Because We Loved: The Betrayal of Clergy Abuse

One of the unspoken experiences of clergy abuse survivors is that of love.

As survivors, we rightly rail against the harm done to us. We grieve the betrayals of promise and conscience. We struggle to untangle the abuse by congregation and by religious institution. And we try to come to grips with the time that abuse has stolen.

But we don’t often talk about love, when love is central to the betrayals we have experienced. Whether we were abused as children or as adults, love is at the core of many of our stories. Perhaps we loved our clergy person as a child, with all the innocence and openness and trust that only an unwounded child can possess. Perhaps we loved our clergy person as an adult, in the fullness of the heart that only one adult can share with another.

Either way, we loved.

But it was not just love for our clergy people. If only love were that simple.

We loved God. We opened ourselves in vulnerability and joy to the profound experience of God’s love for us. We yearned to channel that love to others, even when it was most difficult. 

We loved our community, a place of belonging, a sacred space in which we could experience the spaciousness of our love for one another.

We loved our religious practices and traditions — the music, the art, the tastes, the fragrances, and the touch of sacred things.

As a Jew, I loved the artistry of the Hebrew text of the Torah scroll. I felt joy at the weekly lighting of the candles on shabbos, the breaking of bread after a service, the fragrance of the spices at havdalah. I loved struggling with God and Torah, arguing over the text until dusk. I entered with a full heart into the silliness and celebration of Purim, the reliving of the Exodus at Pesach, the dance of body and soul with the Torah scrolls at Simchat Torah.

Our clergy people, our communities, our traditions, our religious practices all taught us to love, openly and willingly. As we read and chant: “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vavkha, uv’khol nafshekha, uv’khol me’odekha. You shall love God, Your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

We reached toward the greater love, and it made us vulnerable. As a fellow survivor said to me so eloquently, “There is an ineffable higher love which was abused. It is the love that makes us resilient and forgiving and grateful and seeing the best in everyone.” This ineffable love is what a religious life calls us to. Perhaps it is what life itself calls us to.

Once we have tapped this love, it flows through everything we do, everything we touch, everything we are. It becomes inextricably bound up with our religious practices, with our prayers, with our voices, with our communities, with our clergy people, with our sexuality, with our identities. So when that love is betrayed, everything — practice, prayer, voice, community, clergy, sexuality, identity, life itself — becomes a source of raw pain.

After all, if we cannot separate the larger love from everything we are and everything we do, then how can we separate the pain of its betrayal from all that we know and touch? What was once a source of joy, of liberation, of meaning, of healing becomes a source of suffering, of confinement, of despair, of brokenness.

Clergy sexual abuse is about so much more than sex. It is about the betrayal of love and trust —  a love and trust that our our betrayers themselves encouraged us to experience in the fullness of our beings.

I’m not sure how to forgive that kind of betrayal. I’m not sure whether such forgiveness is even possible. It took most of a lifetime for me to experience the larger love. I don’t know whether I have enough time to heal all the pain that now saturates that experience.

If you want to understand why I am angry, why my fellow survivors are angry, know this: We are grieving the betrayal of a most precious gift. There is no way to separate our anger from our grief. Clergy abuse touches every part of us, and every part of us cries out against it.

We hurt because we loved. Perhaps speaking the love can help us to heal it. Right now, these words are all I have to show you, to show myself, to show our betrayers, that we are not alone — that we are never alone, even when the darkness falls. Other survivors are reaching back into the light — for me, for you, for all of us. 

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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