Sarah Ruth Hoffman
Sarah Ruth Hoffman

CCAR’s External Ethics Investigation: A Participating Survivor’s Perspective

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) is the rabbinic association for the Reform movement in the United States. In 2014, CCAR secretly reprimanded a rabbi for sexual misconduct and facilitated his move to a new community where in 2017 he severely harmed me and my family. In 2018, they tried to cover up his misconduct again, and this was reported in the media, and after a traumatic, disorganized, and extremely unprofessional investigation, they indefinitely suspended my perpetrator even though the severity and repeat nature of his offenses should have warranted expulsion by the standards expressed in their own code.

In 2021, the CCAR announced that they hired “a women-founded and led, trauma-informed law firm” to investigate their own ethics processes and generate a list of recommendations for how to improve this process. I participated in this investigation by meeting with the law firm in two, one-hour sessions and by sending all supporting documentation for my complaints about the ethics process. I also shared with the firm my change.org petition which includes my own list of recommendations (https://chng.it/FNcQQgVgPn) and which currently carries over 800 signatures. Below I present my perspective on the law firm’s recommendations and compare them to my own.

Overall, seven of my 12 recommendations are absent from the law firm’s list, and the other five are inadequately addressed. Further, as I explain below, implementation of the inadequate recommendations combined with implementation of some of the firm’s strong and correct recommendations could actually produce more harm than good.

My Petition’s Recommendations

The recommendations from my petition at https://chng.it/FNcQQgVgPn are copied and pasted below, with additional italicized comments relating it to the law firm’s recommendations:

(1a) Abolish the unqualified “fact-gathering-team” and bring in actual, trained investigators.

This is addressed, though insufficiently, by the law firm’s recommendations under “Narrow the focus of the EC: Remove the investigative function from the EC whenever possible.”

Importantly in pages 38-39: “A decision about whether certain behavior constitutes “grooming” should not be one that the IGT makes, as it requires subject matter expertise to understand the nuance involved in identifying the motivation behind certain behavior which may appear to a lay person as innocuous or merely inappropriate. Having volunteer members of an IGT who lack expertise in investigating potential child abuse assess whether an individual is grooming a child is ill-advised, as an incorrect decision could have significant consequences.” I am disappointed, however, that they limited this comment to child grooming, as adult grooming and exploitation also has dire and life-threatening consequences and encompasses human trafficking and rape and more.

The recommendation is elaborated upon on page 80, where, disappointingly, the CCAR is given an “out,” such that if hiring an external agency or trained investigators is “cost prohibitive,” CCAR could instead have “individuals with trauma-informed training” — thus still permitting non-professional, volunteer “fact-gatherers” as before. This is possibly even more dangerous than the current system because brief “training” here would likely require great oversimplification and result in much misunderstanding of this extremely nuanced area of psychology. Also, since when does lay “trauma” training prepare one to investigate psychopathic abuse, grooming behaviors, and more? This is a fatally flawed recommendation due to this “out” that CCAR is given, and quite alarming to me as a trauma survivor. I think these issues are serious enough to warrant firmer, stronger recommendations without such potentially dangerous loopholes, don’t you? 

(1b) Replace the current ethics process with a process that is up to current best practices standards, including in-person interviews by unbiased, trained investigators, and NOT providing the rabbi in question with written allegations to dream up manipulative responses to.

This is inadequately addressed by the law firm’s recommendations by the same items that attempt to address item 1a.

(2) Immediately alert congregation leadership when a rabbi is reported for sexual misconduct.

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(3) As soon as allegations are found to be plausible, notify all other Jewish organizations that the rabbi is affiliated with (e.g., JStreet, Rabbis without Borders, Institute for Jewish Spirituality).

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(4) Place limitations on permitted activities for rabbis that are currently under investigation.

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(5) Hire an external agency with no ties to your organization to publicize cumulative and annual statistics on sexual misconduct and the ethics processes [this item abbreviated for space, see full list of suggested statistics in petition].

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(6) Give actual victim-survivors a seat at your table. Include them as leaders in your organizational decisions and ethics process, as they are “experts by necessity.” Respect their hard-won expertise.

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(7) Take full accountability for prior cover-ups, including financial restoration for victims/complainants with no nondisclosure agreements or other limitations.

This recommendation is insufficient in the law firm’s list. This item would seem to be addressed by their first recommendation (“Engage in a T’shuvah Process”), but reading the full text of this recommendation on page 72 is disappointing as financial restitution even for trauma therapy are not explicitly recommended. I felt that much was missing from this relatively soft- and vaguely worded recommendation.

(8) Create a victim-fund to help support victims of even first-time offenders, to pay for their therapy. It is a known fact that predators are attracted to careers as clergy and your organization should build this reality into your annual budget.

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

(9) Abolish the TRaC team and bring in licensed psychologists with expertise in Narcissism, Sociopathy, Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and in rehabilitating sex offenders. Or…

This recommendation is absent from or insufficient in the law firm’s list. See elaboration below.

(10) Better yet, do not be in the business of “rehabilitating” sexual predators and actually Expel them.

This recommendation is absent from or insufficient in the law firm’s list, especially considering the severity of the firm’s noted observations. According to page 48 of the report, the law firm “heard multiple reports from counselors about a lack of guidance related to how the process should be structured. Several counselors expressed the need for a manual to guide the process, including one who reported: ‘[The EC] told me, we don’t have a manual, but we use Maimonides . . . my first thought was, I am not qualified for this job.’ Another former counselor stated, ‘It would have been good to have metrics . . . but what are the metrics for somebody’s soul repair?'”

Additionally, “The current practice of the EC is to ask the intended recipient of the apology letter whether they wish to receive it and to honor their request. Ultimately, however, it is the counselors or EC members who determine the sincerity and sufficiency of the apology offered. A number of the people with whom Alcalaw spoke expressed misgivings about this practice, including some complainants, both historical and recent, who expressed discomfort with the idea that the EC could deem an apology sufficient even if the complainant or victim did not. In addition, there might be cases in which the idea of a CCAR-mandated apology letter might be harmful to a victim, who might not share the CCAR’s view on t’shuvah and might perceive such a letter as wholly insufficient to address the harm caused by the rabbi.”

Wait — “might be?” I explicitly told them that this was the case. There is no apology for grooming and sexual exploitation and rape. Such a letter would be so harmful that it could be a threat to my life or that of others. CCAR should be ashamed of itself. This was quite upsetting to read, and I am quite mad, especially since the CCAR would not answer my question about how a situation would be handled where I disagree with potential for reinstatement, and I repeatedly asked this question over 3 years with barely an acknowledgment of receipt from CCAR. 

Additionally, the law firm, “heard from several complainants who expressed significant anxiety about their lack of insight into whether and when the rabbi could be reinstated. One complainant gave voice to the anxiety associated with not knowing when, and if, an adjudicated rabbi’s t’shuvah process would come to an end and said that she could not “move on” while the rabbi was still in the t’shuvah process.” That complainant would be me. And this fact has not changed and continues to cause me immense psychological distress. How would you feel if you were in my shoes?

So what was the firm’s recommendation? It was to “Provide Additional Guidance for the T’shuvah Process.” This recommendation and its sub-recommendations are elaborated upon beginning on page 82. They unfortunately focus on the “financial burden” that rabbis face when told to undergo psychological evaluation. There is also a focus on giving them, the rabbis, clear objectives and a “curriculum” to follow. The firm altogether fails to recommend abolishing the current system of having fellow rabbi’s determine if an offending rabbi is ready to be reinstated. CCAR is thus still permitted and implicitly advised to keep volunteer rabbis responsible for a task that should be left to seasoned professional psychologists specializing in sex offenders and Cluster B personality disorders and other highly specialized issues.

I do, of course, agree with item 4 on page 82, of not allowing for indefinite suspension, but instead placing clear goals with a timeline, and if those goals are not met then the rabbi is no longer eligible for reinstatement. However, clear goals and a timeline are not sensible for offenses for which reinstatement should NEVER be a possibility (e.g., grooming and sexual exploitation of any kind of any person of any age of any religious status). In such cases, the firm’s recommendation to “Amend the Code to Mandate Expulsion for Certain Violations” comes into play. But the firm fails to provide guidance on what offenses these should be, or how to deal with past offenses that have already been dragged through the ethics process. The code as it was in 2017 did implicitly require expulsion for offenses that were grave and/or repeated and/or resulting in serious harm, but I agree this aspect of the code should be more explicit and name certain offenses outright. The trouble is, though, that with clearer guidelines comes a need for clearer and more competent investigative practices, and as as noted earlier, the firm’s recommendations leave dangerous loopholes regarding conducting proper investigations. 

If some aspects of the recommendations are taken seriously but the investigative aspect is not, it could lead to rape victims being told that their rape was not real as the EC members want to avoid feeling bad over expelling a rabbi, for instance. The current system allows for the EC members to say to themselves, “I’m not really sure if I believe her, but I kind of do and so I’ll Suspend instead of Expel my colleague.” or “I feel badly for what has happened to this woman but she was kind of asking for it and who really knows what happened, so I will be lenient and Suspend the guy so he has a chance for reinstatement.” If the code changes so that rape is outright a matter of Expulsion, the CCAR might, horrifically, deal with this by requiring an impossible burden of proof on the victim in order to bypass having to pay for a professional investigative team. For instance, CCAR may choose to say that rape investigations are up to the criminal justice system which is known to leave the vast majority of rapists walking free. The time will come for CCAR to contend with the fact that rape is not only common, but something that a decent number of their contemporaries are up to and is not the victim’s fault. And when that time comes, they will have to then contend with the fact that rape is terribly difficult to “prove” in court. They will want to balance justice and mercy but they will not know who to believe. They need proper investigations, no loopholes, and an evidence strategy (for this reason, the firm recommends “Amend the Code to Establish a Clear Standard of Proof”). And if rape is rightfully considered something that they must instantly Expel for, the graveness of this consequence may cause EC members to pity their colleague and choose to believe them over the woman. This is why it is so crucial to have seasoned professionals investigate and to not skimp on externalizing the investigation — and to not have a single investigator who is a rabbi. Yet, the law firm’s recommendations leave communities vulnerable to a situation where a rabbi is investigated for an Expulsion-level offense and the investigation is performed by other rabbis and/or lay people. 

(11) Make a genuine public apology for prior wrongdoing, including making light of sexual misconduct in the ethics committee’s original name, and for prior cover-ups, laxity in creating consequences for perpetrators, incompetence, negligence, abuse of power, narcissism, and chronic denial and minimization and other forms of enabling. This apology should only come after or alongside strong actions that show real change (teshuvah).

This recommendation is insufficiently addressed in the law firm’s list. This item would seem to be addressed by their first recommendation (“Engage in a T’shuvah Process”), but reading the full text of this recommendation on page 72 is disappointing as the necessary actions are not explicitly recommended. I felt that much was missing from this relatively soft- and vaguely worded recommendation, which seems to encourage lip service rather than real change (see page 72).

(12) Make sexual misconduct and sexual misconduct annual summaries a regular part of your annual meeting, as a plenary session that is attended by all, optimally at the beginning or end of a keynote speaker session. Consider giving victims speaking opportunities and offering workshops on this topic and how rabbis can avoid becoming perpetrators or enablers, and how they can be supportive of victims-survivors who disclose.

This recommendation is absent from the law firm’s list.

The Law Firm’s Recommendations

The firm’s recommendations can be found at https://www.ccarnet.org/about-us/ccar-ethics-system-report/. First, you must click on the blue text to access the PDF, and then you must scroll through the PDF to find the list. The list is not published directly on the webpage, which I think would have been much more convenient and more accountable on their part. For the reader’s convenience, the recommendations (listed on pages 15-17) are copied and pasted below:

  • Engage in a t’shuvah process.
  • Collaborate with partner organizations to expand the impact of the Ethics Process within the Reform Movement.
    ○ Collaborate with the URJ and HUC-JIR to adopt policies of reciprocity.
    ○ Collaborate with the URJ to bolster its support of congregations impacted by rabbi
    misconduct.
  • Increase education about the Code and the Ethics Process.
  • Implement additional measures designed to prevent and address inter-colleague conflict.
  • Enhance recordkeeping.
    ○ The CCAR should ensure that the EC and BOA recordkeeping is digitized and
    organized.
  • Expand Section VI of the 2021 Code related to violations involving minors.
    ○ Include specialized notification and sanction requirements for sexual boundary
    violations involving a minor.
    ○ Mandate that the EC Chair make certain notifications when potentially criminal
    conduct involving a minor is reported.
    ○ Explicitly prohibit boundary violations involving minors.
  • Revise the rules and regulations that govern the Ethics Process.
    ○ Amend the Code to establish a clear standard of proof.
    ○ Amend the Code to provide greater notice.
    ○ Amend the Code to mandate expulsion for certain violations.
    ○ Revise the rules and regulations to eliminate redundancy and inconsistency.
    ○ Amend the Code to more clearly state when notifications will be made by the EC and Director of Rabbinic Career Services.
    ○ Amend the Code to create more predictable timelines in the process.
    ○ Amend the Code to advise parties about the impact of external legal proceedings.
  • Expand opportunities for ethics violations to be reported.
    ○ Create a standardized complaint form.
    ○ Explore the option of allowing the EC to serve as proxy complainant in select matters.
    ○ Create a new system for fielding inquiries about the Ethics Process and in taking complaints.
    ○ Add a non-retaliation provision to the Code.
  • Incorporate more trauma-informed practices into the Code.
  • Require rabbis to make restitution whenever possible.
  • Narrow the focus of the EC.
    ○ Adopt a more transparent process for nominating prospective EC members.
    ○ Focus the role of the EC Chair.
    ○ Remove the investigative function from the EC whenever possible.
    ○ Continue and increase training to EC and BOA members.
  • Create clearer sanctions:
    ○ Eliminate censure without publication.
    ○ Require publication of any sanction that includes any restriction of rabbinic function.
    ○ Amend the Code to more clearly state the impact of each sanction.
  • Provide additional guidance for the t’shuvah process:
    ○ Identify the possible outcomes of the t’shuvah process in each case.
    ○ Create a curriculum for TRaC Team members to follow.
    ○ Examine the psychological evaluation process.
    ○ Do not indefinitely hold rabbis in the TRaC process.
    ○ Establish a process regarding the legacy of rabbis found to have engaged in unethical behavior.
  • Clarify the role of the Board of Appeals:
    ○ The promulgation of the BOA rules should not be left to the BOA.
    ○ The BOA standard of review should be amended.
    ○ The BOA should not engage in additional fact-finding.

Conclusion

While these recommendations are not all bad, they fail to address the majority of my recommendations and the very real issues that I struggle with as an actual survivor of sexual abuse by a CCAR rabbi. Most concerning of all is that in the full text elaboration on each of these items starting on page 72, I noted places where the language is overly soft or gives CCAR easy “outs,” and in some cases those outs could actually create a worse and even more dangerous system (e.g., on page 80-81, permitting CCAR to continue to use volunteer “fact-gatherers” instead of professional investigators, but this time giving these volunteers some unspecified amount of training on “trauma,” completely disregarding the potential for abuse of such knowledge and the very real possibility that oversimplification and misunderstanding of this nuanced area of psychology could result in worse outcomes for all involved). When these loopholes are implemented in combination with the other recommendations, the situation may worsen for complainants rather than improve. For instance, the law firm’s recommendations leave communities vulnerable to a situation where a rabbi is investigated for an Expulsion-level offense but the investigation is performed by other rabbis and/or other untrained laypeople, in which case the investigators and adjudicators would likely be biased away from believing the victim as they would want to avoid seeing their peer Expelled. We must take these issues seriously and not give CCAR — an organization with a documented history of cover-ups and questionable ethical behavior — any loopholes when it comes to getting their act together.

At least three additional things are worth noting for the important picture that they paint. For one, Hara Person, the CCAR’s current Chief Executive, has yet to respond to my emails regarding my case, my questions or concerns, or my petition, despite also being prompted to by others who have reached out to her on my behalf, and despite being CC’d by her colleagues at CCAR in multiple emails concerning my case in the last few years. Secondly, I find it interesting that the CCAR invested so much in an investigation and report from a law firm, but blatantly ignore and refuse to acknowledge receipt of my recommendations which I produced for them at no cost and years in advance. Thirdly, they fail to publish the law firm’s recommendations on their webpage where CCAR members and Reform movement followers can easily skim and critique said recommendations. Overall, I suspect that this process was undertaken as an image-oriented endeavor so that members and stakeholders can feel good about themselves and feel reassured that such issues are “being taken care of” (a refrain I so often hear from Reform people when they hear my story: “Oh, I knew we had issues with that in the past, but I heard they were being taken care of.”). As long as the recommendations are buried in a nearly 90-page PDF document and not exposed for ease of critical examination, CCAR members and affiliates can continue to remain in beautifully anesthetized denial about stories like mine and their alarming prevalence in the Reform movement.

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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