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Searching for Lessons at Yeshiva University

Last year we were searching for answers amid exposé and scandal, sealed lips and regrets. We had just learned of long-term sexual abuse that had festered for decades at Yeshiva University’s High School for boys. We wanted to know who had allowed this to ensue, how many victims had been involved, and when the abuse occurred. We simply wanted to know what had happened.

Eight months, a 53-page investigation, a 148-page lawsuit, apologies, and hundreds of articles later, we now have some answers.

A $680 million storm—far greater than anyone imagined—is brewing. This week we learned that the abuse we thought had ended in 1989 had in fact persisted until 2001. We also learned that the abuse was not confined to MTA high school.

This report was published at a fairly fortuitous time. We are now in the Jewish month of Elul, a time for reflection on past mistakes. We can dream big about the coming year after we have owned up to our previous errors: big and small, spiritual and interpersonal.

Tshuva, the Jewish practice of repentance, is traditionally thought of as a four-step process: cessation, contrition, confession, and commitment.

President Richard Joel, though he may not have know it himself, ended YU’s culture of fear, abuse, and cover-ups. The school’s administrators have expressed remorse. With this latest Sullivan & Cromwell commission, the university apparently acknowledged and expanded the scope of abuse. Finally, the university resolved to implement changes to its already robust harassment policies and pledged to become a leader in sexual abuse prevention and education.

Indeed, YU is now operating with a completely new cast of leaders, many of whom spearheaded projects relating to child safety.

Marci Hamilton, chair of public law at Y.U.’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is one of the nation’s leading advocates for ending the statute of limitations on abuse crimes. He joined Rabbi Yosef Blau last year in testifying for the Child Victims Act in New York State Assembly’s Codes Committee arguing for the extension of the statute. Rabbi Blau told the Legislature that “the present statute of limitations” deprives abuse victims of “any way to combat powerful institutions.”

Azrieli Graduate School Professor David Pelcovitz is on the forefront of abuse prevention and detection. As the President of Hillel, Richard Joel spearheaded a one million dollar investigation of pedophile Baruch Lanner. His 330-page report resulted in the resignation of many within the Orthodox Union and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

In the wake of the report, President Joel promised comprehensive reforms of university policy to improve the institution’s response to potential abuse situations. These reforms include required coursework at YU’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Resident Advisors and incoming freshman have all been required to take sexual harassment awareness courses. Educator Programs in the Azrieli Graduate School of Education and The Comprehensive Abuse Response Education (CARE) program at YU’s Institute for University-School Partnership will help redeem YU’s tarnished image.

These changes represent a paradigm shift within the university. T&M Protection Resources, an outside company brought in to assess YU’s current policy, believes that the High Schools’ newly adopted YUHS Anti-Harassment Policy represents a “gold standard” for handling harassment.

On paper, it seems, YU has done Tshuva.

But there is more to it than policy. Indeed, the university seems to believe that what should be learned from this tragedy is the importance of procedure. While all may be copacetic now, policy can’t anticipate every possible contingency; the university has perhaps learned an overly specific lesson.

Today, it is highly implausible that sexual abuse will plague this university and its students again. But the University will no doubt be involved in other scandals: financial, political, academic—perhaps something entirely unanticipated. Will it have the tools to respond?

This scandal was as much a failure of policy as it was a failure of attitude. Besides the obvious lessons that can be learned from this failure, there are perhaps four attitudinal lessons that can change how this university responds to future wrongdoing.

Lesson 1: Be transparent.

Reports are supposed to make lucid that which was uncertain.  The report by Sullivan & Cromwell will surely disappoint many. The report states that, instead of sharing information publicly, “the Investigative Team has been directed by the Special Committee to describe its findings with respect to sexual and physical abuse in summary fashion.”

Understandably, there are legal issues and confidences that get in the way of transparency. Yes, litigation surely limits the freedom of this publication (and also questions its true “independence”), but it seems YU is more concerned with avoiding admission of guilt than with documenting a meticulous history of abuse at this institution.

