Clergy abuse and the absence of justice: A wound in need of healing

As the founder of an organization dedicated to the support and healing of Jewish adults abused by clergy, I’ve met a number of people whose lives have been badly damaged by clergy sexual abuse. Some have gone through an ethics process in their denominations and succeeded in holding their abusers accountable. Some have gone through the legal system and prevailed.

Others have simply had to flee their homes and their communities and begin anew.

I am one of those people.

My abuser was a non-ordained rabbi. As such, even if I lived in a state that criminalized clergy sexual exploitation, I would have no recourse through the legal system. Nor can I avail myself of an ethics process, because my abuser was never an official member of any rabbinical association. Even though he was employed as the spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue for three years, he was never a member of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), so I cannot go through an ethics process under Conservative auspices.

At this point, he is associated with a Reform synagogue, teaching  B’nai Mitzvah students and helping to lead services, but I cannot go through an ethics process with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), because he has never been a member of that organization, either.

Loopholes abound, and they have only allowed my abuser to avoid accountability. There is no formal process in existence that will provide me with the kind of closure that accountability can bring. So I have begun to wonder whether accountability will ever be possible in my case.

Accountability is vital to the healing of survivors. One of the most painful things that a person can endure in this life is to be a victim without recourse to a process that results in justice.

How am I to move forward without accountability?

The story of my relationship with my clergy abuser may have reached the ears of the rabbi who leads the Reform synagogue with which he is associated. But I doubt very much that the story has arrived in a manner favorable to me. So I’m not sure whether it’s worth the potential heartache for me to try, on my own, to replace the narrative she has heard with the truth.

That uncertainty hasn’t stopped me from drafting a letter. I have written a letter telling her precisely what happened. It’s clear, it’s concise, and it’s accurate. It’s also been sitting on my computer since October of 2017. I’ve never sent it, for two reasons: I’m not sure that her response would be helpful or healing, and I do not want to face an indifferent or otherwise unhelpful response alone.

What I need is what any clergy abuse victim needs: for a clergy person in her own religious tradition to stand up for her and to place responsibility on the abuser, where it belongs. This outcome is what happens when an ethics committee holds an abuser accountable.

Because I have no access to a formal ethics process, what would accountability look like? All I can imagine is that it would consist of rabbis who know my story informing my abuser’s rabbi, letting her know what happened, letting her know that they believe me, and letting her know what they believe she should do.

Do I think that a hundred rabbis could persuade her to do anything? Not necessarily. After all, my abuser is a very charismatic person. People tend to become quickly invested in him. And besides, most religious institutions are happy for their services and their classes to continue humming along without interruption. They’re unlikely to throw a wrench into the works because of what happened to one individual.

But the response of one Reform rabbi in one Reform synagogue is not the only issue. There are many other issues at stake:

That I not be left alone with my story.

That other rabbis use their moral authority to speak the truth.

That other rabbis use their moral authority to let my abuser’s rabbi know what they believe should happen.

That after seventeen years of carrying this burden alone, someone else offers to carry it with me.

I have gently broached the subject with some clergy people I know. I have gotten responses from It will make no difference to I can’t speak to anything outside my community to You’re in my prayers.

Now, I know clergy people who have also been victims, and who understand my position. But I do not intend to ask them to intervene on my behalf. They are carrying their own burdens, and they need people to help them. They don’t need others to ask them to shoulder more.

No one should assume that only survivors can help survivors. We need allies among people whose lives and well-being are still reasonably intact.

I know that what happened to me was wrong. I know that I didn’t deserve a moment of it. I know that I was victimized. But I refuse to continue to carry that victimization for the rest of my life. At some point, there must be moral accountability. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof.

But how can I pursue justice alone? How can any survivor? If no formal accountability process exists, then we need to work with allies to create our own ethical processes.

Finding people to engage in this work will be difficult. There are so many reasons for people to stand back and stay silent. But the moral imperative to stand with the vulnerable is so basic to Jewish life that it must happen.

We must have allies who will stand up for those of us who have been left in the wilderness alone — without justice, without accountability, without teshuva, without closure, for years upon years upon years.

And it must happen without delay. After all, if not now, when?

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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