By Paul Berger (The Jewish Daily Forward)
January 10, 2013
Yeshiva University has declined to say if it will make public the results of an investigation into sexual abuse allegations at its Manhattan high school despite former students’ fears about the scope, openness and motivation behind the probe.
In a statement to the Forward, released January 8, a Y.U. representative promised “a full and completely independent investigation,” but declined to say what will happen to the work now being conducted by an international law firm hired by the university. In a follow-up statement issued the next morning, the representative said that after the investigation was complete, the board expected that it “will be in further communication with the public.” He declined to explain what that means.
Y.U. launched its investigation after the Forward published allegations by three former students that they had been abused by Rabbi George Finkelstein, who served at Y.U.’s High School for Boys from 1968 to 1995, where he rose to become principal. Another student said that he had been abused by a Talmud teacher, Rabbi Macy Gordon, who taught at the school from 1956 to 1984.
Immediately following the story, Finkelstein resigned from his executive position at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, and Gordon was placed on indefinite leave from his teaching position in Jerusalem.
In the weeks that followed, more than a dozen former students contacted the Forward to say that they had been sexually, emotionally or physically abused by Gordon or Finkelstein. Y.U.’s board of trustees hired a top international law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, to investigate the allegations, and within days investigators began calling former students to invite them in for an interview.
But former students and legal experts who are experienced in abuse cases have raised concerns about Y.U.’s refusal to tell victims whether the report will ever be publicly released. Some fear it is a public relations ploy or intended to guard against potential lawsuits rather than to investigate how Y.U. staff members may have physically, emotionally and sexually abused boys over almost three decades, despite complaints from students and their families.
Shmuel Herzfeld, who is the rabbi of Washington, D.C.’s National Synagogue and graduated from Y.U.’s high school in 1992, is one of those who have publicly complained about the investigation.
Herzfeld said he spoke to Karen Seymour, the lawyer leading the Sullivan & Cromwell team, by telephone on December 26. Herzfeld said he had in mind the report commissioned by Pennsylvania State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal when he spoke to Seymour.
In the Penn State case, Louis Freeh, a former head of the FBI, was given access to university employees and board members. Although some said that the Freeh report had its flaws, it was seen as a breakthrough in transparency and in an institution’s willingness to confront errors in judgment.
But Herzfeld said he was dismayed when Seymour told him that her report might be delivered to the Y.U. board orally rather than in writing. He said he was even more alarmed when Seymour said that unlike the Freeh report, which was disseminated publicly the same day it was presented to the board, she “could not say whether… the board would release the report to the public.”
Herzfeld said he has spoken to former Y.U. high school students who say they were abused but are fearful “that what they tell the investigator will not be given a proper hearing.” So Herzfeld sent a letter, signed by 18 Y.U. high school alumni, to the chairman of the university’s board on January 3, asking that the investigation follow the blueprint laid out by the Freeh report. By January 8, the chairman, Henry Kressel, a managing director at a private equity firm in Manhattan, had not responded.
When a reporter from the Forward called Kressel on January 7 and identified himself, Kressel cut off the call. Kressel’s assistant later directed the Forward to Y.U.’s press office. (Y.U.’s press office did not respond to several questions, including a request to know who on the board is overseeing the investigation and when the board might decide to make the report public.)
Other high-ranking Y.U. officials declined to speak to the Forward. Reached at his New York home, David S. Gottesman, a billionaire investor and a Y.U. chairman emeritus, said: “I don’t talk to reporters. I never have.” Another chairman emeritus, Ronald P. Stanton, who made his fortune in agrochemicals, said, “I have no comment, sorry.” The Forward was unable to reach the other emeritus chairmen, Morry J. Weiss and Robert Beren.
Seymour initially agreed to speak, but then declined after being told that the interview would be on the record. In an email, Seymour said, “We can assure you that Sullivan & Cromwell LLP was retained to conduct an independent, full and complete investigation into the reports of sexual abuse, and we are currently conducting our investigation in that manner.”
Seymour added that Sullivan & Cromwell had retained Lisa Friel, former head of the Manhattan district attorney’s sex crimes unit, to help with the investigation. Friel left the DA’s office in 2011 to head up a unit at an investigations firm, T&M Protection Resources, where she specializes in probing abuse at public corporations and educational institutions.
