Clergy abuse of women: a diminished capacity to consent

In my last article, Don’t Call It an Affair: The Truth about Clergy Abuse, I discussed why a rabbi-congregant relationship cannot be one of equals and, as such, is always an abuse of power.

But some readers might still be wondering: Why can’t women give free and full consent to such relationships? After all, aren’t they adults, with all the maturity and understanding to make a fully informed decision?

Under normal circumstances, the answer would be yes. But a rabbi-congregant relationship is far from a normal circumstance. As a survivor of clergy abuse, I can attest to this fact. Here is why.

An Asymmetrical Power Arrangement

A relationship between a rabbi and a congregant, like a relationship between a therapist and a client, is an asymmetrical arrangement. The congregant goes to the rabbi as a spiritual teacher and counselor, and she gives the rabbi the power to guide her. The congregant comes to the relationship from a position of vulnerability, discussing with the rabbi her questions, her doubts, her fears.

By contrast, a rabbi’s role is to be an authority who provides guidance and support. His role does not involve asking the congregant to listen to his personal vulnerabilities or to provide spiritual insight into the difficulties of his life. Therefore, the rabbi is in a position of much lesser vulnerability and much greater power.

Rabbi Steven Conn sums up the asymmetry of the relationship in these terms:

“On the one hand, the rabbi is authoritative and trusted—otherwise he or she cannot be effective in the role. At the same time, the student or congregant is vulnerable and looking for guidance from an authority figure in whom they have to place great trust. Relationships like these resemble the relationship between a therapist and a patient, a doctor and a patient, or an attorney and a client.”

There are good reasons that laws and licensing authorities forbid sexual relationships between clients and therapists, patients and doctors, or clients and lawyers. These good reasons — and more — hold for rabbis as well.

The Power of Transference

In such asymmetrical relationships, congregants can experience what is known as transference, a state of mind that can cause them to treat their rabbis as “an idealized version of what they are expected to be rather than who they actually are.” In other words, a congregant will project a belief onto the rabbi that he is whatever she hopes him to be. Transference happens easily in a rabbi-congregant relationship because the rabbi is already idealized as a spiritual authority and respected leader. In the presence of a charismatic leader, a congregant is especially vulnerable to this type of transference.

Dr. Nachum Binyamin Klafter, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and the Director of Psychotherapy Training at the University of Cincinnati speaks to the sense of intimacy that can develop in a rabbi-congregant relationship: “In such relationships, it is very easy for the client to develop exaggerated feelings of admiration, dependency, and love” for the rabbi.

Under such circumstances, how does a rabbi keep the relationship professional and not take advantage of the feelings his congregant is experiencing?

Maintaining Professional Boundaries

The answer, of course, is that the rabbi must maintain boundaries at all times. Clearly, one of the primary boundaries that the rabbi must uphold is a sexual one.

But there is a much more fundamental boundary that the rabbi must protect: He must serve the needs of the congregant, without exception, and not his own. To do so is his spiritual, professional, and ethical responsibility. There is no room for compromise. Rabbi Conn speaks to this sacred trust when he says, “[I]f we put our needs in front of the needs of those we serve, we violate our sacred commitment to serve the congregation. We violate the community’s trust. We exercise undue influence on a vulnerable person who needs us.”

The rabbi cannot ask the congregant to serve his needs: not his sexual needs, not his emotional needs, and not his spiritual needs.

Sometimes, the sexual boundary is broken right away. But more often, as in my case, other boundaries are broken first. My rabbi talked to me about his struggles, his fears, his loneliness — at the same time that I was going to him for counseling regarding my spiritual questions, the problems in my marriage, and the stresses of my life. That he did so was the first of many boundary violations.

At the time, I did not see it as a boundary violation. It looked to me as though the rabbi were trying to equalize the relationship with me, and I was flattered. Of course I was. Here was an important man, a spiritual leader, coming to me for help and support.

But the relationship could never be equal, because the asymmetry was already built into it. The rabbi had a professional role to provide care to me, not to receive it from me, and my idealization of him was built into that role. He could not change the nature of the relationship simply because he said he could.

In fact, for me to believe that he could change the boundaries at will was itself an indication of the power and authority I had given him. I believed that he could equalize the relationship precisely because he was my rabbi. The more I believed him, the more he brought his needs to me under the guise that he was simply making the relationship one of equals. By the time I became fully involved with him, the asymmetry of the relationship had been turned on its head, and the importance of his needs far superseded the importance of my own — in his eyes, in my eyes, and in the eyes of the community.

Diminished Capacity to Consent

When the relationship with my rabbi began, I was working a full-time professional job and was the sole support of my household. I was a responsible and competent adult. How could I not have fully and freely consented?

I struggled with this question for a long time. In fact, my sense of my own power and  maturity kept me from seeing the answer for many years.

I now understand that I could not fully consent — not because I was weak or foolish, but because the nature of the rabbi-congregant relationship diminished my capacity to consent. Because of the asymmetry of the relationship, I could not make a fully informed decision.

The combination of a) the imbalance in our positions of emotional and spiritual vulnerability, b) the difference in our positions of power and authority, and c) my resulting dependence on, and idealization of, my rabbi diminished my ability to make a reasoned decision about sexual and emotional involvement. Dr. Klafter writes that, because of the asymmetry of the rabbi-congregant relationship, most people who go to “a rabbi for spiritual guidance… will be in a state of diminished capacity to say ‘no’ when solicited for sexual activity.”

When the Boundaries Break Down

When the boundaries break down between rabbi and congregant, the basis of a caring and professional relationship that serves the congregant breaks down along with them. The rabbi can no longer serve the needs of the congregant as a professional because he has begun to serve his own needs. As a result, the relationship is clouded by them, and a vulnerable congregant is left confused and betrayed. Not only can she experience guilt, shame, self-blame, and fear, but she can also suffer a profound spiritual wound. This wound can result in alienation from a religious and cultural identity that once provided purpose and meaning and the loss of religious practice, communal participation, and spiritual beliefs that once sustained her — all at the very moment that she needs them the most.

Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer believes that when a rabbi engages in sexual misconduct with a congregant, the impact can be even worse than when a therapist engages in a sexual relationship with a client. Not only has the rabbi breached a boundary and misused his emotional, psychological, and professional power, but he has done so as a representative of Jewish tradition, Jewish community, and God. In the eyes of a victim, Rabbi Gross Schaefer asserts, “not only is a congregant being abused by a very powerful figure, but the tradition is abusing them and God is abusing them.”

The issue is not simply one of sexual morality. The issue goes to the core of the rabbinic obligation to serve the best interests of his congregant. To do so is both a professional obligation and a sacred trust.

Photo credit: Yosef Pregadio

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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