Do you want to make change? Listen to clergy abuse survivors!

Since I founded Shema Koleinu last year, I’ve read more than my share of articles, posts, and online exchanges that call upon others to bypass the voices of clergy abuse survivors.

Some folks are just plain impatient with our suffering and want us to “get over it.” They say that the time to express our pain is over. They say that we are a distraction from the business of change.

Others speak out of well-intended zeal to fix the problem, and believe that it will not be difficult, so they set out to make change without us.

But ignoring the experiences of survivors will not serve. Any solution to the problem of clergy abuse, whether of children or adults, must begin with listening to our stories, no matter how painful. If you don’t listen — and I mean, deeply listen — you can’t understand the complex levels of dysfunction that go into abusive environments. And if you can’t understand how abusive environments work, then your solutions will not be solutions at all.

We need you to understand the ways in which charismatic leaders groom children, adults, and entire communities. We need you to understand the impact of institutional abuse when survivors come forward. We need you to understand that we suffer lifelong harm — not just at the hands of our primary abusers, but also at the hands of those from whom we have sought help.

Guided by.our deeply held religious and ethical beliefs, we have gone to our leadership and to our fellow congregants, fully expecting compassion, support, and understanding. But our goodness and our faith have been betrayed. We have been blamed, scapegoated, shunned, and turned away for what we have suffered.

We need you to understand the depth of the wrong that has been done to us. Our institutions, our leaders, and our communities have abandoned us. These are the same institutions, the same leaders, and the same communities that have tried to shame us for our anger — that have tried to shame us into a premature forgiveness in the absence of accountability.

Our anger is not a character defect. It is not something for us to “get over.” It does not mean that we like being victims. Far from it. If we could, we would turn back the clock in a heartbeat. But we cannot, and our anger is a signal that we have been done a terrible wrong. It is a signal that we have become the victims of an injustice that no one has even begun to make right.

The abuses that have happened to us defy reason. They do not make sense to anyone with a conscience. They are incomprehensible to those who assume that most people, despite their faults, are essentially reasonable and responsible beings. They are a betrayal of all the beautiful words we have read in our sacred texts, of all the truths we were led to believe were the cornerstones of our institutions.

Does our experience feel overwhelming? Chaotic? Painful? Difficult?

We offer no apologies.

Institutional leaders — clergy people and lay people alike — would do well to listen. And listen. And listen, with as much humility as humanly possible.

They would do well to stop asking us to trust them, to stop asking us to trust their institutions, to stop asking us to trust their colleagues, when trust is what has been so badly betrayed in the first place.

Yes, our stories are painful. And no, our healing isn’t pretty — not at all. But neither is what happened to us.

We are not in the mood to trust.

We are in the mood to be heard.

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. She 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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