Class, Privilege and Sexual Exploitation by Clergy

Susceptibility to exploitation can come from a place of fear and lack of security (e.g., financial distress). A highly skilled manipulator will aim to become a nest for their victim to fall back on during difficult times. My abuser said that I could live with him, and that he would help me financially, when times got tough. Here I describe how clergy abusers use their combination of moral authority and financial privilege to exploit, and perhaps even traffick, unwitting adult victims. These are stories of sexual and psychological slavery.

Moral License, Political Power

A pulpit/congregational rabbi is often a public figure with religious and broader moral authority in a community. As a result, members of the local community, including those beyond the synagogue, view the rabbi as a moral leader, seeking the rabbi’s advice and insights on their personal problems and the political issues of the day. It is considered an honor to speak with a member of clergy, especially here in the Bible Belt where religion is of tremendous social and political importance. My abuser was named in news articles just for signing petitions, and was interviewed for books and articles on Jewish and non-Jewish issues. He married into a congressional family, connecting him with national politics. It is scary how much power he had, and probably retains to this day, both in terms of financial, social, political and cultural collateral.

This wealth and political status afford rabbis not only a sense of control over their own lives, but also the ability to use that power to manipulate and control vulnerable people.

First, the rabbi is viewed through an idealizing lens by his congregants, who look up to him even if they never directly speak to him. People are more impressionable to him than they would be towards others because of his status. They may even train their children to treat him with special respect simply because he is the rabbi. This lends him a great deal of power when directly communicating with congregants and people in the wider community, whether it is by phone, text, e-mail, or in person. His words inherently possess more weight because he is the rabbi after all.

People in religious cultures, perhaps especially in the U.S. South, lend the clergy an instantaneous trust. For instance, I let the rabbi into my home even though I barely knew him, because I assumed that he was a safe person by virtue of his impressive resume, public accolades as a moral leader, and more. I completely trusted him for no reason other than the fact that he was such a polished, well spoken, popular rabbi. I could not imagine that he would do me any harm. It is for these same reasons that people in my own community don’t believe me, even after his second forced resignation for sexual misconduct. Sounds crazy right? But that’s what idealization of clergy coupled with a highly skilled manipulator with a moral license looks like.

The scariest extension of this sort of power is when the rabbi uses his status not merely for small favors, like a discount at the dry cleaners, but also to take advantage of that instant trust that he is granted, just as the rabbi did in my case. He even leveraged his position by using it as an impetus to gain entry into my home and more. My rabbi-abuser was well aware of the idealizing lens of others, as he described it to me in his sharing of certain rabbinical school material. It is part of their training to be aware of this. Unfortunately, he chose to exploit this power in order to use me for sex. His actions were so intentional, that he purposely went outside of his synagogue to find a Jewish woman to victimize so that he could more easily cover up his abuse of power and blame the victim [1]. This is disgusting and should disgust you. A man like this has no place in the pulpit at any time in his life. There is no teshuvah that can fix a personality this broken.

Beyond the idealizing lens of others which he is plainly aware of, the rabbinical figure also benefits from his ability to use his money to coerce victims into complacency or even secrecy.

Money Talks, Betrayal Hurts

My abuser earned a large six figure salary and lived in a beautiful designer home filled with original paintings and other artwork, and drove a sleek, new car. He dressed like a businessman, in pressed suits and with a black briefcase. He wore a Garmin and got ~$50-60 haircuts approximately monthly. On a whim, he would rent out an entire house for a night or two simply to see a band that he liked perform. He shopped constantly, buying expensive foods and ingredients with no visible anxiety about money. In the mood for a $50 recipe? Why not!

I mention all this to set up the important contrasts that made up a crucial aspect of the power differential between us. I was a graduate student living off of a small stipend. I cringed just to buy my same-old-same-old weekly groceries. I only dreamed of owning a briefcase like his, or living in a home so beautiful and filled with such awe-inspiring works of art. I looked up to him, as I was a first-generation college student working on a PhD. New cars, original artwork, these were things that I did not grow up around to the same extent. His world was strangely enchanting.

Here was this “successful” rabbi, offering to write my recommendation letters, and who was taking such a strong interest in my work, helping me to prepare for an important presentation, giving me pointers on professional attire, and more. He was so eager to help me, and to share in my dreams. He offered mentorship, guidance, support. He repeatedly told me how special and important I was (see “Special” — A Terrifying And Contagious Duplicity” here). This contrasted so starkly with the depraved ways that he treated me, in which I was truly exploited and used like an object — positioned like a doll for sexual purposes.

When the federal government was in a time of transition and I found myself with uncertain funding, he offered to help me financially and to even let me move into the house. He and his wife quickly positioned themselves as my source of stability and security — the hyper-generosity that I talked about previously. The rabbi offered to let me live with him and his wife while things worked themselves out so that I could finish school. Isn’t that nice? How can I explain to you how it was not? How can I explain to you the sickness and depravity and covert violence in this dynamic? How can I make it any more clear than I already have without essentially writing a pornographic novel?

