Jewish Journal

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

by Eugene L. Meyer

Posted on Jan. 11, 2007 at 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. The notion of image-conscious, liability-minded and often male-dominated rabbinic ethics boards policing their own members, she added, is like "the fox guarding the henhouse."

Secrecy vs. Privacy

Although Judaism's get-tough policies may have their flaws, conclusive proof of their effectiveness -- or ineffectiveness -- is elusive. One reason is that the pool of sex abuse complaints that have been processed by ethics panels over the past several years is minuscule.

It is an open question, however, whether the low volume of cases indicates that the problem of sexual misdeeds among rabbis and other Jewish clergy is minimal, as some claim, or is simply underreported, as Skolnick and several others contend.

In addition, the administrative proceedings aimed at meting out justice are typically cloaked in what critics call excessive secrecy and advocates of the system maintain is an environment of prudent and compassionate privacy. The denominational hearings are generally closed to the public, and in some cases, public access to the results of those hearings is severely limited.

Proponents of this approach say it is warranted to avoid unnecessarily tainting the reputation of the accused, while sparing the accuser additional shame and embarrassment.

"It's not easy for someone to institute an ethics complaint; it's frightening," said Rabbi Rosalind Gold, chair of the ethics committee of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). "There are repercussions in the community, and people are not stupid about that."

Victims are typically traumatized by the fear of being ostracized if they publicly challenge a respected, and often charismatic, communal authority figure, such as a rabbi, according to Skolnick and others.

The fear is not always illusory. As this JTA investigation demonstrates, victims are sometimes shunned and even harassed by fellow congregants. Consequently, other victims fail to report transgressions.

Despite encouraging inroads in the area of reporting sexual abuse, the reticence of victims to come forward continues to be a major problem across all denominations. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that underreporting may be more prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community -- the type of neighborhood where denial runs rampant regarding clergy sexual misconduct, according to Framowitz.

"Growing up in that frum world, it was thought that things like this couldn't be; it was too much of a black mark on the community," explained Framowitz, who was raised in part in the Flatbush and Borough Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn, which are described in his lawsuit as "tight-knit Orthodox Jewish" communities.

Framowitz, who now lives in Israel, said that even his parents did not initially believe that he had been repeatedly sexually abused.

"For several years," he said, "nobody protected me."

Framowitz's mother, Naomi, explained her response in the context of the time: "I was too naive to understand that such a thing could happen. I lived in my own little world. At that time, it wasn't spoken about like it is today."

The denominational policies all address a vast range of prohibited deeds, from criminal acts such as rape and child molestation to sexually charged conduct that is exploitive but not necessarily criminal. That includes sexual harassment, adultery and other forms of seductive or coercive behavior grouped under the broad heading of "boundary violations."

In many instances, boundary violations are an outgrowth of pastoral counseling that rabbis and other clergymen are often called on to provide for congregants who, for example, are grieving, undergoing religious conversion or experiencing personal problems, such as marital crises. Explicitly banning even sexually suggestive behavior, most of the denominational guidelines recognize that the inherent power imbalance between clergyman and congregant makes otherwise consensual sexual contact unacceptable.

The codes of professional conduct promulgated by both the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements go as far as to warn of possible pitfalls that may arise when an unmarried rabbi dates a congregant. Some regulations aim to foster gender balance among those who investigate or rule on sex abuse cases -- an important consideration in these matters, according to several sources. Other provisions are geared to raising the level of expertise and independence among denominational investigators and adjudicators.

For example, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America specifies that whoever initially assesses complaints not be an RCA member, that the organization's fact-finding team include one mental health professional and that all members of that team "have appropriate training in the area of sexual abuse."

The CCAR guidelines, meanwhile, require that its three-member fact-gathering team include a lay person in addition to two rabbis.

A key provision of the denominational codes focuses on sexual predators who escape apprehension by relocating to another institution or community, where they repeat their conduct, an issue that gained prominence during the child-molestation scandal in the Catholic Church.

In the case of the church, pedophile priests were aided by superiors who routinely shuttled them from one parish to another, where they continually had access to children.

"This is an area of great concern in the Jewish community as well," said Alison Iser, director of the Jewish Program at the FaithTrust Institute. "The Jewish community has viewed with disdain that sort of behavior elsewhere, and as a result, has felt a sort of smugness that it was not happening here."

Whether segments of the Jewish community do in fact have a "Catholic-priest problem" is debatable. And yet Yosef Blau, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, focused on a similar concern in the July 2003 issue of Nefesh News, the journal of the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals.

"Even when the pattern of abuse is clear," Blau wrote, referring to the situation in the Orthodox community, "the question remains how to effectively deal with the abuser in a way that at least limits his ability to move elsewhere and continue to abuse new people."

