The YU Impasse: Putting A Price On Sexual Abuse

Sorting through conflicting interests when it comes to compensation for alleged victims.

Wed, 07/17/2013
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

A few days before Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, I sat down and read a modern-day version of Eichah, the Book of Lamentations.

This was not an ancient prophet’s eloquent or poignant rendition of the destruction of the ancient Temple; it was the dry, legalese words of a lawsuit that lays out the case of alleged indifference, and fraud, accorded to high ranking and highly respected members of the administration and faculty of Yeshiva University in the 1970s and ’80s regarding the sexual abuse of high school students.

Centuries apart, the warnings — that immoral behavior, left unchecked, leads only downward — still resonate.

The litany of woes said to have resulted from the abuse, and the lack of acknowledgment that it was taking place, is painful to read: case after case, 19 teenagers at the time claiming physical, emotional and psychological distress and trauma; depression leading to drugs, alcohol or sexual addiction; inability to trust others; loss of relationships with loved ones; loss of faith; and suicidal tendencies.

The mind reels and the heart aches.

But is it true? After all, attorneys can make all sorts of allegations to strengthen their case, just as they can put any price tag on damages they demand — in this case $380 million.

Only a few weeks ago it was said to be $30 million, lending credence to those who suspect the plaintiffs are in this for the money, and to embarrass YU, if not bring it to its knees.

But even those close to YU acknowledge that abuse surely took place and went unreported, and that the suffering was real. Whether the lawsuit can overcome the high hurdle of the statute of limitations is for a judge to decide.

I hope this case never reaches the courts. But how does one sort out the conflicting interests between the alleged victims, insisting on compensation for what they’ve suffered, and YU, which has apologized for past misdeeds and is anxious to establish strong standards of conduct and move forward?

I am not an objective observer on these matters. Far from it.

I have great empathy for victims of sexual abuse in our community and have the journalistic scars to prove it, doing battle on that front for a number of years.

I am also the son, parent, brother and husband of YU graduates, and I am a graduate myself, deeply respectful of the vision and accomplishments of my alma mater.

I appreciate the dilemma faced by the leaders of the current administration of YU, which inherited a scandal that allegedly went on, and ended, long before they arrived on the scene. Now it is costing the institution a heavy price — more than $2.5 million for an internal investigation (due to be completed in about four weeks) and the prospect of greater numbers if the lawsuit proceeds. But the ultimate price could be far more in terms of YU’s proud reputation as the beacon of enlightened, ethical Orthodoxy.

No doubt the school’s leaders feel they are acting with integrity by carrying out the investigation and offering public apologies. President Richard Joel issued his “deepest, most profound apology” after the story broke in The Forward last December, noting that “the actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for.”

Rabbi Norman Lamm, on retiring from office June 30 as chancellor and rosh yeshiva (yeshiva head) after devoting his professional life to the institution, offered a more thorough and poignant confession than one would see in the corporate world. He acknowledged his personal wrongdoing in handling the matter and said he must do teshuva (repentance).

Some would say, isn’t it enough for the alleged victims to have forced YU to apologize, admit its wrongdoing and ensure such behavior could not happen again? Others would ask, why isn’t YU prepared to back up its public breast-beating with financial compensation for those who have suffered so long? Which leaves us to parse the motivations of those involved on both sides in terms of what they are really seeking.

Putting a dollar value on damages these days, in our litigious society, has become almost routinized. Lawyers are said to have a formula of sorts to work out compensation in cases of sexual abuse — a set amount of dollars per type of immoral act, multiplied by the number of times it occurred, etc. But such calculations for the hurt inflicted on a victim date back to the Talmud, where five categories are established: pain, cost of the cure, loss of earning capacity, loss of time, and humiliation.

The rabbis disagree on the specifics but concur on the concept. Some insist that the amount to be paid for humiliation, for example, should be based on how much one would pay not to have had it happen.

