Nineteen former students of a high school run by Yeshiva University, the flagship school of Orthodox Judaism, have filed a $380 million federal lawsuit over what they claim are hundreds of acts of abuse by two rabbis in the 1970s and 1980s.
The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., follows the resignation of Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor and head of the Yeshiva seminary. In his resignation letter, the 85-year-old Lamm, who was president of the university when the abuse took place, said he was doing penance for mishandling allegations against staff members.
The 148-page lawsuit accused Lamm and various other Yeshiva officials, trustees, board members, and faculty of a “massive cover-up of the sexual abuse of students” at a university-run high school.
The latest developments come more than six months after a Jewish newspaper, The Forward, revealed that university officials responded to complaints of sexual abuse at the boys’ school by quietly allowing at least two suspected abusers to leave and find work elsewhere.
More than 20 men have said that they were abused by either Rabbi George Finkelstein or Rabbi Macy Gordon and that the university knew about the allegations. Both rabbis, who now live in Israel, have denied the charges.
“Yeshiva University High School held itself out as an exemplary Jewish secondary school when in fact it was allowing known sexual predators to roam the school at will seeking other victims,” attorney Kevin Mulhearn, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, told the New York Daily News. “Childhood sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community can no longer be condoned and excused.”
Each of the 19 victims is seeking $20 million in damages, for a total of $380 million.
The lawsuit details the psychological, personal, and professional toll that the abuse took on the victims, as well as a $250,000 donation that Lamm accepted in 2002 for a scholarship in Gordon’s name.
“This was always about money, that’s why they buried this in the first place,” one of Gordon’s victims, who wanted to remain anonymous, told The Forward.
One victim alleged that a rabbi sodomized him with a toothbrush while others say they were fondled and abused in other ways. They say that those boys who reported the assaults were told to keep their allegations quiet. Lamm has conceded that he allowed the alleged abusers to leave quietly; at least one of them found a job at another school.
One obstacle for the plaintiffs is New York’s statute of limitations, which says that a victim must file a complaint by the time he or she is 23. But Mulhearn said he can circumvent the rule by claiming the school engaged in fraud in covering up the abuse.
Yeshiva officials have said they would not comment on pending litigation. The university commissioned its own investigation, but critics say it is not sufficiently independent to provide a reliable account of the history of abuse at YU.
In his resignation letter, Lamm said that in failing to report the abuse complaints to police, he was acting “in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived.”
“I understand better today than I did then that sometimes, when you think you are doing good, your actions do not measure up,” wrote Lamm, for decades a leading figure in the Modern Orthodox movement.
David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS.