January 11, 2007
Clergy sexual misconduct: What’s being done to rein in abuse?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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."