Rabbinic Sexual Misconduct: Journalism Versus Reality

This post was drafted immediately following The New York Jewish Week article regarding my case, published in January 2019. It is now June 2019 and I am ready, emotionally, to publicly share my observations and resulting concerns.

What You Don’t See

Once again an article has come out about rabbinic sexual misconduct and what is written barely scratches the surface of the full story. What you don’t see is the full breadth of the allegations as reported to the rabbinic associations and the synagogues, or the full depth of the rabbinic organizations’ own misconduct in their handling of such cases.

In my case, the discrepancy between what I reported to the CCAR and what appears in The Forward and The New York Jewish Week is dramatic. It turns out that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. In the last 6 months, I’ve spoken with several other victims of rabbinic sexual misconduct, including both high profile and completely unreported cases. In every reported scenario, I can tell you that what was reported by the media was the bare minimum, and only made the allegations seem moderate or downright trivial.

Entire events or important aspects of our cases did not make it into the media at all despite ample corroboration. In some cases, the media failed to report on the existence of additional victims and the serious allegations made by those victims. These are features of the cases that rabbinical organizations could see, that the public does not. As a result, it might appear to onlookers that a victim’s level of psychological distress is out of proportion to the “alleged” abuses that took place.

Entire events or important aspects of our cases did not make it into the media at all despite ample corroboration.

The general pattern is that the publicized allegations are often out of proportion to what actually happened, in a way that makes the allegations appear much less serious than they actually were. Rape becomes non-consensual sex, non-consensual sex becomes coercion, coercion becomes misunderstanding (or a mild touch or slip of the tongue), domestic violence is completely erased, and all of the psychological warfare neatly packaged into tiny sentences that barely scratch the surface. And then readers wonder, “Why are these so-called victims making such a big deal about what happened to them?” Given how little is reported, I can hardly blame readers for having such thoughts.

Rape becomes non-consensual sex, non-consensual sex becomes coercion, coercion becomes misunderstanding…

Rabbis then build upon this minimal reporting and the public’s resulting naiveté by just going with it, claiming themselves to be victims of “poor judgement,” “sexual McCarthyism” or “smear campaigns.” The result is the perpetuation of a culture of minimization and denial that enables themselves and like-minded predators.

The Journalistic Funnel

Combined with the limitations imposed by word limits and article scope, legal concerns greatly diminish what information makes it through the journalistic funnel. For example, this year’s earlier piece by Hannah Dreyfus states that the CCAR process was traumatizing to me but does not describe exactly what about that process was traumatic. It only goes so far as to say that the committee lacked expertise and was biased. But that doesn’t give the reader any clear examples or ideas about how that lack of expertise manifested itself in traumatic ways.

To report on exactly why and how it was traumatic that the CCAR fact-gathering-team lacked training or expertise on sexual violence, domestic abuse, and more would necessitate describing allegations that the victim or editors did not want to publicize, mostly for legal fears. A reasonable fear of legal retaliation does not mean that what I experienced was not true — it just means that I and the editors realize the limits of our justice system and how it can be exploited by powerful people to punish the less powerful people who stand up to them. The endeavor of journalism becomes one of achieving a balance of risks and public benefit, i.e., reporting the minimal amount of information needed to adequately convey the general shape of the story so that the public is informed.

The endeavor of journalism becomes one of achieving a balance of risks and public benefit.

When I spoke with journalists, I shared my full story and all supporting evidence, often including the same >2,000 pages of transcripts, photographs, and more — the same information and materials that I provided to the rabbinic association, law enforcement, and lawyers. I poured everything into the journalistic funnel. I was repeatedly told that I had one of the best documented cases of textbook clergy exploitation known. Cut, cut, cut, and days or weeks of the story being held up in the legal department later, and voilà, a bizarre caricature or feeble sketch of reality is published.

The result of the journalistic funnel is that what is written of these men’s abuses and the horrors of the adjudicatory process hardly does justice to the trauma that was suffered. Please take that into consideration when reading articles by even the most devoted and brave journalists.

My experience (my own case and talking to others about theirs) has taught me to read these types of news reports with the understanding that the situation is likely far worse than what is reported.

There is usually a lot more to a story than what you are reading. Unfortunately many people take this logic and only apply it to upholding the notion of a rabbi’s innocence. They forget that it works both ways. What you are reading in the aforementioned Jewish Week article and others is only the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Still, I am so glad that there has been further attention devoted to this problem of rabbinic organizations lacking the proper expertise to conduct misconduct investigations.

Two Priority Areas For Improving Rabbinic Sexual Misconduct Media Reporting

While I am extremely grateful for The Forward’s and The Jewish Week’s relatively brave and continual coverage of rabbinic sexual misconduct cases, I am dismayed by a couple of things.

First, I am deeply concerned about word selection for headlines and stories and how this perpetuates both the minimization and normalization of clergy exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Words such as “affair” or “relationship” completely erase the exploitation, violence, and trauma. Despite over a decade of efforts made by researchers and victims alike to convey to the media that “It’s not an affair. It’s an abuse of power,” even large publishers such as The Forward continue to issue headlines describing rabbinic sexual abuse cases as “affairs” or “dating.” As recently as 2018, The Forward published the headlines, “Reform Rabbi Was Secretly Censured For Affair With Congregant” and “Rabbi Accused Of Sexual Misconduct Dated Congregant” despite receiving published educational materials describing how such language is factually incorrect and harmful.

Words such as “affair” or “relationship” completely erase the exploitation, violence, and trauma.

Second, one popular journalist apparently could not publish a story unless the victim was willing to use their real name. The victim-survivor was unable to move forward with that journalist because of this requirement. Unfortunately this requirement is not unique to the publication that I am referring to, as I encountered it myself when dealing with the local media. For this reason, the local news reports did not describe my story and only reported on the resignation and cover-ups (yes, that was plural). While this requirement may lessen legal risks to the reporting entity, it increases the risk to the public by causing important information to go unreported, and this, in turn, leads to a false sense of security regarding the rabbi in question. We [collectively] need avenues for releasing victims’ full allegations without compromising victim safety. I know of three Reform rabbis who continue to receive more “benefit of the doubt” than they would had the media been able to report all known allegations and supporting evidence. This is a matter of public safety.

We need avenues for releasing victims’ full allegations without compromising victim safety.

In a society where the criminal justice system fails victims of sexual violence as a matter of course, journalism and social media remain the only avenues for protecting and warning citizens of a powerful wolf in sheep’s clothing. Media is also a principal way by which we shape and transmit culture. Yet, the media continues to use words that downplay and normalize egregious sexual misconduct (e.g., “affair,” “relationship”), and is constrained by reasonable fears of frivolous retaliatory lawsuits by angry perpetrators (angry because they got caught, nothing more).

Power Differentials Serve Rabbis Even After Exposure

To report the rabbi’s version of events is less risky for news outlets than to report the victim’s version of events. The victims of clergy sexual misconduct are already in a traumatized state, have less political power, and [usually] less financial freedom and power. In other words, if the rabbi lies and defames the victim, no matter how horrifically, the victim is unlikely to sue. Who is likely to file a lawsuit? A powerful perpetrator, often a narcissistic psychopath, who has time to waste and money to spend in the never-ending pursuit of their continual aggrandizement. A victim, on the other hand, just wants to heal and to obtain some reasonable justice while warning and protecting others.

Because the perpetrators have power and money and seem to revel in filing retaliatory lawsuits to punish their victims, media outlets are perhaps more afraid of perpetrators than they are of victims. In this way, the power differential between victim and perpetrator continues on through the journalistic process. The same power differential by which the victim was exploited is the same power differential that silences victims and gags even the sincerest of reporters.

The power differential between victim and perpetrator continues on through the journalistic process.

Somehow the facts (i.e., victims’ stories, not just the perpetrators’) need to get out, and somebody has to accept the risk of being hit with retaliatory litigation. At the same time, it is not only about the financial costs of litigation — it is also about what level of risk is sane and reasonable for the victim(s) to endure. A psychopathic perpetrator remains a psychopathic perpetrator even after exposure. How can we balance safety for the victim and journalist with adequate reporting for the public’s benefit and safety?

it is also about what level of risk is sane and reasonable for the victim(s) to endure

We can cry out for improvements to the criminal justice system all we want, but in the interim, it is up to victims and the media to tackle these issues directly. In the case of rabbinic sexual misconduct, synagogue boards and rabbinic associations remain our only hope for swift, “official” action to prevent or delay a perpetrator from causing further harm. And yet, this process is notoriously inadequate and biased in the rabbi’s favor. The power differential between victim and perpetrator continues on through the adjudicatory process. Adding to this problem is the fact that the rabbinic association adjudicators and “investigators” lack the training and expertise to handle sexual misconduct cases (see “I’ve Never Seen That Happen”). These two factors can render the ethics process quite useless.

Comment On Jewish Week Article

Regarding what is both written and unwritten in The New York Jewish Week, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having trained experts conduct rabbinic sexual misconduct investigations. When I say “trained” I mean in dynamics such as the following: (1) Stockholm Syndrome and Trauma Bonding and how to detect when a complainant is still trying to protect her abuser, (2) What rape is and how to understand a woman’s failure to report it immediately, and why she might enter into a relationship with someone who is controlling, imposing, and who has by many definitions raped her, (3) The difference between compliance and consent, (4) And much more, as I describe in the suggested training program I have made freely available (out of pure desperation to get my points across) here.

Biased “investigators” (or “fact gatherers” as CCAR calls them), will only ask probing questions to try to disprove allegations. They will not think to ask questions that will probe and expand allegations, such as, “What is she withholding because she feels it’s too minimal, or because she’s afraid to have him held fully accountable?” I provided this training program, and many other materials to CCAR during and after my 6 month traumatic experience with them, in hopes that no woman will ever go through what I did — not with that rabbi or any other, and not with the CCAR.

Epilogue

It has been nearly 5 months since the publication of The Jewish Week article, 6 months since I started this blog, and 14 months since the initial news reports regarding my case. To “go public” as I eventually did is highly consequential. I can speak from experience to the fact that it is extremely triggering, results in bouts of extreme paranoia, public shaming by the perpetrator and/or people close to him, and that’s just the beginning. Yet it is one of the best decisions I ever made in my entire life for it is highly spiritually rewarding and has helped my healing tremendously.

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are that of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from a sexually exploitative relationship with a pulpit rabbi. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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