in the 1990s. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and is now free pending an appeal.
Another questioner in the audience Sunday night, a local psychiatrist, respectfully asked if the bet din’s “concern for the individual” — Rabbi Lanner — might have “gotten in the way of concern for the community.”
Rabbi Willig’s response was to refer again to the prepared statement, making it clear he had nothing further to say on the matter after mentioning the 1989 bet din for the first time in public.
In his remarks, Rabbi Willig said all abuse was wrong and should be reported to Jewish authorities, and in some cases to secular officials. He said that abuse by clergy is “far worse” because it damages not only the victims but God’s name.
Rabbi Willig also implied that the 1989 bet din was not sufficiently aware of the nature of sexual abuse, noting that in the 1990s society came to better understand sexual violence and abuse.
Many innovations have been adopted in recent years, he said, by the Bet Din of America, the religious court of the Rabbinical Council of America, with which Rabbi Willig works closely.
After the presentation, several of the group of 19 who were interviewed expressed deep frustration and disappointment with Rabbi Willig’s handling of their concerns. They felt he used the fact that they had met with him, and wished to meet again, as an excuse not to be more forthcoming in public.
“We had asked for a full account of what went wrong and what went right [at the bet din],” said Howard Sragow, of Riverdale, who worked for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth and testified against Rabbi Lanner in the 1989 bet din. “Why the secrecy?”
Deborah Baron of Teaneck, N.J., another co-signer, said she was “deeply disappointed” that Rabbi Willig did not address why the bet din’s psak, or ruling, effectively was sealed, allowing the public to believe Rabbi Lanner was not guilty of any serious wrongful behavior.
At the rabbi’s trial in June in Monmouth County, N.J., his attorney asserted in his summation to the jury that Rabbi Lanner had been exonerated by a religious court in 1989.
“What we have witnessed here tonight is a tremendous missed opportunity,” said one Teaneck resident, who noted the air of deep respect for Rabbi Willig in the audience. “All he had to do was say he was sorry — especially to the woman who said her child was a victim — but he wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. What a lesson it would have been for the many yeshiva students to see their role model admit a past mistake.”
Many defenders of Rabbi Willig, who appeared to be the large majority in the audience, believe it is wrong to criticize a Torah scholar in a public manner and disapprove of the critics’ letter against Rabbi Willig.
“They have an old grievance and they just can’t let go,” said one Yeshiva University senior. “This is not the way.”
For others, some of Rabbi Willig’s remarks may have raised more questions than answers. He had words of praise for Ellie Hiller, the whistle-blower whose letter to the Orthodox community in Teaneck at the time charged that Rabbi Lanner was an abuser of young people and unfit to take the pulpit he had been offered there.
Rabbi Willig said Hiller, a former NCSY employee, “demonstrated great courage in stepping forward” and “paid an unfair price for his actions.”
But he did not explain why the bet din castigated Hiller and forced him to write a letter of apology to Rabbi Lanner, asserting that his characterization of him was “false.”
“The ‘unfair price’ he [Hiller] paid for speaking out was at the hands of the bet din,” a Teaneck woman said later, “but Rabbi Willig didn’t say that.”
Others questioned why the bet din would not have seen to it that Rabbi Lanner not work with children once they had found him guilty of abuse.
Hiller, who was not at the Sunday talk, said he is not looking for an apology from Rabbi Willig or the bet din. Rather, he would like Rabbi Willig to “make a clear statement to those who look up to him that Lanner is untouchable and should never be involved in communal life, and that the people who lied to the bet din should be looked into.”
Hiller said “it would be a powerful statement for Rabbi Willig to stress to future rabbis the severity of what Lanner did” and to note “the severity of the results of the mistakes made over the last 13 years in enabling Lanner to go on.”
The statement Rabbi Willig issued last week, and read Sunday, said the members of the bet din met with a group of critics, who expressed “that some perceive … our bet din had vindicated Baruch Lanner and vilified Elie Hiller. On the contrary, we never intended this regretful result. In fact, we informed the group that Lanner was guilty of a number of charges.”
The statement said the rabbis were committed to continue meeting with the group.
But one member said the purpose of the meetings had been to ensure that Rabbi Willig explain the bet din’s actions in a full and open manner at Sunday’s event.