A Comparison of Recent Abuse Scandals

(Original post can be found on Rabbi Fink’s blog)

In the wake of the Weberman trial, the Forward published an expose on Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm, and abusers George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon.

The relevant facts are that abuse of some sort was known to be taking place at MTA, the school did not report it, but eventually the abusers stopped working for the school. Nothing was publicized and nothing was reported. Rabbi Lamm knew about the abuse and decided to handle it privately. The extent of the abuse is unclear, but it seems that one of the abusers is accused of a sexualized version of wrestling, while the other is accused of far more heinous acts.

Rabbi Lamm, who is now 85, tried to explain YU’s lack of action. He said that things were different in those days. People didn’t quite know what to do about abuse.

It is easy to draw parallels between this case and the Weberman case. Both involved religious men who were accused of abuse. In both cases the religious institution protected its own interests and the interests of its employees over the safety of their students.

In some ways the YU case parallels the Penn State scandal as well. A very elderly statesman for a prestigious institution is embroiled in an abuse scandal for not taking care of the problem completely. The degree of abuse is different, and Rabbi Lamm didn’t enable the abusers, but there are some poignant similarities.

YU is guilty here. I believe that Rabbi Lamm could even face prosecution. Allowing abuse in our community is never acceptable.

But there are some very important distinctions between the Weberman case and the YU case.

The most important distinction between YU and Satmar is the reaction of the community and the institution. YU has taken responsibility. YU apologized. YU has vowed to make sure this does not happen again. They have taken this one by the horns and are dealing with it appropriately.

Satmar have done nothing other than raise money for Weberman’s defense, publish articles blaming the media, and terrorize witnesses and supporters of Weberman’s victim. Worst of all, they have not used this is an opportunity to educate their public about the horrors of abuse and ways to prevent it. It’s inexcusable, really.

To me, this makes a huge difference. It shows that YU has learned from its mistakes and will do whatever it takes to prevent future abuse. YU will be a partner in ending abuse, not a partner in perpetrating abuse. Satmar is the latter.

Some will argue, in defense of YU, that they didn’t really understand abuse back in the day and they thought it was best to deal with it privately. I think this is a terrible argument. Mandated reporting laws were passed precisely to educate the public and gatekeepers that abuse must be reported. We would expect that an honest, good institution would take the appropriate corrective measures, even if things were different in the 70’s and 80’s.

In this respect, YU and Satmar are similar. Satmar is just 30 years behind. That’s to be expected. They are living in a recreation of 18th century eastern Europe. Of course they don’t understand the horrors of abuse.

But it’s not an excuse for Satmar in 2012, and, similarly, it is not an excuse for YU in 1985.

YU has clearly learned its lesson. This does give me a glimmer of hope that Satmar can learn their lesson too. On the other hand, while YU’s philosophy is to live in the present, Satmar’s philosophy is to recreate the past. YU celebrates science and research. Satmar demonizes it. This might prove a fatal flaw to my hope that Satmar will adjust. But if the Satmar community demands it and there is enough of an outcry over their disastrous record on abuse, maybe, just maybe Satmar can sheepishly follow in the footsteps of YU and enter the 21st century.


Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, [facebook.com/eliyahu.fink], Twitter [twitter.com/efink], or email [rabbifink@gmail.com].