Clergy Abusers: By Their Entitlement You Shall Know Them

One of the issues that comes up again and again in my work on clergy abuse is the issue of entitlement. What most clergy abusers have in common — across religion and denomination — is an unshakeable sense of entitlement. They feel entitled to do whatever they want, and to get whatever they want, without consequence.

This entitlement can play out in a number of ways:

Swearing a congregant to secrecy. This form of entitlement is very common. A clergy person begins a relationship with a congregant, pressuring her to keep it a secret. When the congregant resists, the clergy person says, “You need to be quiet. I could lose my job if anyone found out.” The entitled thinking of such a person goes in two directions: he assumes that he is the only person whose feelings matter, and he puts the responsibility for protecting him onto the congregant. He knows he is doing wrong — otherwise, why swear anyone to secrecy? — but he feels entitled to the protection of his victim.

Breaking up a marriage in the name of God. A clergy person begins a relationship with a congregant who has gone to him for counseling about her troubled marriage. Instead of supporting the congregant in working out her difficulties, he criticizes her spouse, telling her that God wants her to leave her marriage and to be with him. He cares nothing for what happens to her husband and children, but only for what he can get from the relationship.

Allowing a congregant to weather all the blame. The congregation finds out about the relationship between their clergy person and a congregant, and scapegoats the congregant for the clergy person’s sexual misconduct. Instead of defending the congregant, the clergy person allows her to be scapegoated so that he can retain his position in the community. The congregant loses family, friends, and a spiritual home, but the clergy person is not prepared to lose anything as a consequence of his actions.

When the congregant points out the double standard, the clergy person responds with silence. That silence is a tell: someone who believes he is doing right would have no problem explaining why.

Assuming that forgiveness is his due. When a congregant tells her clergy person how much the abuse has harmed her, he tells her that she needs to “get over it.” Beneath the callousness of this response is the clergy person’s belief that he is entitled to forgiveness in the absence of any accountability. He feels that the slate should simply be wiped clean and that all transgressions be forgotten.

Asking the victim for comfort. After having allowed the congregant to come to harm, the clergy person breaks down and sobs, telling the congregant how much it hurt him to watch that happen to her, and expecting the congregant to comfort him. This kind of clergy person believes that he is entitled to sympathy, no matter the situation. He sees the congregant only as an extension of his own needs — nothing more.

Refusing to lose anything for his destructive behavior. It is not uncommon for a clergy person who loses his job because of sexual misconduct to go to another community and pick up where he left off — teaching, leading services, and reasserting his power in a new community. He feels entitled to getting back everything that he has lost as a result of his actions.

Of course, congregations enable these kinds of entitlement by protecting abusers and scapegoating their victims. Entire institutions feel entitled to carry on as though nothing has happened.

They talk about community healing, but they don’t talk about victim healing.

They talk about redemption for the clergy person, but they don’t trouble themselves with the trauma of the victim.

They talk about creating safe environments, but they don’t include the victim in discussions about how to do so.

They talk about moving on, but the victim is left behind.

Clergy abusers feel entitled to all that they take, and congregations feel entitled to retaining their clergy people, no matter what.

This kind of bad faith has gone on for far too long. When will it end?

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 www.shemakoleinu.net.) 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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