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Jewish Journal

Justice or Character Assassination?

by Andrea Adelson

July 1, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Michael Mayersohn feels betrayed by his own professional association that provided "a loaded gun" to an accuser, who wielded it to take aim at his reputation.

Last month, what Mayersohn described as "a private torment" became a public embarrassment when a charge of sexual misconduct against him was divulged to a wire service by his accuser. The former congregant, Chavah Stevens-Hogue, also revealed a pending disciplinary decision against Mayersohn by the Reform movement's rabbinical arm. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) story appeared June 15.

Ultimately, the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) on June 20 upheld its earlier reprimand, Mayersohn said, overriding the more severe censure recommended by the conference's ethics and appeals committee.

Only the most egregious offenses that warrant expulsion and suspension are routinely disclosed in the conference's newsletter.

Mayersohn, 51, said that Stevens-Hogue's complaint is fiction and that even the most lenient professional reprimand is unjustified. Stevens-Hogue, 44, of Huntington Beach, is equally adamant that her allegation of "sexual boundary violations" has merit and criticizes the rabbinical association for showing favoritism to its members by failing to follow its own guidelines.

"After soul-searching, I had to put privacy aside," said Stevens-Hogue, explaining she took her accusations public only after the CCAR's board tossed out the harsher punishment imposed by the ethics and appeals committee, which handles such charges. "I thought that was a fair and reasonable decision," she said of censure, which would require Mayersohn to undergo psychological testing, therapy and counseling for teshuvah (repentance).

The painful case reveals the vulnerability of clergy to character assassination as well as the difficulty for lay people in challenging a religious entity that keeps its decisions secret.

If the phone calls Mayersohn has received are an indication, his predicament is not uncommon. He has received a half-dozen sympathy calls from colleagues around the country who also described defending themselves against complaints they say were unjustified. In at least one other instance where a CCAR reprimand was issued, the colleague told Mayersohn the reproof was taken to pacify the complainant and resolve the issue. Under the Reform code of ethics, a reprimand is the least serious form of punishment and takes the form of a private letter to the rabbi and complainant involved.

"That suggests the pattern is when in doubt the CCAR issues reprimands," said Mayersohn, who contends Reform ethics policies need revision. "Don't put a loaded gun in the hand of a complainant. The policy inadvertently betrays rabbis by informing the complainant of a reprimand. The complainant is a free agent; while they don't want the complainant to go to the press, it must happen."

He is unwilling to file suit against Stevens-Hogue for libel.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the group's executive vice president, defended the way the rabbinic conference handles complaints about members.

"Complaints are addressed extremely seriously," he said. "There are people who go through this and feel the resolution is too strict or not strict enough." Although he lacked statistics about the outcomes of ethics complaints or appeals of the ethics panel's decisions, Menitoff said recent appeals were "mixed" and did not solely agree with the appellant.

Stevens-Hogue denies her intention in going public is to damage Mayersohn's reputation. She felt compelled to raise an alarm because "he's in pastoral counseling without supervision; to warn the public, the Jewish community, that there's an issue out there. People need to know.

"I'm not doing this for me," said Stevens-Hogue, who might have brought suit against the temple, a recourse she chose not to pursue. "I feel like he will do it again. I expected the CCAR to keep the rabbinate safe."

The issue stems from a May 2002 complaint made by Stevens-Hogue, who alleged that Mayersohn made sexual advances during a closed-door marital counseling session when he served as rabbi of Westminster's Temple Beth David. After 13 years, he unexpectedly quit the pulpit in February 2003, a resignation he says is unrelated to Stevens-Hogue's complaint. He has resumed work, mostly teaching, but also providing pastoral counseling.

The counseling incident took place in December 1999, Mayersohn said, citing his own correspondence, dated Feb. 26, 2000, which suggests she "misunderstood" his expressions of concern and the nature of their relationship.

"I did the things you are supposed to do," Mayersohn said, describing reporting the assertions to the temple's executive committee, the Reform movement's congregational arm and to the chair of the rabbinical ethics committee in 2000, two years before Stevens-Hogue filed a formal complaint.

"This is a man's life, career and reputation that is on the line," said Melanie Alkov, a Beth David trustee. "I must come to his defense."

"I applaud Rabbi Mayersohn for standing up for his rights -- for appealing the reprimand that was injudiciously extended to him and I pray that my faith in Rabbi Mayersohn's integrity will prevail," Alkov wrote in a letter to The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, which ran the JTA story in its June 18 edition.

Another defender is Joan Kaye, director of O.C.'s Bureau of Jewish Education. She hired Mayersohn to head up a new initiative that begins in September. The Jewish Academy of Growth and Learning will award certificates of recognition to students of communitywide adult education courses. Mayersohn's principal role is as its student guidance counselor. Kaye's confidence in him remains unshaken.

"Nothing has changed in the last two years," she said.

Stevens-Hogue, who changed her name to Chavah from Lori at a ceremony a year after joining Beth David, chose a Conservative conversion to ensure that her daughter would be accepted by most American Jews when it comes time to marry. She left the congregation and now sporadically attends services at Long Beach's Orthodox Shul by the Shore, where her daughter attends Hebrew school.

"They have very strict rules about rabbis touching congregants," said Stevens-Hogue, whose husband of 12 years did not convert. "I'm still going through spiritual issues because of what happened."

She questions the fairness and probity of the CCAR's ethics guidelines, which were adopted in June 2003. The ethics' panel made its decision to censure Mayersohn that August. The board came to a different decision last December. Under the code, the board, before deciding on a complaint, is supposed to allow both the person making the complaint and the rabbi involved to make their case. In this instance, only Mayersohn was invited beforehand.

"They violated their own process," said Stevens-Hogue, who was permitted a 10-minute appeal by speakerphone on June 20. Earlier, CCAR's president, Rabbi Janet Marder, of Los Altos, apologized, saying the board wasn't "up to speed on the guidelines." Marder did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"When a religious body investigates its own members, they have to be scrupulous to avoid bias," Stevens-Hogue said. "This clearly shows bias."

She contends the CCAR's board should look to how other religious denominations handle sexual misconduct allegations, including investigating the existence of similar allegations within the congregation. A seven-month investigation, which included rabbis and a lawyer on the investigative team, did not probe that far, she said.

Mayersohn, who has a CCAR pension fund, said he remains an "unhappy" CCAR member.

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