If progress has been made on that front, it is in part because of denominational regulations that govern how much background information about a clergyman is to be divulged to interested parties, including prospective employers. The guidelines generally place a premium on confidentiality, but they vary in terms of how much discretion movement officials have to release personnel information. Declaring that "confidentiality is crucial," the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association guidelines -- which predate Blau's article by nearly four years and are now being revised -- say the chair of the association's ethics panel may only disclose that a member is under investigation, the investigation "has been resolved but is confidential" or that the member has been suspended or expelled.

"No other details are to be revealed." Hirsh, executive director of the association, elaborated: "In the abstract, the default position would be that the more serious the violation, the more imperative it is to disclose as much information as possible."

News of a rabbi's expulsion from the RCA, the Modern Orthodox organization, must be disseminated throughout the RCA, and the rabbi's current employer must also be notified. Beyond that, though, RCA officials shall determine "who else, if anyone," is to be informed that such an action took place. The RCA's Herring said that policy enables officials to consider relevant factors, such as the seriousness of the offense, as well as possible complications posed by pending lawsuits.

The CCAR, the Reform movement's rabbinic arm, mandates that a prospective employer be provided with a fairly detailed report of disciplinary action taken against a CCAR member. But "after an extended period of time," a single noncriminal infraction doesn't have to be reported at all.

Attorney Anne Underwood, who helped write the CCAR's code, noted that before the decision is made to withhold information, it must first be reviewed by several senior CCAR officials in conjunction with the organization's legal counsel.

"I don't like secrecy," Underwood added, "but there is a difference between secrecy and privacy, and this provision honors that."

If you act on a false accusation, you're killing a guy and his family; the responsibility is awesome," said Rabbi Abraham Twerski, medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh. "Plus, you can be sued for defamation of character. And boy does that ever hamper the system."

Concern over litigation "causes people to get very frightened," added David Pelcovitz, a suburban New York psychologist who has treated many victims of sexual abuse. "It certainly tests the limits of their idealism."

Some victims' advocates are transparency absolutists, insisting on full disclosure of virtually all details of sex abuse cases involving religious authority figures that have been ruled on by denominational ethics panels. They feel that such information should be released not only to prospective employers but to the public at large to protect the maximum number of people.

"There has been so much secrecy for so long that victims are rightfully distrustful," said rabbinic activist Setel of Niagara Falls. "They have a desire to overcompensate, and I can totally understand that."

Responding to those who advocate maximum transparency, Meyers of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly (RA), said: "They're not crazy, and they're not wrong. It's a dilemma we struggle with. The question is how high up do you put that billboard?"

The underlying issue, added Meyers, who said the RA has not been influenced by fear of lawsuits, is "what do you do in these cases to restore equilibrium between the rabbi, the victim and the community? That is really the Jewish challenge."

Due in part to concerns over civil liability, the RCA generally limits the public release of details regarding sex abuse cases, even those that have resulted in a rabbi's expulsion from the organization, said Herring.

"The threat of liability hangs over you," he added. "The chill factor is significant." The RCA guidelines, however, do have an emergency clause that recommends informing a wide range of individuals, including neighbors and civil authorities, if a rabbi might pose an immediate danger to "alleged or potential victims."

Sources within the other movements said that regardless of official policy, an expansive disclosure stance would likely apply in similar circumstances. The ethics panel of the Reform movement's CCAR does not ordinarily publicize its findings, even in expulsion cases, according to Gold of its ethics committee.

"I don't know for sure why," she said. "I'm not sure that question has ever been discussed as that question. It's not a desire to keep things secret. It might be an interesting thing to discuss."

Commenting on the transparency issue, Minneapolis psychologist Gary Schoener, whose office has consulted on hundreds of clergy sex abuse cases, both Jewish and non-Jewish, said there is such a thing as "hurtful honesty" that can needlessly trash the perpetrator -- who might be a good risk for recovery -- while inadvertently exposing the identity of the victim. Otherwise, Schoener added, full disclosure is always the best policy when responding to inquiries from would-be employers.

Due in part to extensive First Amendment protections enjoyed by religious organizations, the keepers of clergy personnel records have "lots of leeway" in terms of what information they can release without being successfully sued, Schoener said. Simple morality and common sense are usually effective decision-making guides in these situations, he said.

"Let's say you're hiring a rabbi," Schoener explained, "and he had done something wrong, and somebody later finds out about his history. How would the congregation feel if he goes out and does it again?

"The issue here is knowing the truth. It does set everyone free. The prospective employer should know both the good and the bad," he said. "There should be an accurate description of the full person, including his recovery plan and how it is being monitored.

"The idea is to know exactly what kind of situation we're dealing with." Tracker Pixel for Entry


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