By Iulia Filip (Courthouse News Service)
July 11, 2013
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CN) - Yeshiva University High School covered up teachers' and administrators' "horrific abuse" of students for decades - including a principal who "preyed upon children of Holocaust survivors," 19 former students claim in a $380 million lawsuit.
Lead plaintiffs Mordechai Twersky and Barry Singer sued Yeshiva University, Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy - Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Robert Hirt, and unnamed members of the university's board of trustees and the high school's board of directors, in Federal Court.
The other 17 plaintiffs sued as John Does.
They live in Israel and the United States and attended Yeshiva University High School between 1969 and 1989, according to the complaint.
The men claim that Yeshiva administrators, including former Chancellor Lamm, "enclosed themselves in a 'cocoon of callousness' by allowing several known sexual predators to assume and remain in exalted positions in YUHS's administration and faculty."
Lamm, president of Yeshiva University between 1976 and 2003, resigned as chancellor on July 1. In his resignation letter, he acknowledged he mishandled accusations of sexual abuse of students years ago, according to the complaint.
Hirt was vice president of an affiliated seminary and special adviser to the president of the university.
Founded in 1886, Yeshiva University is a private research university with six campuses in New York and one in Israel. The Yeshiva University High School for Boys serves as the preparatory school for Yeshiva University's undergraduate school for men.
"Starting in 1971 and spanning several decades, George Finkelstein ('Finkelstein'), an assistant principal, associate principal, and then principal of YUHS, repeatedly sexually abused multiple student victims," the complaint states. "Yet YU and YUHS administrators refused to take action against Finkelstein, never reported him to law enforcement authorities, and - despite actual knowledge of his propensity to sexually and physically assault children - never took any measures to prevent Finkelstein's future abuse of children.
"Finkelstein, as a YUHS administrator, specifically targeted vulnerable boys for physical and sexual abuse. He preyed upon children of Holocaust survivors and - after he abused them - implored these children to not add to their parents' suffering by telling them about his assaults.
"Finkelstein also used his power as a YUHS administrator to try and keep his victims from reporting his physical and sexual assaults to their parents and other authorities.
"For instance, Finkelstein would threaten to accuse his victims of cheating, to lower their grades, or otherwise harm their scholastic futures, if they reported his assaults to their parents or other authorities. Numerous students nevertheless found the courage to report Finkelstein's physical and sexual abuse to YU and YUHS administrators, but their complaints always fell on deaf ears.
"At all material times, YU and YUHS administrators consistently and cravenly defrauded prospective students, students, and their parents, by falsely representing that YUHS (and its) campus was a safe haven for their intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth and enlightenment.
"YUHS Judaic Studies faculty member, Rabbi Macy Gordon ('Gordon'), also repeatedly sexually abused students at YUHS, but was not reported to law enforcement authorities even after various victims came forward (beginning, upon information and belief, in the early 1970s) with detailed (and horrifying) complaints of his sexual abuse of children.
"Gordon had a vicious and sadistic nature. On one occasion, in 1980, Gordon sprayed a young boy's genital area with Chloraseptic and then violently shoved a toothbrush (with toothpaste) up the boy's rectum. After this boy and his father reported Gordon's acts of sodomy (in detail) to YU's Vice President, Israel Miller, YU allowed Gordon to remain on YUHS's faculty, failed to notify law enforcement officials of Gordon's criminal acts, and failed to warn any students, parents, or prospective students, that Gordon was a known sexual predator. Gordon then proceeded to sexually assault at least one more YUHS student during his tenure at the school (which ended, upon information and belief, in 1984).
"YUHS, therefore, was an extremely dangerous place, where vicious, malicious, and sadistic sexual predators roamed free to pick off their innocent prey by relying upon the respect and reverence they commanded by virtue of their positions, titles, and reputations for decency and erudition." (Parentheses in complaint).
The plaintiffs claim Yeshiva administrators failed to warn students and prospective students that Finkelstein and Gordon had been credibly accused of sexually abusing children at the high school.
Neither Finkelstein nor Gordon is named as a defendant.
The complaint adds: "In 1979, YU stood at the brink of bankruptcy. That year, YU announced a major loan restructuring with the Bowery Savings Bank. On Dec. 10, 1979, YU then launched a $100 million expansion campaign, which sought to raise at least $100 million for YU by 1986 (YU's 100th anniversary).
"At a Dec. 10, 1979 Chanukah dinner in a New York City hotel, YU's President, Norman Lamm, stated that YU's 'highest priority' was 'to assure the continuing vitality of [YU's] tradition of scholarship and concern for one's fellow man.'
"Lamm also said, '[w]e must collectively assure that the legacy we leave for the coming generation will be an institution that is financially strong and free of onerous past financial obligations.'
"Upon information and belief, YU and YUHS ignored numerous sex abuse complaints against George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon which were made to YU and YUHS administrators and officials between 1979 and 1986, because confronting these complaints, and responding to them with care, compassion, transparency, and concern for humanity, would have jeopardized YU's much publicized $100 million fundraising efforts.
"Upon information and belief, YU and YUHS ignored numerous sex abuse complaints against George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon which were made to YU and YUHS administrators and officials between 1962 and 1995, because confronting these complaints, and responding to them with care, compassion, transparency, and concern for humanity, would have harmed YU's name and reputation.
"YU, while building a legacy of financial strength and stability, cravenly did so at the expense of its most fundamental obligation: to care and protect the children entrusted to its care. While burnishing one legacy (financial strength), therefore, it irreparably tarnished another (its commitment to humanity). As the well-being of scores of children was involved, this was no small trade-off." (Parentheses and emphases in complaint).
The plaintiffs say they continue to suffer from devastating consequences of their abuse at Yeshiva, including depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, damaged relationships and careers, and loss of faith.
They claim Yeshiva made efforts to cover up the abuse and protect sex offenders and instead of helping victims threatened and intimidated those who reported incidents.
Yeshiva administrators promoted Finkelstein to principal in the 1980s despite credible complaints of sexual abuse from former students, including Twersky, according to the 148-page complaint. They honored Finkelstein and Gordon when they left the school and awarded scholarships in both their names despite knowing that they "had a propensity to sexually abuse boys," the complaint states.
The former students seek compensatory and punitive damages for fraudulent inducement, negligent infliction of emotional distress, deceptive practices, false advertising, negligent misrepresentation, negligent supervision and civil rights violations.
They are represented by Kevin Mulhearn of Orangeburg, N.Y.
Mulhearn claims that the three-year statute of limitations does not apply because the defendants concealed their wrongdoing, which came to light in December 2012.