January 11, 2007
Clergy sexual misconduct: What’s being done to rein in abuse?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.