Don’t Call It an Affair: The Truth about Clergy Abuse

“Although clergy of any denomination can sexually exploit children, teens, men, or women, many experts estimate that over 95% of victims of sexual exploitation by clergy are adult women.”  — The Silent Majority: Adult Victims of Sexual Exploitation by Clergy

As much as we would like to believe otherwise, clergy abuse of women is a reality in the Jewish community, as it is in many other religious and spiritual communities. Consider the following representative examples:

Rabbi Robert Kirschner resigned from his position at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco in 1992 after several women reported him for sexual misconduct. Nearly five years later, he admitted to his actions and apologized.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman was suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2000 for violating “sexual ethics and sexual boundaries” in “personal relationships” and resigned his position as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Rabbi Mordecai Tendler was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America in 2005 over reports that he “engaged in sexual affairs with several women, among them women who had come to him for rabbinic counseling.” He proclaimed his innocence, but a number of his colleagues did not find his claims credible.

Rabbi Mordechai Gafni was fired from Bayit Chadash, a Tel Aviv-based spiritual community, in 2006 “amid allegations of sexual misconduct and exploitation of employee-employer relations” and after many years of reports of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi revoked his rabbinical ordination.

Rabbi Erik Siroka was expelled from the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2014 after a woman lodged a sexual misconduct complaint against him when he was employed by a synagogue in South Bend, Indiana. Three other women say that they were “sexually harassed or had an inappropriate relationship with Siroka” between 2000 and 2015.

And just this year, Rabbi Larry Bach of Judea Reform in Raleigh-Durham, NC resigned after being censured for having a sexual relationship with a woman who attended his synagogue. He was suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis this past August, after having been privately reprimanded in the past for similar behavior. He asked for the forgiveness of his congregation.

For over 20 years, concerned parties have been talking and writing about the issue of rabbinic abuse of women. And yet, for all of the publicity that surrounds these kinds of cases, having a conversation about rabbinic abuse remains difficult.

Part of the reason is the fear and shame that adult victims suffer, making them hesitant to talk about what happened to them. Part of the reason is the scapegoating that they encounter when they do disclose.

And part of the reason derives from confusion over how we define clergy sexual abuse itself. Of course, sexual violence by a clergy person is always abuse, but not all clergy abuse involves physical coercion. Indeed, to family, friends, and community, the abuse may look simply like a case of the rabbi and the congregant having an “affair.”

But labeling sexual contact between a rabbi and a congregant an “affair” hides the abusive nature of the relationship. An “affair” suggests activity between equal partners. Because the rabbi occupies a position of authority over a congregant, such an equal partnership is not possible. Given the tremendous difference in power between the two parties, a sexual relationship between a rabbi and a congregant is always an abuse of power.

A rabbi wields the power of his authority in a variety of ways:

Spiritual. It goes without saying that rabbis are considered the spiritual leaders of their communities. Congregants go to their rabbis regarding a wide variety of personal concerns, and they entrust them with their vulnerabilities. In return, they expect their rabbis to guide them with wisdom and sensitivity.

Moral. Most congregants look up to their rabbis as the moral compass for their communities. They expect their rabbis to behave in ethical ways, and they assume that their rabbis will do so.

Professional. As Patricia Liberty, the Executive Director of Associates in Education and Prevention in Pastoral Practice in North Kingston, Rhode Island points out, clergy people occupy a professional role, bringing greater knowledge and skill to the table than congregants. Rabbis are hired because they have been trained in ways that exceed the learning of their congregants, and they occupy a role of professional leadership, with all the power and respect that role commands.

Emotional. As Mark Scheffers, M.Div., M.S.W. at the Child Trauma Assessment Center at Western Michigan University notes, it is common for congregants to idealize and to feel emotionally attached to their clergy people.

It is not an exaggeration to say that most rabbis, like most clergy people, are beloved by the people in their communities. Brian Leggiere, a clinical psychologist who works with abuse survivors in the Orthodox community says, “We imbue our leaders with a great sense of kavod, respect, and usually it’s deserved…but when you have a community that over-idealizes [its leaders at times,] that’s a recipe that allows abuse to occur.”

Social. In order to maintain the cohesion of their communities, congregants look to their rabbis as the focal point of their loyalty and as linchpins of congregational stability.

When a rabbi uses his power in a way that serves himself rather than his congregant, the victim undergoes a confusing and traumatic experience. Whether he takes advantage of his congregant’s vulnerability in a counseling session, her emotional attachment to him as her rabbi, or the respect that others have for him as a leader, he betrays his congregant’s trust. Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaeffer, a law professor who has written extensively about rabbinic misconduct writes, “We should appreciate that survivors of rabbi sexual boundary violations have experienced significant and long lasting trauma. Similar to victims of sexual abuse by a therapist, victims of clergy sexual misconduct experience a deception of a trusted relationship.”

The power differential between rabbi and congregant becomes especially clear when the clergy abuse comes to light. Congregants commonly react by denying the abuse, scapegoating the victim, and defending the rabbi. A rabbi who allows a congregation to blame a victim in order to protect himself is continuing to abuse his power. A community that participates in this kind of scapegoating becomes complicit in this abuse.

Why do community members become complicit?

In cases of clergy abuse, most congregants experience a cognitive dissonance between their previous beliefs about the rabbi’s trustworthiness and new information about what the rabbi has done.

On the one hand, they believe in the spiritual authority, moral example, and professional leadership of their rabbi, and they are attached to him as a beloved figure. On the other hand, they must come to terms with the fact that the rabbi may have spiritually manipulated a congregant, broken professional boundaries, and caused harm to a vulnerable person.

Cognitive psychologist Art Markman writes that, in cases of clergy abuse, many people resolve the tension of this cognitive dissonance by supporting the clergy person and blaming the victim because “the belief that clergy are good and powerful is so strong that it is easier for many people…to try to resolve this dissonance by denigrating the people who come forward.”

Thus, congregants commonly err on the side of maintaining their idealized view of their rabbi. As a result, they will deny that the rabbi did anything wrong and blame the victim for the rabbi’s actions. Rabbi Gross Schaefer notes, “No one wants to hear that a beloved clergy person has acted inappropriately. Other rabbis, either within the institution or outside, keep their distance and their mouths closed. And other institutional members usually shun, and begin blaming, the victim.”

Professor Diana Garland, Dean of the Baylor University School of Social Work, discovered similar patterns in her 2009 cross-denominational work on clergy sexual misconduct and described the resulting impact on victims in these succinct terms: “Victims were ‘hurt’ by a religious leader, but they were ‘destroyed’ by the congregation.”

Given a rabbi’s power and authority in a community, any relationship between a rabbi and a congregant is, by its nature, an abuse of power. It is never an “affair.” It cannot be a relationship of equals. To deny the abuse and to blame the victim only revictimizes the very people who need our support.

We must do better — not only for the healing of those who have already been victimized, but for the safety of us all.

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. A former homeschooling mom and technical writer, Rachel is currently enrolled in the Jewish Studies program at Gratz College, where she is working toward her third Master's degree.