Monday, October 21, 2002

More on Lanner

It’s certain that the Lanner case will not go away any time soon because he is appealing his conviction in New Jersey on serious sexual misconduct charges and also because the case has become for some a symbol for alleged wrongs that transcend Lanner’s wrongdoing.

Sinful acts rarely beget noble or gracious reactions and Lanner’s case is no exception to the rule. A spirit of vindictiveness comes to the fore, so that the initial misdeeds serve as the starting point for further misdeeds, often committed by people in authority who have a higher obligation to act with restraint, yet who in their earnestness to punish the wrongdoers cross over into forbidden territory.

It’s beyond question that Baruch Lanner engaged in serious misconduct while in a position of authority at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, a branch of the Orthodox Union that over the years has compiled an impressive record in both outreach and youth activities. These wrongs were compounded by the failure to take action to remove Lanner from the positions that he held. It is less clear what transpired at the New Jersey day school where he served as principal and where the incidents of sex abuse that were the basis for his conviction were said to have taken place.

Although he has never been formally charged with criminal acts related to NCSY, in a sense, the New Jersey conviction which may have been unwarranted is a surrogate form of punishment for the more serious offenses committed at NCSY. At times, the scales of justice balance in strange ways.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in New Jersey regarding a man who has been accused, convicted, disgraced and punished, the symbolic dimensions of the case now have a life of their own. From the outset, there has been a sub-text that goes beyond Lanner, that intimates that sexual abuse is a serious problem within Orthodoxy, not only because of the wrongful deeds of the perpetrators but, at least as important, because of an alleged tendency, even an instinct, within Orthodoxy to cover-up wrongdoing. In my experience, both of these charges are false and I believe that a powerful case can now be made to challenge allegations that have little basis in fact.

It happens, as we surely know, that the Lanner affair has received much publicity during the period when sexual misconduct by clergy has been one of the major stories in contemporary America. The Catholic Church has been shaken to the core by literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of accusations, as adults have emerged to voice their claims of abusive activities that occurred years ago. Media attention has certainly been a catalyst for many of the accusers being willing to go public, mainly against Catholic clergymen, but also against religious functionaries of other denominations. It stands to reason that if Orthodox Jewry or any other part of Jewish life were awash with sexual abuse against youngsters or in efforts to cover-up abuse, we would have heard about it in the recent period. It is powerfully telling that such charges have not materialized, that despite an atmosphere that is strongly conducive to sexual abuse claims, very little has been forthcoming on the Jewish or Orthodox fronts.

Emphatically, this does not mean that there haven’t been any such cases that we do not know about. It does mean that too much of the rhetoric within our community has been overwrought and unfortunate. I hope that those who leap at every opportunity to denigrate the Orthodox will recognize that what they have done is itself a form of abuse.

More specifically, as the Lanner case continues in the courts and headlines, can we hope for a cessation of the witch-hunting directed at anyone who has deviated from the politically correct position of not saying anything favorable about Lanner and not trying to help him? It is inexcusable that Rabbis who attempted to work out a plea bargain have been derided and attacked. Much the same has been the lot of witnesses in the New Jersey trial who under subpoena gave testimony that may have supported Lanner’s version of what happened. Do we believe for a moment that they lied under oath? Or that they could/should have avoided testifying? Do Lanner’s sins justify guilt by association?

NCSY and the Orthodox Union have taken significant reform steps. The continuing onslaught against these organizations is one more form of abuse. Lanner’s terrible wrongs and the Orthodox Union’s terrible mistakes do not justify the false and accusatory comment made by a “leader of a parental group,” as quoted in this newspaper, that even the possibility of a reversal of Lanner’s conviction would “undercut the entire reform effort within the Orthodox Union.” This is nonsense, as anyone who has paid attention during the past two years should know.

Harvey Blitz – a friend of more than thirty years – is nearing the completion of what hopefully will be his first two-year term as the Orthodox Union’s president. A man of integrity and accomplishment, he inherited a crisis that destabilized the organization. From the outset, he has confronted it directly, truthfully and with compassion, and he has never sought to explain away his organization’s mistakes. He is sincerely concerned about those who feel betrayed. He and Rabbi Hersh Tzvi Weinreb, a successful pulpit rabbi and psychologist who is now the Orthodox Union’s top administrative official, deserve some breathing space.

They deserve the opportunity to achieve their important goals without being reminded every time NCSY or the Orthodox Union is mentioned that they bear a heavy moral burden. They know this. What others apparently don’t know is that without forgetting or forgiving anyone’s misdeeds, it should be possible to discuss the Orthodox Union and NCSY without any reference to Baruch Lanner.