Forward Thinking

Norman Lamm, the Truth — and Me

By Paul Berger

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Norman Lamm has retired as chancellor of Yeshiva University. The exit of one of the most revered figures in Modern Orthodoxy has been tarnished, perhaps indelibly, by Lamm’s admission to me last year that he covered up sexual abuse of students during his tenure as president of Y.U. between 1976 and 2003.

Since I first reported Lamm’s admission there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the circumstances of our interview. I have been accused of knowingly taking advantage of a man with a deteriorating mental state while his daughter was terminally ill. There is even a version of our interview circulating in which Lamm’s wife turns me away from his apartment door, so that I have to lurk outside until she leaves before I can sneak back in and take advantage of Lamm.

None of the above is true.

Prior to my interview with Lamm, I was unaware of rumors that Lamm or his daughter, Sara Lamm Dratch, were ill. All I knew was that a handful of former students had told me painful stories of their sexual abuse at Y.U.’s Manhattan high school for boys and that, according to them, the person who knew the most about it was Lamm.

So I did what any reporter would do. I looked up Lamm’s address and, one morning, I showed up at his apartment door. I told Lamm who I was.

I told him why I was there. At first, he appeared unwilling to talk. He went back inside his apartment and had a brief conversation — with his wife, I believe — and then he invited me inside.

I sat in Lamm’s apartment for about an hour. His wife was just down the hallway talking on the phone, while Lamm and I discussed his presidency of Y.U., the allegations of abuse and how they were handled. Lamm told me that there had been allegations of inappropriate behavior by his staff, not just at the high school, but at the college and graduate level too, and that Lamm had believed it best at that time to quietly let suspected abusers leave Y.U. rather than to report them to the authorities.

I was startled by Lamm’s candor. But nothing in our conversation led me to believe that he was suffering from dementia (his recall was clear, his arguments cogent) or that his daughter was seriously ill (nor do I believe that such a fact should have impeded my reporting).

No trickery was involved. I simply sat in front of Lamm and took down notes as he explained the reason for his actions and his regret. “We are all human,” Lamm told me. “Show me anyone who is a human being who has not made a mistake.”

Under such circumstances, is there any reason for a reporter not to report that?

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


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