Honoring Norman Lamm’s legacy after #MeToo

To make amends, Yeshiva University must disclose the full findings of an inquiry and empower staff and students to speak up when they see abuse
Yeshiva University High School / Image capture: May 2011 (C)2020 Google Street View United States

Norman Lamm leaves behind a complicated legacy. For many, Lamm was “an architect of and a spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy” and “the premier expositor of our community’s worldview.” But for the alleged victims of abuse at Yeshiva University High School under his administration, the legacy is more challenging. The Forward reported that Lamm told them that he “dealt with credible allegations of improper behavior against staff by quietly allowing them to leave and find jobs elsewhere,” what plaintiffs against YU have called a “cocoon of callousness.”

Marci Hamilton, an expert and commentator on child sex abuse, lambastes YU’S failure to provide full factual disclosure, writing, “It is sad to see that YU has chosen the Roman Catholic bishops’ approach to the scourge of child sex abuse: Keep as many secrets as possible for as long as possible, and, thereby prolong the suffering of the victims, the believers, and the institution itself.

When the archbishop emeritus of Boston died, the New York Times obituary headline read, “Bernard Law, Powerful Cardinal Disgraced by Priest Abuse Scandal, Dies at 86.” Law had been known for his advocacy for civil rights and immigrant justice, but his legacy was defined by his cover-up of abuse.

The NY Times called Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s legacy “complicated.” Yet the same paper’s obituary for Norman Lamm read, “Norman Lamm, 92, Dies; Rescued Yeshiva U. From Brink of Bankruptcy,” with his cover-up of alleged abuse at his institution mentioned later. Ironically, the civil complaint alleges that publicity of the abuse “would have jeopardized YU’s much publicized $100 million fundraising efforts,” the very thing for which Lamm is lauded in his obituary.

Admirers of Lamm note that he acknowledged his mistakes in his retirement apology. Norman Lamm wrote “I too must do teshuvah.”  The Jewish sage Maimonides taught that a sin between people requires not just confession but also making amends.

Kevin Mulhearn, the lawyer representing the men allegedly abused by teachers at YUHS during the tenure of Norman Lamm notes Lamm’s letter was, “’a positive first step, but only a first step,’ and that the entire university, not just Lamm, must ‘make amends.’”

A few months after Lamm penned his apology letter, his lawyer Joel Cohen was in court arguing that Lamm was not mentally competent to be deposed regarding the abuse he had just apologized for covering up.

There was a heated online debate regarding when Norman Lamm lost his mental faculties, but I prefer to think he was competent to pen his apology and that it was heartfelt. If so, then we have a path forward to honor his legacy, past, present, and future.

To rectify the past, Yeshiva University needs to make amends. They are currently being sued by dozens of plaintiffs for alleged failures to protect children from abuse suffered from the 1950s to 1980s. YU should offer restitution now without dragging these men through the pain of litigation. This new lawsuit was only possible thanks to the New York Child Victims Act (a similar suit was dismissed in 2013 due to the statute of limitations). Halacha (Jewish Law) has no statute of limitations, and YU could have made moral amends back in 2013 without hiding behind New York law. One of the plaintiffs, Jay Goldberg lamented the failure to change. “It is still the culture of Yeshiva University and the culture of modern orthodoxy in Judaism that it is a scar for us to come forward, it is with shame. And it shouldn’t be.

To sanctify the present, Yeshiva University must release the full Sullivan and Cromwell research. Despite promising at the outset of the investigation that they would release the findings, the report they published was short and non-specific, but referred to hours of interviews. Penn State set the example by releasing the full report on allegations of not only abuse, but institutional cover-up and Coach Joe Paterno’s involvement. Shmuel Herzfeld notes the YU summary report refers to those who knew about the allegations in the plural as “members of the administration” and he asks, “Are any of these administrators…still working for Yeshiva [University]?”

Hamilton insists that, “[w]ithout providing full factual disclosure, YU perpetuates the harm to the victims, and keeps secrets that can only hurt it in the future, when other victims of previously unnamed perpetrators come forward, which they surely will.”

To safeguard the future, Yeshiva University needs to set a positive example of child protection for Modern Orthodoxy, in keeping with Lamm’s legacy as a leader of the movement. The anti-harassment policy I can find is not clear on mandated reporting of abuse. The reporting protocol for sexual assault includes six different reporting pathways, none of them being law enforcement (mandated reporting to law enforcement is at the end of the policy). Hamilton observes, “This hard-to-follow path is guaranteed to have employees throwing up their hands in confusion, or worse, it is likely to result in reports that get lost in the cracks of the bureaucracy.” The Australian Royal Commission on child abuse recommends institutions empower children and the community to participate in the safety process. In my opinion, the YU faculty handbook and student handbook fail to empower staff and students to know how to speak up when they witness abuse.

Cardinal Law, Penn State Coach Paterno, and YU President Lamm were not abusers. They were all great men who did wonderful things, but their legacies have forever been sullied by allegations of cover-up of child abuse. We need to be aware of the power of our speech, and how glowing praise of Norman Lamm is emotionally impacting those plaintiffs who are still in pain and still suffering, not only from the alleged abuse but from Modern Orthodoxy’s communal indifference to past, present, and future allegations of abuse.

About the Author
Joel Avrunin is a leader in building technical sales teams, with a passion for technology, teambuilding, coaching, and helping people develop their careers. Experiencing the heartache of being a father to a victim of clergy child sex abuse has motivated him to be a vocal proponent of robust child safety and anti-grooming policies in our schools, houses of worship, and summer camps. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and children, where he enjoys long runs down the Atlanta Beltline and hikes in the North Georgia mountains with his family.
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