Freehold, N.J.: Were the Venetian blinds open or closed? After nearly three weeks of court testimony, the question about the level of privacy in a yeshiva high school principal’s office was at the crux of the defense’s case in the trial here of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the disgraced former national Orthodox youth group leader.
A 12-person jury sitting in Superior Court was given the task Wednesday to decide whether they believed two young women, now in their 20s, who testified that Rabbi Lanner molested them while he was their principal at Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean Township, N.J., in the mid 1990s. Or, they could believe Rabbi Lanner, who did not take the stand, but in declaring his innocence, saw 14 friends and former employees testify on his behalf, virtually all asserting the blinds in his office were always open.
A verdict in the case was expected this week.
The Lanner case has rocked the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest Orthodox membership group in the nation, forcing senior officials, including Rabbi Lanner, to step down. For three decades he was a top director of the OU’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY).
The trial has received national attention, no doubt spurred by the sex abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church. CNN and the Washington Post have covered the Lanner trial, saying that it opens a window into child sex abuse problems in the Jewish community at a time when abuse by religious leaders in various faiths is coming under scrutiny.
In an emotional 90-minute summation Tuesday, defense attorney Marvin Schechter told the jury the molestations of the two girls could never have happened because Rabbi Lanner’s office did not provide him enough privacy. Using charts, photographs, drawings and the testimony of 14 witnesses, Schechter described the principal’s office as "a porous, open fishbowl" where inappropriate sexual advances could not have taken place.
Former Hillel yeshiva teachers, secretaries and other employees testified that the blinds covering Rabbi Lanner’s window-enclosed office were always up. "The blinds are crucial to this case," said the defense attorney, one of three sitting next to the rabbi in the small, heated courtroom where the air conditioning had failed Tuesday afternoon.
"When you take a look at the diagrams you have to come to the conclusion that the blinds were up," Schechter told the jury.
The two women, whose names are being withheld by orders of Superior Court Judge Paul Chaiet, testified last week that the blinds were down when Rabbi Lanner summoned them to his office to molest them repeatedly.
In order to convict Rabbi Lanner, Schechter told the jury they would have to conclude that all the defense witnesses lied or misled them under oath about the blinds never being closed.
Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Peter Boser, during his 55-minute summation, countered that it was suspicious that all the defense witnesses testified "in unison, in lockstep" that the blinds were "never, ever closed.
"Wouldn’t there be circumstances, times he needs privacy?" Boser wondered, suggesting private meetings with staff and students about sensitive issues. "If you listen to the defense case, everything is impossible," said Boser, referring to Schechter’s summation that all the accusations of the two women against the rabbi, whether they occurred in his office, in a school corridor, or at NCSY regional meetings (where Rabbi Lanner was a leader and the two victims were also members) could never have happened.
Rabbi Lanner, 51, of Fair Lawn, was indicted on two counts each of aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child between 1992 and 1997, during his 15-year tenure as principal of Hillel.
There was a bit of drama on Tuesday surrounding the testimony of "surprise" witness Edward Kline, a 23-year-old former NCSY member. Kline came forward late last week to corroborate the first woman’s testimony that she complained to authorities at the Hillel yeshiva and NCSY about Rabbi Lanner, and that they ignored her.
Kline testified he personally complained on behalf of the woman to two NCSY officials, Rabbi Matt Tropp, the director of the New Jersey chapter, and Shimmie Kaminetsky, an NCSY program director, in 1995 or 1996, at an NCSY Shabbaton, a Sabbath weekend gathering. Kline said both Rabbi Tropp and Kaminetsky called him a liar and dismissed his accusations.
Kline thus directly disputed Rabbi Tropp, who testified last week that no one ever told him about Rabbi Lanner’s alleged sexual harassment of that woman, or anyone else. (See sidebar)
Kaminetsky, currently executive director of a Riverdale, N.Y., synagogue and director of Senior NCSY, also denied Tuesday that Kline approached him about Rabbi Lanner.
Schechter, in his summation, attacked the credibility of the two alleged victims, characterizing them as students with bad grades and personal problems who years later have schemed to gain revenge against Rabbi Lanner for their "rotten" high school experience.
Schechter painted the 21-year-old woman, who was expelled from Hillel in the spring of her freshman year, as a pot smoking, "defiant, mean-spirited" woman who "hated her life, hated her religion, hated Rabbi Tropp and hated that guy," pointing to Rabbi Lanner. "You have to wonder why she would go back to that office every day to get molested," he said referring to the woman’s testimony that she was frequently called to the principal’s office and was abused there. "That’s because she wasn’t molested."
Schechter dismissed the supporting testimony of the woman’s mother as a sad attempt on her part to restart a relationship with an estranged daughter.
He described the other alleged victim, the 23-year-old woman, who graduated from Hillel, as a "troubled misfit" whose uncertain recollections of details undermined her credibility. "How is the jury supposed to determine where the truth begins and the fiction ends?" he asked.
With dramatic flair he challenged her contentions that Rabbi Lanner retaliated against her after she rejected his sexual advances by suddenly transferring her out of honors classes. Schechter proclaimed he had a "smoking gun" to refute the young woman, a memo to her mother that her grades were suffering and she was being transferred.
Boser dismissed the "smoking gun," as theatrics and told the jury they should believe the women because they answered honestly and thoughtfully and had no reason to put themselves through the ordeal of a court proceeding after all these years other than to seek justice.
"Rabbi Lanner isolated them, intimidated them, took control over them, and abused them," Boser declared.
Defense attorney Schechter, seeking to show the honesty of the defense witnesses, noted that even they described Rabbi Lanner as "intimidating, abrasive and abusive," his point being that they still insisted his office blinds were always open.
Rabbi Lanner did not take the stand. The jury was instructed that is his right under the law and they should not hold it against him in deliberations.
During pre-trial motions, Judge Chaiet rejected the prosecution’s request to present evidence that Rabbi Lanner acted in sexually suggestive ways toward two girls who were students at the Frisch School in Paramus between 1979 and 1985. Defense attorney Julian Wilsey countered that even if the allegations against his client were true, while they were "juvenile, ill-advised and inappropriate for a teacher and clergyman," they were not criminal and should not be permitted as evidence.
Rabbi Lanner was forced to leave Hillel in 1997 amid allegations of abuse. He was forced to quit NCSY in June 2000 the day after a Jewish Week investigation was published, chronicling three decades of alleged abuse of teens by Rabbi Lanner. The two women who pressed charges came forward after hearing about the newspaper investigation.
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