Council Slammed For Releasing Names in Sexual Abuse Case
By Rukhl Schaechter and Eric J. Greenberg - Foward
December 17, 2004
The nation's leading Orthodox rabbinical organization is
being accused of betraying women who say they were sexually
abused or harassed by a prominent New York rabbi hailed for
counseling women about their troubled marriages.
Critics of the Rabbinical Council of America are blasting
the group for giving Rabbi Mordecai Tendler and his attorney,
Arnold Kriss, a copy of an internal report on the sexual harassment
allegations, including the names of women who claimed Tendler
harassed them. Kriss has vehemently denied the allegations
against his client.
The RCA the major association of Modern Orthodox rabbis
is being roundly criticized by outside experts, as
well several women who say that when they cooperated with
the investigation they never gave permission for their names
to be shared. Tendler, the scion of a prominent rabbinic family,
is the son of Yeshiva University Professor Rabbi Moshe Tendler,
a leading Orthodox expert on bioethical issues, and a grandson
of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the Orthodox world's most
respected religious arbiter for much of the 20th century.
Based on past experiences with Tendler and with his supporters,
several women who cooperated with the RCA investigation said
that they are scared about possible retaliation against them.
One of the alleged victims who cooperated with the investigation,
Jillian Gordon, 42, slammed the RCA's decision to give Tendler
the report as "a betrayal of women, an act of extreme
negligence and indiscretion, and a violation of privacy."
"Frankly I felt re-victimized," said Gordon, who
accused Tendler of sexually harassing her after she turned
to him for marriage counseling.
Several national experts on religious abuse told the Forward
that they believe disclosing the report without the victims'
permission, as is charged, violates generally accepted standards
on how complaints from alleged abuse victims should be handled.
At the very least, the experts said, the women should have
been asked whether they wanted their names to be released
to Tendler, and they should have been given the chance to
withdraw their complaint if they did not.
The RCA "blew this big-time," said Jeff Anderson,
a St. Paul, Minn. attorney who for two decades has represented
survivors of sexual abuse by clergy from all religions.
Marci Hamilton, an expert in religious abuse cases and a
professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School
of Law, sounded a similar note. The allegations against the
RCA constitute "gross negligence on the part of the religious
organization," she said.
"It's incredible. Supposedly these are religious organizations
that are oriented to helping the weak, but nobody seems to
care about [the women]," Hamilton said. By giving Tendler
the names of his accusers, she said, the RCA appears to have
"failed in its legal, moral and religious obligations."
The president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Carol
Newman, said that "if it turns out that names were released,
it calls into question the ability of the RCA to confront
allegations of rabbinic abuse in a fair and equitable manner,
and will have terrible long-term implications."
The RCA's decision to turn over the report to Tendler was
first cited last week by The New York Jewish Week. An August
27 article in the Forward first revealed the RCA investigation
and the allegations against Tendler.
The mounting controversy threatens not only to embarrass
a prominent rabbinic family, but also to undermine the credibility
of the RCA. With more than 1,000 members, the Orthodox rabbinical
council deals with a wide range of religious and social issues,
in addition to sponsoring an influential rabbinical court.
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA,
told the Forward that it is the policy of the organization
not to discuss internal investigations. Herring would not
comment on how long the investigation would take.
The RCA's ethics committee is reportedly scheduled to hold
a meeting this month regarding the allegations and the report.
One high-ranking RCA official, who asked not to be identified,
defended the organization's decision to hand over the report
"There is nothing unusual about an accused person getting
information in order to help him defend himself," the
high-ranking RCA official said. "This is true both in
secular law and in Jewish law, which presumes that an accused
person has a right to defend himself."
The RCA official added: "Hypothetically speaking, I
can't imagine how a person making an accusation could expect
that it would not be presented to the accused, unless, of
course, in extreme cases, like organized crime, where the
witnesses need to be protected."
Hamilton, the Cardozo professor, rejected the attempt to
compare the current situation to a criminal case.
"This constant analogy to criminal law just breaks down,"
Hamilton said. She stated that in a criminal proceeding, a
victim must agree to cooperate in order for the prosecutor
to proceed and press charges.