Part of the legal and moral complexities in the YU case is in applying 21st-century standards to behavior of decades past, a time when sexual abuse, as well as racism, bias against women and other forms of prejudice were commonplace and little-discussed or consciously thought about, if not fully accepted. It appears that YU officials at the time were, at best, unresponsive to the complaints from abused students and their parents. This was consistent with the culture of the times, as was the fact that the victims did not speak out.

Once the scandal broke, it appears that the school, no doubt based on legal advice, has hunkered down and gone silent publicly, following the path of the Catholic Church, Penn State University and other institutions accused of inaction in the face of past abuse by employees. YU surely hopes the findings of its internal investigation will put an end to the matter, but critics will insist it proves little and will call for an independent probe.

Those of us on the outside aren’t privy to whether serious negotiations took place between the school and the alleged victims before the lawsuit was filed, in terms of monetary compensation commensurate to pain suffered. But it’s not too late to avoid an ugly showdown in court. There, if the statute of limitations is upheld, the alleged victims will walk away empty and embittered, and YU will be seen by many as having valued dollars over ethics. Further, if a judge rules that the lawsuit can go forward and allows discovery, YU will have to either settle — with the plaintiffs in a better position — or open up its files, have its professional and lay leadership subject to deposition, etc. The results could be disastrous.

It was Reb Nachman of Bratslav who observed: “To arbitrate is to temper justice with charity.”

In the end I believe YU still has the responsibility — and opportunity — to prove that it is indeed bound by moral and Jewish values to validate the suffering of the victims. Deal with them with dignity, make amends, offer to go to mediation to reach a fair result and move on. It’s a practical solution, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Gary@jewishweek.org

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If you feel YU should commit to making the findings of their investigation public, this petition is worth signing.
http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/an-open-letter-to-yeshiva

Gary,I do appreciate your most excellent editorial. I don't agree with everything but it is the best thing I have read to date.

Everything I have read says that there was one teacher or principal who wrestled with high school boys with some sort of sexual intent, but no allegations of sodomy or fellatio. Another teacher was accused by one student of sodomizing him with a toothbrush. Aside from the statute of limitations, there is no case here; there is no crime committed, except perhaps a stunning lack of judgement by Rabbi Finkelstein, the wrestler. In a beis din this case would be thrown out in a minutue, I believe, and I believe the plaintiffs will lose in court as well. Same thing with the guy who was slapped across the face by his high school Rebbe.

In today's day and age, responsible leadership would be to call the police to investigate both issues, but at the time, I think Rabbi Lamm could have easily argued, there was no crime in the Finkelstein case, and no credible allegation in the other case, so why would I call the police if I don't believe a crime was committed? And under Halacha, there could be ramifications for calling the police when no crime is committed but the alleged perpetrator is publically embarrased and shamed.

I could not agree with you more. 22 million for wrestling with a weird person??? Blaming drug abuse because of molestation? Gary if you were more honest you would not portay the victims as people who are as fragile as glass. The truth of the matter is that most of these people are incredible success stories in their fields and the very best earners. YU should be forced to build a hospital for true victims of abuse and not enrich invidiuals. In any event these very bright individuals waited 40 years for the statuate of limitations to pass.

OF COURSE THE ACTS THAT YOU MINIMIZE, ARE CRIMES. SHAME ON YOU.
THESE WERE CRIMES AGAINST TEEN AGE VICTIMS BY SICKIES WHO HAD POWER OVER THEM.
AND LOOK AT ALL THE DAMAGE THESE "TEACHERS' HAVE DONE,:
TO THE STUDENTS,, TO THEIR FAMILIES ..TO Y.U. .....

No crime committed? Wow! So, if this is the way that you feel, then you should have no problem if the same acts were performed upon your own children and grandchildren. Hey, it's just a lack of judgment, no harm, no foul. That said, I do agree with you that a Beit Din would throw out this case in a minute. And that's exactly why the victims are pursuing justice the only place where they can get a fair hearing, a secular court.

