After clergy abuse, forgiveness will just have to wait

I’m going to put it plainly: When it comes to clergy abuse, I would rather seek justice than cultivate forgiveness.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “You can’t always get justice. So if you wait for justice before you can forgive, you might be waiting forever. It’s better to forgive and let go of your anger.”

I don’t agree, for a myriad of reasons.

The most central is that, in Jewish tradition, forgiveness isn’t a feeling, but a process called teshuva, which means return. It happens when the offender comes to you and accepts accountability, asks how to heal the wrong, does so, and then responds in an ethical way when faced with the same situation again.

Once that happens, life can return to a state of harmony because a measure of justice has been done.

But let’s be honest: While teshuva is a beautiful process in theory, for most of us clergy abuse survivors, it never, ever happens in everyday life. I’ve been harmed a great deal by folks who have never admitted what they’ve done, much less expressed remorse and asked me what I needed from them. For most of us, being offered teshuva is a dream we gave up before we ever dared to dream it.

So how is forgiveness possible when there is no teshuva? And is forgiveness even necessary?

It depends on what you mean by forgiveness. If forgiveness means just letting go of what happened — well, that’s not for me. I tried it, and it didn’t go well. I convinced myself that I had forgiven my clergy abuser and wasn’t angry anymore. I made a false peace with my situation, and I went back to him. Within months, I’d fled my home and moved 350 miles away with what was left of my sanity.

I learned a powerful lesson, though: My anger is a normal human emotion, and a very useful one. It signals that something terribly wrong has happened, that someone did me harm, and that I need to protect myself against that person doing me any more harm. When I rushed into forgiveness — and made forgiveness synonymous with letting go of my anger — I put myself right back into a vulnerable position. Once I focused my anger properly, it gave me power and helped me to get safe.

If, as the Buddhists teach, forgiveness happens when we stop wishing for a different past, then yes, I think forgiveness is possible. After all, it’s wildly impractical to try to change what has already happened. If I can accept the past, then it loosens its hold on me. By “accept,” of course, I don’t mean “morally accept.” That I will never do. There are certain things that will never be morally acceptable. But if I can grieve the past that happened, and accept that I’m powerless to go back and change it, then I can move into my present and my future.

But enough about forgiveness. The fact that I’m talking about it so much in the context of clergy abuse shows just how much pressure there is to forgive.

Let’s talk about justice. After all, the Torah enjoins us Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice you shall pursue. As long as the world is burning, we are taught to seek justice everywhere. And yet, the world we live in does not pressure us to seek justice in the way that it pressures us to forgive — which often makes me wonder what the world is so afraid of. After all, justice is not the same as vengeance or retribution, although it has often been confused with them.

To me, the essence of justice is the righting of a wrong.

In my case, justice will never happen in a courtroom. In my case, for someone to stand with me and hold my clergy person morally accountable would be justice. There are certainly people in a position to do so. Is that likely to happen? No. I’m painfully aware of that fact. My clergy abuser is so charismatic that it may be a lost cause to get anyone who knows him to listen and understand. Many of us face this problem. It’s one of the most heartbreaking aspects of being abused by clergy.

But I can still seek justice. I can still try to influence others to hold clergy abusers accountable. And even if I don’t succeed every time — and I won’t — it’s the seeking that matters. It’s the seeking that heals. It’s the seeking that makes things right in my own mind and heart.

I can seek justice by helping others to find justice in their own lives.

I can seek justice by helping those who have been gravely wronged.

I can seek justice by listening to other victims and befriending them.

I can seek justice by joining forces with other victims, whether they were abused as children, as adults, or both.

I can seek justice by acting in solidarity with other victims, whether they were abused by a rabbi, by a pastor, by a priest, or by a spiritual teacher.

I can seek justice by continuing to lift up my voice — to reach those who don’t understand, and to let my fellow survivors know that we are not alone in what we have suffered. Because believing what our abusers tell us —  that we are all alone with our pain, and that our pain is our own doing — is a hidden injustice that burdens our souls more than we know how to express.

Pursuing justice inspires a feeling of power.

Pursuing justice creates connection — across religion, across geography, across generations.

Pursuing justice can heal this broken world.

So I will continue to seek justice. Forgiveness, I’m afraid, will just have to wait.

About the Author
Rachel Cohen is a survivor of clergy abuse in the Jewish community and the founder of Shema Koleinu, an organization dedicated to providing support and healing to Jewish adults abused by clergy. (To learn more about the work of Shema Koleinu, visit their website at Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.
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