Reading The Forward’s thorough article about alleged sexual abuses against a former Judaic teacher and a principal at MTA, the Yeshiva University Boy’s High School, in the 1970s and 1980s, I felt profound sadness on many levels.
First, of course, was the pain of the victims, teenage students at the time whose psychic suffering was deepened by the fact that their complaints were not sufficiently acted upon by those in power at the school. And it was disturbing to read how Norman Lamm, a rabbi and scholar and leading voice of Modern Orthodoxy, protected the accused abusers, and YU, the university he led and loved, rather than the students who were victimized.
It is a fact but not an excuse to point out that until about a decade ago, issues of sexual abuse were not recognized or dealt with seriously. Mandatory reporting was not common at the time of these events, and was still in its infancy. If rumors were heard about a possible abuser in a school, administrators tended to either ignore the reports or quietly dismiss the alleged perpetrator, who most likely would move on and continue his behavior in a new environment.
Unfortunately, this is still a common scenario, but in those days there was not even a vocabulary or culture for young people to discuss abuse or for institutions to establish policies on the subject.
As Rabbi Lamm, now 85, noted, “this was before things of this sort had attained a certain notoriety,” adding, “there was a great deal of confusion.”
All too true, as is the reality of a man whose proud career, marked by his saving YU from financial catastrophe, is now at the center of a dark chapter in the university’s past, reflecting the poor judgments made in dealing with allegations about abuse by choosing not to deal with them.
Then, too, there is the situation YU President Richard Joel finds himself in today, forced to deal with a controversy that arose long before his watch. At a time when YU is dealing with financial troubles that go back to its heaving losses resulting from the Madoff scandal, Joel can point to the dramatic and impressive changes he has made in improving the school academically and culturally, during his decade as president, marked by his emphasis on “enabling and ennobling” students and improving their morale.
Ironically, Joel, whose leadership of an Orthodox Union committee in 2000 investigating the abuse charges against Rabbi Baruch Lanner enhanced his own profile as a possible successor to Rabbi Lamm, is now embroiled in another abuse scandal. Only this time he has been cast in the role of defender of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution.
To his credit he issued a prompt, forthright and detailed statement in response to the Forward article condemning the alleged abuse and expressing “profound apology” on behalf of YU.
How frustrating this episode must be for Joel, a man of integrity who recognizes the moral obligation of his religious institution to do the right thing while well aware of the negative fallout that can come about from this latest scandal, made public on the eve of YU’s Chanukah dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, its primary annual fundraiser.
And how unfortunate that Rabbi Lamm is the “heavy” in the investigative report, having accomplished so much throughout his long career at Yeshiva.
The only bright spot here is that the abuse victims have, at last, had their moment of recognition. It’s more than a shame, though, that it took so long.