Justice, Mercy, Humility and Abuse

By Cheryl Moore

A few weeks ago, I wrote “I’m Never Coming Back,” and yet here I am again. Today, I write because I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While the recent release of the Pennsylvania Catholic Church sex abuse report has received intense world-wide attention, Pittsburgh, where well over 100 of those priests worked and where, during much of the time covered in the report, the powerful Cardinal Wuerl served as Bishop, has been riveted. As I listen to some of Jewish Pittsburgh offer its thoughts, I hear echos of what I have heard about sexual harassment in our community.

There have been many attempts to explain why the abuse by priests happened. “It is because priests are not permitted to marry.” Does that mean that the rape and subjugation of young boys is a natural substitute for a marital relationship? “It is because the priests lost their spiritual connection to God and let their animal drives win out.” Does that mean that without deep faith and religious practice, a man’s urge to humiliate and destroy will dominate his drive to do good? Sadly, I have heard versions of both of these arguments to explain the sexual harassment of women in the Jewish world. I have been told that men with good marriages don’t behave this way and that involvement in the community without religious commitment allows sexual harassment to flourish.

In Pittsburgh, the Catholic Church is (hopefully) at the very beginning of what will be a long and arduous process of understanding what happened, acknowledging how it could have happened, and putting in place a plan to prevent it from ever happening again. Every day, more is revealed, more priests, more victims, more proof of knowledge and cover-up by members of the Diocese power structure. Yet, a Rabbi in my community has already published a letter in the Pittsburgh newspaper, praising the response of his friend, the current Bishop, and proclaiming that he feels “reassured” and “comforted” by the actions of this “righteous” man. It is too early for this kind of proclamation, and in the rush, I hear both the Jewish need to identify and celebrate the existence of people who do the “right” thing and the desire to address traumatic events with restraint.

I heard a Jewish friend say, “Of course this happened. The Catholics treat their priests like God.” Indeed, reading testimony of victims from Pittsburgh and other cities, reveals many instances of statements that try to convey the weight of being paid attention to by a priest. Victims often made statements similar to, “You have to understand, it was like God was inviting me out for ice cream.” We Jews, however, don’t elevate our clergy to such holy heights, but we do treat our major donors as if they are superhuman. It is, after all, their gifts that allow us to carry out the enormous good that we do around the world. Often, the idea of offending the powerful donors in our communities feels as serious as the idea of upsetting a priest does to a Catholic.

The need to explain the disturbing, to identify the good people, to appear insightful and calm, to circle the wagons. It is all very Jewish. It also helps to perpetuate the sexual harassment in the Jewish community of which I and many others have written. It places outside of ourselves, blame for allowing bad things to happen. It tries to explain abuse as something other than someone’s need to dominate, to exert power over another, enabled, and sometimes made worse, by good people who look away, good people who make a quick calculation that they won’t step in because there is just too much to lose.

The Jewish community has its share of clergy and teachers who are pedophiles and abusers. We have power and influence structures that enable their dangerous behavior. We also have abuse of employees and volunteers in the Jewish communal world and we enable their behavior in the same ways. Abuse by those in power and looking the other way are old and universal realities and to shine light on them will be scary and exhausting. I strongly encourage everyone, however, to read every piece that is being written, and to think of inappropriate behavior that you may have suspected or observed, what you did about it, and what you might do in the future. I know that I can and am committed to do much better. Contemplate the words of our prophet Micah, “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” and reflect on what justice, mercy, and humility mean, when all we really want to do is explain, excuse, show the world how thoughtful and measured we are, and hold onto that major gift.

Cheryl Moore, B.A., M.B.A., B.S.N. is a Women’s Health nurse, living in Pittsburgh, PA. She is passionate about caring for the vulnerable. She used to be a dedicated volunteer leader in the worldwide Jewish community, but today prefers to engage more privately.