Shining a Light on the Shadow of Abuse

female shadowBy Judy Klitsner

As I recently sat in a movie theater watching the Oscar-winning Spotlight, one recurring thought dominated all others: I could have written this script. Although the film focuses on abusive priests and the Catholic Church that protected them, the patterns and ingredients were all painfully familiar from my own experiences in a Jewish youth group in the 1970’s.

In my teenage years, I came into contact with a charismatic, powerful rabbi who regularly blurred the lines between religious leadership and his own need for physical and psychological gratification. I watched as he carefully selected and “groomed” specific teenagers, using his position of religious authority in order to manipulate young minds and to create an ever-increasing cadre of loyal followers who would follow his every directive. The rabbi was not particularly careful in hiding his actions; those around him would make knowing jokes about his behavior without ever attempting to stop him. In fact, when the rabbi tried to assault me and I threatened to speak to his superiors, he laughed and assured me I would be telling them nothing they did not already know.

In the years following my experience, I have come to terms with the fact that there are sociopaths in every realm of life, and that the clergy is no exception. What I have found much more difficult to accept is the web of support surrounding the offender: too often, communal leaders and members willfully refuse to protect victims and potential victims of predatory spiritual leaders. In my efforts to understand this persistent lack of moral action, I have observed the following processes: feelings of collegiality, of cognitive dissonance (such a holy person could not have done such terrible things), a misguided concern about lashon ha-ra (speaking ill of others), and fear for one’s own position or livelihood in challenging a colleague of great power and stature. To my mind, worst of all is a kind of cost-benefit analysis in human lives, which suggests that if the offending spiritual leader does more good than harm, it is best to not to interfere. Whatever the motivations are for the protectors, one thing is clear: without their support, the scourge of abusive clergy would be ended.

Closure to my personal story arrived more than twenty five years after it began. In the year 2000, together with eight other women, I spoke at length to a journalist. The ensuing expose led to a public outcry; significantly, it also led to a criminal case brought by two young women who had recently been assaulted by the same rabbi (a statute of limitations applied to me and my eight colleagues, but not to the younger women). The rabbi was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In the decades since my story came to an end, I have been active in raising awareness of the problem of institutional abuse and in combating the patterns of previous decades, in which prolonged, unabated abuse has ultimately given way to journalistic expose and scandal. To replace this unfortunate, ad hoc approach, I am in the process of launching, together with three very able colleagues, a US-based organization named “Sacred Spaces.” Our organization, which includes outstanding educators, leaders and health care professionals, is dedicated to establishing binding policies and codes – clearly articulated “best practices” – that are to be adopted by Jewish institutions across the denominational spectrum. After a period of serious in-house training and policy development, institutions will receive accreditation, and will be entitled to display a “seal of approval,” which will indicate that they have invested the necessary steps to keep their constituents safe. Alongside the training process, we aim to create coherent systems for dealing with the inevitable breaches of the codes, including victim support, crisis management for the organization and oversight.

While we may never be able to eradicate fully the problem of spiritual leaders gone awry, we can assume responsibility for prevention and management of the problem and for the protection of the public. Although I found the movie Spotlight to be compelling and artfully constructed, I look forward, together with the community as a whole, to rewriting its heartbreaking script.

Judy Klitsner has been teaching Bible and biblical exegesis at Pardes for nearly two decades. Judy lectures internationally and is the author of Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other.

Also see: “Preventing Abuse in Jewish Organizations that Serve Youth: Ten Policies to Create Safer Environments” by Sacred Spaces’ founder, Shira M. Berkovits. Sacred Spaces will formally launch this Fall.

An earlier version of Judy’s essay appears on Pardes 360.