Jewish Journal

Clergy sexual misconduct: What’s being done to rein in abuse?

by Eugene L. Meyer

January 11, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Even as the Catholic Church has been rocked by a massive pedophilia scandal in recent years, the Jewish community also has been buffeted by high-profile cases of sexual impropriety involving rabbis and other authority figures.

How extensive is the problem of clergy sex abuse in the Jewish community? It depends on which criteria are used as a yardstick. One possible gauge is the volume of abuse complaints adjudicated by the ethics panels of the major religious denominations. Judging by the tiny caseload, the problem appears to be negligible -- unless, of course, wrongdoing by rabbis and other clergymen is underreported, as some observers maintain.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive vice president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, counted three or four investigations into rabbinic sexual misconduct since the 300-member organization adopted a new code of ethics in 1999. Hirsh would identify neither the transgressions nor the transgressors. The code is again being revised.

"We're not allowed to discuss any details," he explained, although in one instance, he added, the association's ethics committee merely admonished the accused rabbi to "be careful next time."

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's 1,600-member Rabbinical Assembly (RA), said in the 17 years he has held his current post, only three rabbis have been asked to leave the RA or left on their own due to "inappropriate behavior" of a sexual nature. Last year, one rabbi was expelled. In addition, the RA insisted that "several" other rabbis found to have engaged in "seductive behavior" should undergo therapy.

Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a primarily Modern Orthodoxy organization, said the RCA has ruled on so few sexual misconduct complaints over the past 10 years that the number is not statistically significant.

The Union for Reform Judaism, which has 900 member congregations, sees no "particular need" to keep records on the numbers or dispositions of sexual misconduct cases, according to its president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

"I don't happen to believe there's any evidence of an epidemic of rabbinic sexual abuse," Yoffie said. "If you are asking, am I aware of there being some significant numbers of people, my answer is no. We have to keep it in perspective."

Yet the Awareness Center, a Baltimore-based Jewish clearinghouse of clergy sex abuse information, lists on its Web site scores of Jewish clergy who are alleged to be sexual predators. Some of them have been convicted of crimes, but some have not even been charged.

Although authoritative statistics quantifying the problem appear to be nonexistent, some experts estimate that "between 18 and 39 percent of Jewish clergy are involved in sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and/or sexual misconduct -- the same percentage as non-Jewish clergy," according to the 2002 book, "Sex, Lies, and Rabbis: Breaking a Sacred Trust," written by psychotherapist Charlotte Rolnick Schwab.

"All denominations are involved," Schwab wrote. In her book, she said quantitative data were drawn in part from a conversation with the Rev. Marie Fortune, director of the FaithTrust Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that fights sexual and domestic violence.

Schwab in her book added: "The large number of cases alone ... in my files bears out this estimate."

Contacted later, Fortune said: "To my knowledge, there are no definitive statistics in any of our faith groups that quantify the problem, and what we have instead are anecdotes and, in some places, numbers of complaints brought in that particular jurisdiction."

Fortune said her "best guess, based on anecdote and experience," is that 10-15 percent of all clergy have been involved in some form of sexual impropriety.

Offenders include, for example, Orthodox youth leader Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a former regional director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abusing teenage girls while he was principal of a New Jersey yeshiva. That scandal set off a storm in the Orthodox world, stemming from allegations that rabbinic leaders and others had long been negligent in supervising Lanner.

More recently, David Kaye, a prominent 56-year-old Conservative rabbi from Maryland, was ensnared in a nationally televised pedophile sting operation. Kaye, the former vice president for programs of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, was sentenced Dec. 1 to 6 1/2 years in prison for trying to solicit sex last year from someone posing on the Internet as a 13-year-old boy, a case that was featured on the network television show, "Dateline NBC."

Virtually all denominations, except segments of ultra-Orthodoxy, now have formal codes on the books that outline unacceptable clergy behavior and mandate precisely how complaints of sexual impropriety are to be investigated and adjudicated by in-house ethics panels.

The system, according to critics, suffers from an institutional fear of lawsuits and excessive secrecy -- both byproducts of an ethical quandary faced by decisionmakers. They must balance an individual's right to privacy against the obligation to protect the public from a potential sexual predator.

One symbol of that ethical push-pull is the Awareness Center, a private, 5-year-old Jewish organization devoted to protecting the public from abusers. It has been both criticized and praised for its policy of identifying rabbis and other sexual predators on its Web site, even if they have not been tried in court.

Perhaps the most serious impediment to controlling clergy abuse is what Chicago psychologist and psychoanalyst Vivian Skolnick calls "the plague of silence" -- the continuing reluctance of victims to report transgressions.

"People are afraid of being ostracized if they come forward," said David Framowitz, 49, who has alleged in a recently filed federal lawsuit that he was abused decades ago by a Brooklyn rabbi.

Like most of the observers, anti-abuse activist and author Drorah Setel, a rabbi at a Reform congregation in Niagara Falls, N.Y., lauded the denominational rule makers for taking steps to undo decades of inaction and denial -- but she faulted their specific policies, nonetheless.

"They are really well-intentioned, but they just don't understand the process and the issues involved in sex abuse cases," said Setel, who has written extensively on the topic of clergy sexual misconduct.

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