The report offered no details—names, dates, locations, deeds—of what happened between the “relevant time period” and 2001. It is no doubt carefully moored to safe, abstruse legal grounds.  After eight months of waiting, we seem to be back at square one.

The report didn’t even disclose when and to whom the full findings of the report would be revealed. Does the President see them? The General Council? Will they be used in the lawsuit? We are given nothing.

Lesson 2: Admit when you were wrong.

Unlike the Catholic Church, unlike scandals at Horace Mann and Poly Prep, Yeshiva University administrators have offered sincere, immediate, and detailed apologies.

When the scandal broke, the school did not deny that abuse took place. The moment the allegations were published, President Joel condemned the scandalous conduct, calling the actions “heinous,” “inexcusable” and “antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for.” Though his latest letter contains a few ill-conceived words, the President expressed what I truly believe to be “deep” and “most heartfelt remorse”

Rabbi Lamm, in his letter of resignation as Chancellor of Yeshiva University, stated, “at the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived.” Most importantly, he stated, “I now recognize that I was wrong.”

True, this will not set things back in order, but it sets YU apart from other institutions and demonstrates YU’s commitment to a safe future for its students.

Lesson 3: Don’t expect closure.

Immediately after the release of the Sullivan & Cromwell report, President Joel released a lengthy letter in which he stated that it was his hope that “our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims.”

To the victims of abuse, President Joel’s statements must seem rather tactless. To expect an institutional report more concerned with the intricacies of policy than the ghosts of the past to somehow assuage years of abuse is unfair and unrealistic. The victims of abuse, according to the lawsuit, suffered years of trauma. Most suffered debilitating depression. Many only found peace through costly therapy and, sadly, addictive behaviors. Some contemplated suicide. The report isn’t a panacea; it’s a diagnosis of the problem.

The independent investigation was less a “recognition” of the serious issues at hand than an ambiguous admission of guilt buried in mounds of recommendations. The report will likely not bring closure, nor, I suspect, will a successful lawsuit. It would be wrong to expect and believe that apologies, as important as they are, will somehow cure years of grief.

Lesson 4: Be courageous.

The most important lesson is embodied in those who came forward. We would never have had been alerted to the tragedies that took place had it not been for the brave actions of a few individuals who demanded justice after years of suffering in the dark.

According to the report, the absence of an appropriate and timely reply by the University caused victims to believe that their complaints “fell on deaf ears or were simply not believed by the University’s administration.”

Indeed, administrators knew of students’ numerous calls for help at MTA high school in the 1970s and 1980s but chose, time and again, to silence students. Professionals were purportedly told the details of Finkelstein’s abuse, but did not take any action. One RIETS faculty member, after hearing one student describe the sexual predators roaming the halls, allegedly said that it was better to drop the matter.

For years, these students were told to be quiet.

Worse: YU Vice President Rabbi Israel Miller supposedly told one student that if he proceeded with his complaints against YU and Finkelstein, the result would “not be good for you or for Yeshiva.” RIETS Vice President Robert Hirt supposedly accused one student of “spreading gossip,” about an abuser, violating Jewish law. Rabbi Norman Lamm was said to have flippantly asked one of the victims what he had done to “deserve being treated that way.”

I mention these alleged anecdotes to illustrate the profound tensions under which these victims had to live. After suffering trauma for years and in the face of potentially grave social and emotional cost, these men summoned the courage to speak out. Now that a few spoke out, others are coming out of the shadows.

Courage breeds courage.

Future scandals can be prevented only if individuals are fearless in the face of adversity. The institution will be more favorably understood if it is transparent. Leaders will be commended for asking for forgiveness while, at the same time, understanding victims’ depth of pain.

Real, long-lasting tshuva, repentance, will be realized only if we can meaningfully prevent future misfortunes and future tragedy.