Hamilton said "that's a far cry from agreeing to be
identified and named to the accused. If someone does not want
to press charges against criminal behavior, they have that
A respected authority on his grandfather's writings and a
part-time instructor at Y.U., Tendler also has emerged as
a leading defender of the increasingly beleaguered Modern
Orthodox community of Monsey, N.Y., in its communal turf struggles
against the dominant ultra-Orthodox majority. Tendler is the
founder and religious leader of Kehillat New Hempstead, a
Modern Orthodox congregation near Monsey. During his tenure
there, he has earned praise from Orthodox feminist leaders
for his open-minded approach to women's issues. He composed
a popular prayer on behalf of agunot, or women who have been
unable to secure a religious divorce decree from their husbands.
RCA insiders say the worst they could do is expel Tendler
from the organization a decision that would not directly
impact his pulpit position.
The report comprising the women's names, which was passed
along to Tendler last month, contained interviews with at
least eight alleged victims, sources familiar with the case
told the Forward.
Dallas-based sexual abuse investigation agency Praesidium,
Inc. was hired by the RCA to look into the women's complaints.
It built upon an earlier case file compiled in late 2003 by
a vice president of the RCA, Rabbi Mark Dratch.
This past summer, Praesidium conducted telephone interviews
with alleged victims and other witnesses concerning supposed
incidents spanning the last 12 years.
Several women told the Forward that they believed they had
been assured by Praesidium, as well as by a high-ranking RCA
official, that their names would be kept confidential.
Praesidium officials declined to comment.
Sources familiar with the case, speaking on the condition
of anonymity, said that after Tendler's lawyer, Kriss, demanded
the document, the RCA decided to give Praesidium's report
to Tendler without consulting the women. Kriss contended that
he had a right to prepare a defense for his client, and an
RCA legal adviser agreed, the sources said.
Kriss refused to discuss the report during a phone interview
with the Forward last week. "I certainly have no comment
as to whether there is or there isn't a report," he said.
According to sources familiar with the situation, in June
the RCA hired Praesidium in an attempt to assure all parties
that the investigation was impartial. The firm boasts of having
investigated more than 400 cases of abuse, including cases
involving the pedophile scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.
Several women said that they were interviewed by Praesidium's
senior vice president, Jane Hickerson.
Hickerson declined to discuss the company's general policies
and procedures in handling abuse cases, including issues of
confidentiality. "Our standard policy is we don't respond,"
to media questions, she said last week. Hickerson referred
questions to Monica Applewhite, president of the company's
religious services, who did not return phone calls.
One alleged victim who was interviewed by Praesidium said
an RCA official previously had promised that her name would
be kept confidential and that "Rabbi Tendler wouldn't
"So later," the alleged victim said, "when
the [Praesidium] investigator came to hear my story, I understood
that the information would still remain out of Tendler's hands."
The woman, a former member of Tendler's congregation, said
that after she and her husband started going to Tendler for
counseling, the rabbi started studying Torah with her and
would occasionally rub up against her, as if by accident.
"One day as we were learning together, he propositioned
me," she said.
The woman said that soon after confronting Tendler about
his behavior, the rabbi phoned her husband, accused him of
"behaving very arrogantly" and threatened to have
him excommunicated. In addition, she said, Tendler warned
that "my husband would lose his job" and would be
unable to find a place to pray in Monsey.
American Jewish Congress general counsel Marc Stern, who
has been acting as counsel to the RCA committee investigating
the allegations against Tendler, refused to comment on the
case or on the procedures being followed by the RCA.
However, in a letter to the Forward responding to the August
article on the investigation into the allegations against
Tendler, Stern appeared to outline the RCA's general approach.
"The RCA is determined to protect the rights and dignity
of both complainants and the accused," he wrote. "The
investigation is a manifestation of the RCA's commitment to
vigorously pursuing accusations of misconduct against its
members in a manner consistent with halacha [Jewish law],
including procedural fairness to all concerned."
Stern added: "Complaints against rabbis should not be
treated as presumptively unfounded. Equally, rabbis should
not be presumed guilty in the press merely because a complaint
alleging misconduct has been filed."
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network
of Those Abused by Priests, criticized such attempts at balance.
"This mistaken notion that somehow everyone's rights
here deserve equal weight, is simply not true," Clohessy
said. The accused rabbi's interests "pale before the
interests of the safety of vulnerable women."