Implicit Betrayal

What I realize now is how much this betrayal hurt. As someone positioning himself as my rabbi and friend and elder in my community, my abuser should have been offering all of that. That does make sense: generosity coming from a wealthier more powerful community member in a position of religious and moral authority. Tzedakah. But he was putting himself in the position of a rabbi, friend, and mentor, while at the same time sexually using me, and attempting to coerce me into letting him put me on Craigslist, and that’s what hurt so bad. It was like the sex was the price of getting his care. Would he have taken such an interest in me and offered all of those things without it? Was I not smart enough or pretty enough to not be used as a disposable sex object? Was I just damaged goods and not worth the effort for a non-secretive, non-exploitative, egalitarian relationship? I wouldn’t know, because he never gave me the chance, as it was all imposed on me (i.e., rape, and other tactics). Some days, I actually ask myself, “Was I not good enough to not be raped? Why did he treat [many] other women well, and not me? Therefore, it must be my fault.”

Can you see how damaging this is? To think of all the times that I was coerced away from expressing my anger by love bombing, expensive food, and what not. I previously described one such episode here (see “Grooming”). Am I so cheap that I would let someone get away with sexual battery for a $40 meal? Apparently not — at least not in the long-run. But still, the damage this causes cannot be quantified.

It started small, and by 11 months I barely recognized myself and could not fathom how I ended up in this bizarre predicament. One day I was a student talking to the rabbi about life, and the next I was having to worry about unwanted male visitors from the internet showing up to my apartment as a “surprise” from the rabbi who was somehow now my 48-year-old “boyfriend,” whose understanding of consent was inconceivably distorted. What the hell had happened?

Sex (Not) For Sale

As previously stated, there were signs that the ordeal was headed towards attempts to traffick me (see “I had wanted to study, not become a sex slave” here). By the time those attempts started happening, I was already feeling like the rabbi and his family were my primary emotional, financial, physical, and spiritual safety net. They continually established themselves as a source of security and stability in my life, the rabbi quite intentionally so. They went on to use this “generosity” in their defense when I reported them, essentially saying, “We gave her so much and were so nice to her, how could she betray us like this? She’s such an evil, selfish person.”

This is how vulnerable, young women end up coerced into prostitution and free labor — yes, even by clergy. By the time I left, even the rabbi’s wife had repeatedly invited me to have sex with older men who I had no interest in (I never took her up on these invitations but they affected me, caused me to doubt and question myself, and I noticed that my boundaries were in the process of being eroded by the couple, perhaps systematically). I found myself cleaning their Airbnb apartment between guests, with no financial compensation. The way that they invited me to perform these tasks was not in the ordinary way that friends ask each other for favors. It was manipulative and coercive. Still, assuming the inherent goodness of others, I worked for free in exchange for [imagined] security, stability, friendship, and some free food. This, coupled with increasingly callous and violent treatment and escalating weirdness in their sexual requests, and little discoveries here and there about the couple and their past had me quite afraid. My intuition told me to say no and to run far away. I woke up one morning and just…left.

Even years later, I am shaken by all that I experienced and struggle to make sense of it all. There is a great deal of additional information, little things that did not add up and made the whole experience even more disturbing. I suspect a lot more illegal activity than I had directly witnessed, and that I was not the only person he was manipulating so intensively during that time. But I may never know for sure. I had to make peace with that. To make peace with the fact that this person who has so intimately known my body was lying to me the entire time and operating from a completely malicious set of intentions, and that my being chosen and “loved” so intensely had nothing to do with me as much as it was that I happened to be the right kind of woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like juicy, oblivious prey.

Financial Coercion

The small favors and idea of family-like support only contributed to the trauma bond or Stockholm Syndrome-like phenomenon. Looking back, it is clear that I was being exploited, but at the time I thought that I was being supported. This is because manipulators are great with using their words to distract you from their actions. I do not know if any of the promises of a safety net (e.g., food, shelter) would have materialized without paying a high sexual or moral price. Perhaps it was not Stockholm Syndrome as much as it was brainwashing. What matters more than semantics is how these dynamics actually influence the women who are targeted.

In my interactions with other adult clergy abuse survivors over the past year, I noted a common theme of financial coercion. Some abusers go so far as to offer their victims large sums of money in order to directly or indirectly buy their silence. I know of cases in which the money was paid, and cases in which it was unlikely to have ever been paid. Think about it: If the rabbi does not follow through with such an offer, can the victim really complain without looking like a disgruntled, fellow con-artist?

In the following paragraph, I share one such story, with permission from the woman.

This is another story about a male rabbi who exploited an adult woman, and used money as one of many ways to coerce her into dependence and thereby silence and complicity. This rabbi was decades older than the woman, married, and had been responsible for her conversion years before. She truly looked up to him. Eventually, the woman found herself in an extremely vulnerable time in her life, a time of painful loss and terrifying transition. This rabbi, for some reason, chose to take this as an opportunity not to help her, but to seduce her or to close in on the grooming and seduction he had already started some years before. This was not his first “affair,” and it was unlikely to be his last. He kept the woman as his sexual puppet-object for at least 2 years. As the story so often goes, he told her that she was his true soulmate, that he needed her, and went through all of the love bombing and grooming that I describe elsewhere. After he “sealed the deal,” he had this woman in his control and began to show her his true colors, and treated her like the object that she was to him, just as had happened to me with a different rabbi. This woman would under normal circumstances never consider sleeping with a married man. But these were not normal circumstances; she had been groomed and victimized. Years later, she could hardly believe or understand how she ended up in this predicament, keeping secrets from her own family, and not acting like herself at all. Eventually she began to wake up and demand better treatment from this man. He responded in many manipulative ways, including offering her a grotesquely large sum of money to help her to fulfill one of her life’s goals and dreams. She declined the money, and eventually exited the relationship so that she could live according to her conscience once again.