Among her first clients was Poly Prep, an elite private school in Brooklyn that was rocked by allegations that a former football coach, Phil Foglietta, had abused students there for decades. During the ensuing civil lawsuit, Friel antagonized some victims by telling The Wall Street Journal that school administrators could not be blamed for earlier lapses, because people “had very different understandings of what sexual abuse was in the ’60s and ’70s and what a pedophile was.”
Norman Lamm, Y.U.’s chancellor, expressed a similar view when he spoke to the Forward last month, on December 7. Lamm, who was president of Y.U. during the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, when most of the abuse is alleged to have taken place, told the Forward that a number of Y.U. staff members were quietly let go during that period, following charges of improper sexual activity. “This was before things of this sort had attained a certain notoriety,” Lamm said. “There was a great deal of confusion.”
Friel did not respond to a request for comment.
The Forward has cataloged several instances when Y.U. officials were alerted to abuse allegations against Finkelstein and Gordon. Mordechai Twersky, a former student, said he told Lamm about Finkelstein in 1986. Another former student and his father told the Forward that they complained about Gordon to a Y.U. vice president, Israel Miller, in 1980. Miller died in 2002.
Seymour said her team would investigate “any individual at Yeshiva University who reportedly knew of any such abuse, and how they responded to that report.” She said that her team intends “to follow any leads, and Yeshiva University is not restricting our ability to pursue those leads.”
Like the Freeh report investigators, Seymour said her team is “collecting potentially relevant documents and obtaining raw computer data from Yeshiva University.”
Seymour, however, declined a request by the Forward to see a current document that tells Y.U. high school staff what to do if they suspect that a student has been abused. “I believe it would be inappropriate for the investigative team at this stage to selectively disclose information, including the policy that you requested,” she said.
Seymour also declined to respond in regard to whether any member of her investigation team has any past or present ties to Y.U.
She confirmed that the university hadn’t decided whether the report will be released publicly. “That decision will be made at the appropriate time, by a special committee of the board of trustees of Yeshiva University,” Seymour said.
Marci Hamilton, chair of public law at Y.U.’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a leading advocate of abuse victims nationwide, said she was confident the report would be made public. “No institution can study this issue with any credibility and fail to report to the public what they’ve found,” Hamilton said.
She added, “This is the leading Orthodox university in the country, if not the world, and what’s needed is for this institution to set an example for dealing with these kinds of issues.”
Hamilton pointed out that the Freeh report let down victims in one crucial area: It only examined abuse allegations after 1998 and ignored the three previous decades when Sandusky was employed by Penn State.
“As I understand with Y.U., the investigation is more broad ranging and not limited solely to [the allegations against Finkelstein and Gordon], but also to the culture of the institution,” Hamilton said. “It’s certainly not just focused on the high school.”
But lawyers who specialize in representing victims of abuse remain cautious, particularly about potential victims giving statements to Y.U. investigators without their respective lawyers present. They said that although the statute of limitations to bring criminal prosecutions has passed, civil lawsuits remain a possibility, and statements given to the investigation team could later be used against them.
Kevin Mulhearn, who won a landmark multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Poly Prep this past December and who has already been retained by former Y.U. student Twersky, said, “I would be very leery of going in without counsel.”
Another lawyer, Jeff Anderson, said he would discourage victims and their families “from talking to people hired by and working for the university” without seeking their own legal counsel.
Anderson, who during the past 29 years has brought suits against the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican and Penn State, said he has been contacted by several former Y.U. high school students and that he has agreed to represent “more than one.
He said Y.U.’s report, as currently outlined, fell way below today’s standards and seemed “designed more for purposes of public relations” than for anything constructive. He was particularly concerned that Sullivan & Cromwell could not assure victims that the findings would be made public.
Paul Mones, who has been involved in lawsuits concerning sexual abuse against the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, said it is notable that an investigation has been launched at all. Usually, Mones said, the motivating factor for institutions is fear of litigation or that bad publicity will hurt contributions.
In that sense, the abuse allegations surfaced at a bad time for Y.U. Less than two weeks after the allegations first appeared in the Forward, Y.U.’s president, Richard Joel, announced a drive to raise $600 million toward a capital campaign and future scholarships.
Mones said: “The Catholic Church only began to consider changing its policies because of the threat of lawsuits and the financial fallout of those legal actions.”