The recent sex-abuse conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner for groping two teenage girls closed a highly disturbing chapter for the centrist Orthodox world. But it remains to be seen how deeply the controversy will transform the community.
Lanner was found guilty June 27 in a Monmouth County, N.J., Superior Court of endangering the welfare of two girls between 1992 and 1996, while he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva. He also was their supervisor at the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the youth wing of the Orthodox Union (OU).
Lanner, 52, who has long maintained his innocence and whose lawyers said he will likely appeal, was also convicted of aggravated criminal sexual contact and sexual contact against one of the girls. Freed on $100,000 bail, he is set to be sentenced Sept. 13. He faces between 10 and 20 years in prison and a maximum $300,000 fine.
The Lanner case not only stirred a rare public airing of the issue in the Jewish community, it also provoked intense debate in the community because Lanner allegedly abused scores of teenagers over 30 years.
The scandal surfaced in June 2000 when the New York Jewish Week reported the complaints against Lanner.
As public reaction swelled, the OU appointed the NCSY Special Commission on the Lanner case. In December 2000, the panel released part of a scathing 332-page report blaming OU leaders for ignoring reports of Lanner's abuse and urging major organizational reforms.
In at least four instances, NCSY and OU officials were "put on direct and specific notice of serious sexual misconduct" by Lanner, but failed to heed such "red flags," the report said.
Richard Joel, president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, who chaired the Lanner commission, said the OU has begun to act. "The best thing to be said is that changes are still a work in progress," he says.
According to the OU's new president, Harvey Blitz, the NCSY has instituted mandatory sensitivity training for all teen advisers, has created "ombudsmen" to hear complaints and has put in place formal procedures regarding sexual misconduct.
However, Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of the New York Jewish Week, who broke the story and has covered the case extensively, said such changes don't come easily.
If another sex-abuse scandal were to surface, Rosenblatt said, "I'm not sure how the community would deal differently with it. I still think there's a natural resistance to going public."
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