There is no amount of money in the world that can make up for the violation and betrayal of what he did to her. He used his title and his status and his role in her life and in her mind as an avenue to get a series of blow jobs, to put it bluntly. That’s what these rabbis do. They exploit, and they do so repeatedly, again and again. These men are not rabbis, they are imposters and have no place in the rabbinate. Yet, we continually lend them our sympathies when they are caught, while disregarding the pain of the women, accusing them of being too emotional or overreacting to these men’s “human” foibles. I beg to differ, and assert that what makes us human are the gifts we possess, not the virtues we lack [2].

Social Class And Exploitation

Unfortunately, I can think of far too many examples of members of clergy using their financial power to silence and coerce victims both through unsolicited pay outs and through retaliatory lawsuits. I noted an additional theme, however, in my conversations with other exploited women: social class. Social class is one of many power imbalances that exist between abusive rabbis and the women they exploit. Social class is an amalgamation of things, and does not consist solely of financial wealth. While the successful member of clergy earning a six figure salary has the support of a wife, housemaid, and loyal community, his victims are usually younger (research reveals the average victim to be 30 years in age and the average perpetrator to be 45 years in age), less likely to be married, and often experiencing social mobility (e.g., a first-generation college student in Limbo). As previously mentioned, my abuser was in a political family, and possessed a great deal of worldliness that I did not.

While I do not at this time have permission to share a variety of similar stories that were related to me directly by rabbinic abuse victims, there are many such stories of clergy exploitation of adult women already published. These stories are crucial to understanding the dynamics of the abuse, and how these situations are not “affairs,” but actually acts of exploitation committed by the perpetrator upon the vulnerable, often unwitting, victim. I shared this book with my local congressional representative and I hope that you will too, as there is a great need for legislation to protect vulnerable adults from “moral leaders” who abuse their power [3].

The women write candidly and beautifully of their experiences. Their ability to articulate the unspeakable is otherworldly considering their less privileged origins. They clearly articulate how childhood sexual trauma (another common vulnerability among women abused by clergy) intersected with their lower socioeconomic origins, and how their drive to take responsibility for their own lives and to improve their own circumstances while also helping others attracted them to religion and to trust in the clergy. Each one was targeted, groomed, and coerced by a member of clergy, and each one sought healing and justice, which is an uphill battle when going up against a man of great worldly power and privilege.

While Catholic and Christian, these women are not unlike the Jewish women I have talked with, who related the same underlying unifying themes of their exploitation or near-exploitation by powerful rabbis. Like their Christian and Catholic counterparts, these women also experienced an uphill battle when reporting their experiences to the relevant authorities and institutions.

Fighting Goliath

The first lawyer that I consulted regarding my experience was local and knew of my abuser. I could not afford to hire a lawyer and was limited to who would consult with me for free — another manifestation of our power differential [4]. I sat across from this attorney, still in shock and hardly able to process my experience, even laughing and smiling as I told my story. I sat in awe as they told me that to go up against the man who abused me would be “going up against Goliath.” He was not just any rabbi, he was that rabbi, from that synagogue. He had cachet. They suggested that I would be better off waiting until he dies and writing a book about my experience. They and others encouraged me to just shove it down, deep into myself, and perhaps in 30 years (if I haven’t killed myself), write a book about it. Because that’s what passes for normal these days, and that’s what women are supposed to do, supposedly [5]. I went forward anyway, nameless graduate student that I am, and four months later he was suspended. But isn’t that something? “Goliath…”


[1] (a) Rabbi’s response to victim’s CCAR complaint, (b) Victim’s response to Fact-Gathering-Team report, (c) Messenger transcript between victim and rabbi.

[2] “What makes us human may one day be defined not by the gifts we possess, but by the virtues we lack.” -Masters of Science Fiction (2007) S01E03.

[3] See “Crafting a Model Statute That Will Be Likely to Withstand Constitutional Invalidation or Statutory Ambiguity” (Toben & Helge, 2011).

[4] While I struggled to find a law firm to even just consult with me about how to handle this bewildering situation, my abuser had always had a lawyer on hand, even for simple matters such as arguing for an undeserved pay increase.

[5] “Geniuses of Compression.” As in, “The worst of us are a long drawn-out confession. The best of us are geniuses of compression.” -Cedars of Lebanon, U2. A psychologist once told me that many people are “hermetically sealed.” They place things into airtight bags and freeze them away from even themselves. People who are “hermetically sealed” often appear more put together, but may be the most deeply disturbed ones among us. It is an act of courage to see oneself fully, to live honestly.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts