Why Religious Communities Must Stand With the Victims of Clergy Abuse

By Rabbi Ben Greenberg (Huffington Post)
March 9, 2016

The genuineness of a religious faith can be judged from many different perspectives. One could look at the doctrinal purity of the devotee or their theological certainty. One could examine a person’s commitment to the proscribed rituals of a faith and the consistency of his or her practice. Perhaps, one could review a practitioner’s tax return to understand if his or her charitable contributions align with the values that the person professes to publicly. I believe that all these metrics fall terribly short. The measure of a person’s commitment to a life of faith is to be found in how the vulnerable, the victimized and the marginalized are treated.

Does a person who commits his or her life to religious faith cultivate more compassion and empathy for the person who alleges abuse or for the alleged abuser?

This question may not seem black or white. Each case has its own unique circumstances. Each person is different. Is it really fair to issue such a uniform call? Yes, because contrary to what we may convince ourselves, it is absolutely crystal clear.

A person does not enter the clergy because they have to. No one is coercing an individual to become a member of the clergy. A person chooses the profession and with that choice comes tremendous responsibility. The clergy has both hard power and soft power. It has the power of the institutions that the clergy represent. It also has the power of persuasion and religious authority. Those vested with that power ought to be held to an uncompromising standard. This is not because we seek to hurt the person holding the office but because both the dignity of the office and the lives of the people the power of that office impacts demands it of us.

Every time we choose to gloss over clergy abuse, to rationalize it, to dismiss the claims of the abused and to shelter and protect the alleged perpetrators we demean the very institution of the clergy. We humiliate the profession, and by extension we humiliate God. I am sure that many good people convince themselves that the clergy person deserves their assistance in escaping investigation or consequences. How could I let my minister/rabbi/priest/imam face public scrutiny, legal or professional consequences when she or he officiated at my loved one’s funeral, etc.? This line of thinking ultimately brings more dishonor to the profession, to the religion and to the God that we are meant to serve.

My own faith community, like all faith communities, is not immune from clergy abuse. There have been many incidents in the past several years in the Jewish community. Some of them have hit close to home as I have known either the alleged abuser, the alleged victim or both. I have seen the various factions organize in opposing camps. Some people coming to the aid of the alleged victims while others, to varying degrees, defending the clergy who have been accused of abuse. Unfortunately, at times that defense can turn ugly as it quickly becomes an attempt to denigrate, embarrass and demean the alleged victims.

We need a new paradigm. I was asked recently what it would look like to show more empathy for the alleged victims and less for the clergy who have been accused. How do we do so without rushing to conclusions and potentially ending a career without justification?

First of all, we must take accounts of abuse seriously. That means when people stand up and come forward we do not tell them to be quiet or that they must be mistaken. Taking claims of abuse seriously would mean the moment a claim has been made the clergy person is put on leave from his or her role until the investigation has concluded. If this becomes the norm in a community it would not mean an automatic presumption of guilt because it would not be so exceptional. We must make immediate action the norm not the exception, like the universal nature of vaccinations, and when we do so we potentially protect any future victims and we protect the clergy person at the same time.

Secondly, the first step assumes that a thorough investigation will be conducted. When it is legally required and/or appropriate to do so, community leadership must not refrain from bringing in law enforcement. Faith communities that have through much of their history experienced hostility from governments and law enforcement have developed to become wary of law enforcement and reluctant to either involve them or cooperate with them. We live in a different zeitgeist and the detectives, district attorneys, etc. are often more equipped to conduct a thorough investigation than any person hired by the congregational board to do so.

Third, communities need emotional, spiritual and psychological support during times such as these. Within the Jewish community agencies such as the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services can provide counselors to communities to conduct support groups or facilitate open conversations that can enable communal healing. When a clergy person is either alleged to have committed abuse, and certainly if they are found guilty, that can cause a real rupture in people’s faith in God, in their religion and in each other. Support can and must be made available to help people cope.

Lastly, transparency is not the enemy of communal leadership. We must learn to differentiate from the communal desire to know the details like slowing down to observe an accident on the side of the road and the desire to feel part of the community, trusted and involved. A community is at the end of the day a collection of individuals who have chosen to come together and weave the fabric of social bonds between each other. Nothing can tear at those bonds faster than a congregational leadership that circles the wagons around process and information. If transparency is a value that is implemented during this time, people will have understanding for the details that are not revealed due to privacy and other concerns. However, if the community is left in the dark than the desire to know transitions from a healthy manifestation of feeling part of the community into a festering wound to the cohesion of the group that will take a long time, if ever, to properly heal.

The job of people of faith when faced with allegations of abuse by their clergy is not to rush to assume guilt. It is, however, to begin to show more empathy for the person who alleges the abuse than for the clergy who is being accused. A wrongful accusation can be torturous and potentially disastrous for the clergy person in their profession. A correct accusation that goes unheeded can mean the continued presence of a predator in the midst of the community. When standardized practices are enacted universally they can enable the accusation to be taken seriously, the community to be held together and the livelihood of the clergy person to be maintained in the long run, if the accusation is found false.

The first step in this journey begins with cultivating a religious ethos that empathizes more with the victim than the abuser. A community and an individual is not judged by how they took care of the powerful and the entrenched but how they responded to the abused and the marginalized.