Thursday, July 20, 2006

Letter to the Editor: Hands Off - Don't investigate yourself

Miami News Times - July 20, 2006
Don't investigate yourself, rabbi: Regarding Forrest Norman's "Yeshiva Dustup" (July 13): It's important to remember that clergy abuse has nothing to do with religion, even though you will find it in all of them (Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Bahai, et cetera). Sex crimes are about an abuse of power and the need to control others.
Unfortunately it's common for child molesters to choose careers or volunteer time for organizations and/or institutions in which they have ample access to the types of victims they prey upon. One of the biggest problems we face is that instead of allowing law enforcement to conduct criminal investigations, institutions attempt to handle things on their own. When this happens, we end up in situations like the one we are seeing in the case of Rabbi Yehuda Kolko and Yeshiva Torah Temimah.
Just as we say, "It takes a village to raise a child," we can say the same thing about sex offenders. When an individual suspects a child is at risk of harm, we all must become mandated reporters. Let those with the education, experience, and training collect the physical evidence and do the forensic interviewing. This is not the job for our clergy.

Vicki Polin
The Awareness Center, Inc. 
Baltimore, Maryland

Monday, July 17, 2006

Defrocked Rabbi's Jerusalem Lecture Cancelled after Threats

By Daphna Berman
Haaretz - July 17, 2006

A lecture by an American rabbi accused of sexual improprieties by several of his New York congregants, scheduled to be held in Jerusalem on Thursday night, was cancelled, following threats of protests and a flood of complaints, activists said.

Mordechai Tendler, a scion of a prominent rabbinic family, was expelled unanimously last year by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) after the organization decided that he had "engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi." In March, he was also suspended by the board of Kehillat New Hempstead, the New York synagogue that he founded. Tendler, who is currently in Israel, was scheduled to speak Thursday in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof. A protest was scheduled to take place outside the event.

"This is definitely a victory," said Leah Marinelli, a former congregant from New York, Wednesday. Marinelli was one of the first community members to speak out against the rabbi and convinced some of his alleged victims to come forward publicly to the RCA.

"We put out a call for action on Tuesday morning and the next day it was cancelled and so I am pretty convinced that there is a connection," said Vicki Polin, founder of the U.S.-based Awareness Center, the Jewish Coalition Against Sexual Abuse and Assault."We didn't want him to recreate in Israel what he had done in Monsey [in New York]."

Both, however, expressed concern that Tendler would proceed with the lecture in a smaller and non-publicized location with a core group of supporters.

Moshe Siegel, a former congregant who immigrated to Israel some 10 years ago, was coordinating the lecture and had publicized the event on various English-language list servers around the country. He was subsequently flooded with e-mails and phone calls, urging him to cancel the event. Wednesday afternoon, Siegel posted a message on the list serves, informing the public that the event was cancelled. He did not provide a reason and did not respond by press time to Haaretz requests for further clarification.

Other community leaders in the U.S. have welcomed the cancellation. Rabbi Mark Dratch, chair of the RCA's Task Force on Rabbinic Improprieties said that the move had proven that "there is no place a person can hide. We're one community and though we are distanced by an ocean, that doesn't mean that what happens in one place gets ignored by another." He said that members of Tendler's former community felt "that he compromised the rabbinate and should not be given the opportunity to teach Torah publicly," Dratch said.

At least nine women have come forward against Tendler with claims that he used his rabbinic authority to solicit sexual favors. According to allegations, women who approached him with marital problems and sought spiritual counseling were sexually harassed. Last year, a former congregant filed a civil lawsuit in Manhattan against Tendler in which she accused him of giving her "sex therapy" when she went to him for help. Their affair allegedly took place in his rabbinical study from 2001 to 2005.

Following the RCA ruling last year, Rabbi Benzion Wosner, head of the Shevet Levi rabbinical court in Monsey, New York, issued a ruling that Tendler "can no longer officiate at divorces, weddings ... One should never allow their wives or daughters to go to him at all including [for] counseling ... and all his rulings are null and void."

The allegations against the rabbi, who is married and is the father of eight children, surfaced three years ago. Tendler's grandfather is the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the leading religious arbiters of the twentieth century.

Tendler's attorney, Glen Feinberg, did not have information about the reasons for the cancellation. "I represent Rabbi Tendler in the lawsuit brought against him. My representation does not extend to other matters. Thus, the rabbi does not discuss his travel or lecture plans with me and I have no information about this." He added, however, that "Rabbi Tendler completely denies the allegations of sexual misconduct and expects to be vindicated through the judicial process." 

Friday, July 14, 2006

Rabbi Challenges Right to Anonymity on Internet

Rabbi Challenges Right to Anonymity on Internet
By Rebecca Spence
Forward - July 14, 2006 

The latest chapter in an ongoing saga pitting an Orthodox rabbi from Monsey, N.Y., against female former congregants who have accused him of sexual harassment is raising broad legal questions about the right of free speech in cyberspace. 

Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, who was accused of sexually propositioning women who came to him seeking spiritual guidance, petitioned a California court May 24 to force Google — the Internet giant that hosts electronic message boards through its Blogspot division — to disclose the identities of four anonymous writers who post comments to Web journals, known as blogs. Tendler, the scion of a storied rabbinic lineage, has fiercely denied the allegations of sexual harassment since they first surfaced in 2004. He claims that the bloggers have posted "false, misleading, and defamatory materials" about him on their Web sites. 

In response to the petition, Public Citizen, a national public interest group whose litigation group has played a lead role in defending free speech on the Internet, filed motions on July 6 to throw out Tendler's case and reimburse the defendants' attorney fees, saying that the request violates the bloggers' First Amendment rights to free speech. 

The newest development in the controversy surrounding Tendler, who was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America in 2005 and was later sued for sexual harassment by one former congregant, is part of a growing body of court cases that are grappling with how to balance the rights of those who say they are being libeled with the rights of their anonymous critics, legal analysts said. 

"Our interest is in the problem of balancing the right to speak anonymously on the Internet against the right of someone who has been harmed by unlawful speech to get redress," said Paul Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who filed the motion in response to Tendler's petition. Levy leads the group's Internet free speech project. "For ordinary people, the only effective way to reach the community at large is through the Internet, which provides a voice and an opportunity to speak," he said. 

Tendler is seeking to learn the names of those who operate the blogs and, among others. 

The issue of anonymous free speech on the Internet is particularly salient in the Orthodox Jewish community, where electronic message boards have often served as a safe space for airing allegations and discussing claims of sexual abuse by rabbis. Fearing both retribution by the accused clergy and ostracism from their communities, many Orthodox victims of sexual abuse have sought refuge in cyberspace. Jewish-themed blogs, which have proliferated in recent years, have also served as an effective means for victims to take action when allegations of sexual misconduct have gone unheeded by rabbinic authorities, some critics said. 

In response to Tendler's petition, Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University, filed a three-page affidavit with the Superior Court in San Jose. Calif., arguing that it is important to maintain the anonymity of the bloggers. "The potential consequences of speaking out can be especially severe when the target of the criticism belongs to an influential family, as is true of Rabbi Mordecai Tendler," wrote Blau, who has himself been the subject of attacks on blogs and in the print media from critics who accused him of organizing efforts to oust Tendler. 

Tendler is the son of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a prominent Talmud instructor and bioethicist at Yeshiva Univeristy, and the grandson of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely considered to be his era's preeminent decisor of biblical and rabbinic law. 

In 2005, Blau was attacked in a series of articles published in two Orthodox newspapers, the Jewish Press and the Jewish Voice and Opinion, as well as on a now-defunct Web site that was created to discredit him. Blau said that he was never able to prove that Tendler's associates were behind the Web site and that he eventually gave up his efforts to expose them. "The supporters of Tendler have never revealed themselves, but no one is suing on the other side," he added. 

Lawyers for Tendler did not return repeated calls from the Forward seeking comment. 

While a strong precedent for cases involving free speech on the Internet has yet to be established, in previous cases that have come before state courts — most recently in a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling in Delaware — judges have placed the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove defamation before they are willing to force an Internet host to reveal a blogger's anonymous identity. 

"The First Amendment reflects an understanding that sometimes the most valuable speech is uncredited," said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University. Zittrain cited as a historic example the Federalist Papers, which were written anonymously by the authors of the United States Constitution. "And no one would call the framers cowards," he said. 

Some advocates for sexual abuse victims contend that anonymous blogging is necessary not only to shield accusers from potential harassment, but also to help them through the process of healing. 

"One of the things most healing to any victim of a serious crime is to talk about it," said Vicki Polin, founder of The Awareness Center Inc., a volunteer organization that maintains a Web site on sexual abuse in the Jewish community. "When people start blogging, they realize they're not alone," she said.
But some Jewish bloggers expressed disdain toward those who remain anonymous. Stephen I. Weiss, who operates the religion blog Canonist and founded one of the first Jewish blogs to host discussions on sexual harassment by rabbis, said that while anonymity may be legally justified, it can't be morally justified. Many blogs "claim to bring down abusive rabbis when they don't," Weiss said. Still, Weiss added, "legally, the potential ramifications for what Tendler is proposing are horrendous." 

Meanwhile, an Israeli Knesset member, Yisrael Hason, was set this week to introduce a bill that would require Internet sites to only post comments from participants who identify themselves, according to Israeli news reports. That bill was sparked by similar cases in Israel of public officials who were anonymously criticized by Internet bloggers.