Gary:
As always you are being politically correct - this time to a fault. You brush over the legal aspects of this case and call for mediation BEFORE a judge has ruled on the Statute of Limitations issue. I have to admit that as a trial lawyer for 40 years this is a standard approach towards leveraging a settlement in litigation, but it presupposes that there should be a settlement rather than a legal battle. In this case, however, this is exactly the opposite of what should happen. Frankly in New York, the plaintiffs have zero chance to toll the statute of limitation based on a fraudulent concealment argument. The Forward has insured this outcome by publishing extensive interviews with named and unnamed plaintiffs all of which indicate that each one absolutely knew that they had been abused, and who had abused them, and who employed the alleged abusers and had the ability to stop the abuse - all long before they turned 23. The evidence is overwhelming in this regard. Accordingly YU should vigorously defend this case and it will likely be dismissed by a judge. Moreover, the plaintiffs - having elected to proceed in civil court instead of Beis Din, should never be offered a second bite of the apple by losing in civil court and then going to Beis Din.

Even if the court rules that the Statute of Limitations has expired, YU still has a moral responsibility to provide restitution to the victims. As for taking the court to a Beit Din, I agree with Gaon. It is a delusional suggestion. Why would victims of sexual assault / rape by rabbis, whose crimes were covered up for years by rabbis (including the head of YU), why would such people have any faith in a beit din to provide due process???

I agree with nothing you have written. But your last sentence is delusional, the suggestion that these plaintiffs would turn around and go to a Bias Din?? You really should be on some sort of medication. They might more accurately have Walter Mitty fantasies of burning down the Bias Din. Thanks for your input.

Gary did exactly what the Catholic Church did: protect an institution at the expense of the people it is supposed to serve.

His perception embodies everything that is wrong with the religious world. At least the new Pope used his power to prevent the sexual abuse of children by issuing a decree. I think there is no amount of money that will make up for sodomizing a student with a toothbrush (allegedly). I am happy I never went to YU/Stern and that I studied at a place that I admire (Cornell) and that I witnessed no breach of ethics, except for a single incident where a student copied a homework, and that I don't have to apologize as an adult for an institution that desecrated the name of God publicly.

Gary's words are just as damaging as all the uneducated Republicans who limited the definition of rape and thus revictimized women rape victims by denying the validity of their experience. Even calling the victims "alleged" is demeaning, especially since the administration already conceded to the fact that there was systematic abuse and that they dismissed some of the teachers. Shame on Gary for even insinuating that the victims are in it for money. And no one excuses the Nazis for their actions as merely being a product of their times.

I agree with Talia that the use of the word "alleged" is wholly inappropriate here in as much as Rabbi Lamm himself has admitted and apologized for the abuse that was committed. Using a Nazi analogy, though, is demeaning to the victims of the Holocaust (including my grandparents!)

I think it is a different world then 30 years ago.
People gave money to yu for education .
Let anyone who is guilty pay but the
Institution needs to keep its money for
Education! It is not fair for donors to have
To pay for problems individuals had.
That is the question.
Of course this has to do with USA law.
Aren't religious jewish people supposed to go to
Bet din?

I am pretty sure that rape was illegal 30 years ago, too. Since YU, as an institution, failed to protect these victims, YU should pay restitution. And, the decent think of Rabbi Lamm and the other rabbis who looked the other way and passed the problem rabbis to another, unsuspecting institution, the decent thing would be for them to make personal contributions out of their own pockets. As for going to a Beit Din, surely you're kidding. Haven't these people suffered enough already?

Yes. Rape was a crime 30 years ago.So why didn't the victims or their parents report it 30 years ago.

Because then, as in some cases now, they were too scared to report on the misdeeds of their rabbeim. And, when some did try to report, they were told that it was not a big deal. Even today, there are plenty of communities in the haredi world where, when sexual abuse takes place, the victim is the one that is told to shut up and go away or that their family will be placed in herem and there will be no shiduchim for their siblings. That's why this whole mess needs to be sorted out by the secular courts.

With all due lack of respect, have you been living in a cave, prehistoric stone age man?
And for equities sake, hold back your stone age donations. Thank you.

Why give money to an irresponsible institution? Google Ezra Merkin and see how he was a YU board member and at the same time earned huge fees for funneling YU money into his own hedge fund. Unbelievable conflict of interest. Google salaries of the senior officers of YU like Richard Joel see how they make tremendous salaries and bonuses. Then read how YU knew about the abuse and covered it up and allowed these sickos to prey on other children in post MTA employment.

An above responder is right: The abused should have and should now go after the actual people who abused them. YU, the institution, has much deeper pockets, thus the assault on them. Finally, from what I've read, there was little real abuse, no rape, no sodomy. There was a huckleberry who wrestled students and another who revealed himself.

Y'all have the most interesting news here.

As someone who attended MTA during the relevant timeframe I can attest to the utter lack of accountability and mechanisms for complaints. I was slapped by a "Rabbi" in 10th grade for receiving a poor grade in Gemorah. I didnt complain because I would have been thrown out and blacklisted. I never was able to concentrate on Talmud afterwards. And this "teacher" was eventually head of their graduate school of education! Some educator. I can well understand how many of the sex abuse victims didnt complain right away either. The school was run in derelict fashion and I am sickened that this happened. I am particularly outraged that YU had actual knowledge abd did nothing but protect the abusers. How can these YU honcho "Rabbis" have donned Tefilin and prayed while knowing abusers were preying on children? YU doesnt care about their students. Well lets not forget how YU let Ezra Merkin a director funnel YU money into his Ascot hedge find which lost money with Madoff. Merkin earned nice fees for this - where was the conflicts check? Why would anyone donate money to YU so the head people pull in huge salaries?

Agreed.YU did nothing.They didn't love you .What the hell did your parents do. Sue? Call the police?At least remove you from danger? I guess they didn't love you either.

WHY DON'T THESE VICTIMS SUE THE PERPS...( THE ACTUAL ABUSERS)

THEY KNOW WHO ABUSED THEM..

I do not believe for a second that Rabbi Finkelstein did anything wrong. He should be suing these money grubbers and their lawyer for defamation of character.

So you think 19 plaintiffs are "making this up"? I attended MTA during that time I can assure you the place was not supervised many bad things happened and there was no accountability. I think its a terrible insult for you to call child abuse victims "money grubbers". And didnt you read (Google the facts) that one of the abusers also repeated his misconduct post MTA - in Florida and while at the Great Synagogue? Man, get your head out of the sand!

Correct.Finkelstein kept on doing this even in Jerusalem.So that begs the question.If this was exposed 40 years ago that would not have happened and others could have been saved. You knew there was abuse but you didn't give a damn about protecting the next wave of victims. Where are your moral responsibilities?

Why not listen to all those who have been brave enough to come forward.

Don't keep your head in the sand and perpetuate the evil..

Dear Sir,

Well said.

To take a quote from an Editorial in The Jewish Daily Forward on July 8th:

Dr. Lamm has shown us all how to make amends. “We must never be so committed to justifying our past that we thereby threaten to destroy our future,” Lamm wrote. To truly honor his legacy, President Richard Joel and Yeshiva University’s leadership need to heed his words & do what is right for all involved.

Irving M. Goldenberg
Efrat, Israel

Gary - (1) Penn State commissioned former FBI Director Louis Freeh to investigate and submit an open report. YU hired their own firm to do an internal closed investigation and refused to commit to making it public. HUGE difference. It was an easy, accepted precedent for YU to follow. YU chose NOT to do that.
(2) Richard Joel was told of these allegations years ago - he could have acted upon them. He chose NOT to and thereby covered up for years. He inherited the historical abuse, but he participated in an ongoing coverup. And now, TODAY, he has not done anything to stop Lanner from being publicly supported by YU's high school principal.
Given these 2 facts, I think you should be less apologetic about YU and its handling of this.

The huge difference between Penn State and YU is that the case is not 40 years old!

Gary:

Baruch Lanner had been abusing children for many decades when you went after him full force, as you courageously did. The folks involved in the current scandal also fit that category, and MTA, YU and other Orthodox institutions enabled it (and apparently continued to do so even recently by having scholarships and other honoraria in their names). The current institutions and their administrations are not blameless. You did not use the "excuse" during the Lanner exposes of applying contemporary standards to behaviors of earlier decades.

It is difficult to reconcile your hemming and hawing and the constant use of "alleged victims" in this case compared to your earlier treatment of Lanner and his victims. Meanwhile your paper has done no actual reporting on this very major story--only 2 Op-Eds by you in lieu of working in the journalistic trenches which you've completely ceded to the JTA and the Forward.

Why no stories at all on any of the "alleged" victims? Surely you profiled them with Lanner, and surely you should here as well.

Gary, shame on you "but is it true"??? What makes you think that these victims of child sexual abuse had immune psychological systems that enable them to emerge unscathed???
Shame on you. and I am otherwise an admirer of your journalism. If I were a victim of Gordon , Finklestein, Andron, et al, and I have a gut feel, that that list might expand, b'vo hazman, as adults who have never told a soul, never, obtain the psychological strength, due to the others' bravery, to step forward. And perhaps, just perhaps, new perpetrators will be revealed.
Lawyers did not create the sexual abuse. Please, Gary, if they had done you, you might have a different way of viewing this.
Full disclosure, I never attended YU. No member of my family ever attended YU, and no one i know personally was ever abused by a member of the rabbinate. Tsedek is tsedek, YU must be held accountable, no matter how many years later. And, furthermore, as a "modern orthodox institution" there are other aspects of YU's behavior over the many years that are disturbing. What about the "gay clubs" at all of the branches, years ago, given space, meeting rooms. I have no problem with people being gay (hey, some of my best friends,,,,) but male homosexuality is, like it or not, an abomination per the Torah, and , at the end of the day, is that not what YU is purported to uphold??

Gary

Thank you for putting into words the deep sense of pain and confusion that all of us feel at this time.

The pain and suffering of victims is real. We must recognize that pain, acknowledge mistakes, hold people and institutions accountable, and take the necessary measures to ensure that such travesties never occur again.

The Jewish Community's focus should be on helping the victims and their families, and in enacting wholesale cultural change with regard to the topic of sexual abuse and coverups. This is the only way that we can restore credibility and strengthen our institutions and our community for the current and future generations.

David, could you post your email address? I was planning to write to you, but couldn't find it (I don't facebook or linkin). Thanks.

It is very hard for me to shed any tears for YU over a problem of its' own creation. They have mishandled this from start to finish. As for the monetary damages asked, well, it seems that everybody is boo-hoo-hooing for YU, and forgetting how many lives YU destroyed, or how many people went of the derech because of what happened. How do you place a dollar value on a life lost? On a life of observance lost? Is anybody in this for the money? I think we want vindication, and if it takes a monetary settlement to do it, then so be it. Like they say on the street, "Don't do the crime. if you can't do the time".

This article does not accurately reflect the harm that YU perpetrated not only on its own students but on others as well. The school administration gave a South Florida school glowing recommendations when it looked to hire Rabbi(?) Finkelstein and did so again for the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem. This was after YU removed the door to his office and fired him for his 'inappropriate' behavior. The careless disregard for jewish children was so abhorrent that it defies logic. It seems that YU taught jewish values, laws and ethics in the classroom and disregarded all of the above in the office.

The author obviously cares for YU but YU only exists by the support of the jewish community who trusts the school with their children. If the school fails to protect their students then why should it be?

If the door to Rabbi Finkelstein's office was removed it was because the parents complained. If they complained they knew what was going on and if they knew why did they leave their children to be assaulted? Why kind of parent would leave their kids with these animals?

Thank you for urging all parties to settle this matter by mediation.

While YU might gamble and win its argument Statute of Limitations (SOL), there is no SOL for tort damages in Jewish law.

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