Clerical Sexual Abuse Among Catholics and Jews: Comparisons and Contrasts

Clerical Sexual Abuse Among Catholics and Jews: Comparisons and Contrasts May 24, 2013

By Shalom Goldman, Duke University


Many Catholics in the US and overseas are hoping that the new Pope, Francis I, will help heal the wounds inflicted on the Church by the sexual abuse scandals of the past few decades. And many Catholic victims of clerical sexual abuse, while reminding us that their wounds are deep and permanent, see a healing of the Church as a necessary component of their individual recoveries.

Moral outrage about clerical abuse is directed not only at the abusers but also at those in the Church hierarchy who have covered up the abuse. But the damage to Church institutions is more than moral; lawsuits and the resulting awards and settlements threaten to bankrupt many a diocese. Particularly egregious was the behavior of the former archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney, who, along with other Church officials, worked assiduously to cover up many cases of clerical abuse. In the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties, when abusive priests came to the cardinal’s attention, he arranged to have them reassigned, and in some cases the priest was reassigned to a diocese in which he would again be working with children.

The Church hierarchy’s inability to confront the reality of the actual sexual lives of both clergy and laity is today glaringly apparent. The great majority of American Catholics do not follow the Church’s dictates on birth control. And the Church’s blanket condemnation of homosexuality is out of sync with changing American values (see, for example, recent polls on gay marriage.) To some extent, the Church is reacting to these trends. But its reactions are slow and ponderous. Bishop Timothy Dolan of New York, whose name came up on many short lists of papabili (those considered for elevation to the Papacy), recently called on Catholics to adopt a more inclusive and compassionate approach to their gay co-religionists. In addition, a growing number of American Catholics are calling for the elimination of a celibate priesthood. Beyond that issue, some scholars of Catholicism, like Gary Wills in his recent book (Why Priests?), are calling for a thorough reconsideration and reevaluation of the priesthood.

But Catholics are not the only American religious minority beset by clergy sexual scandals and by conflicts between hierarchy and laity. As Mark Oppenheimer noted in a New York Times article last month, no American religious group seems free of sexual scandal.

A group that has been particularly hard hit with scandals this past year is the Orthodox Jewish community in its many forms. Just as ninety percent of American Catholics reject Church teachings on birth control, over ninety percent of American Jews (who either belong to Conservative or Reform congregations or are unaffiliated) reject Rabbinic Judaism’s teachings about the regulation of sexual behavior, especially when it comes to “family purity.” This euphemism refers to abstinence from sexual activity during a woman’s period—and at least a week beyond it. In Orthodox Jewish law men are forbidden all physical contact with their wives during a woman’s extended period of “menstrual impurity.” Thus many Orthodox households, and all Ultra-Orthodox households, have “separate beds” in the bedroom—so that the couple can sleep together, or apart, as the woman’s menstrual cycle determines.

It is within these same Jewish communities that consider themselves bound by such laws that sexual abuse scandals have recently come to light.  The variety and magnitude of these scandals, though on a scale far smaller than those in the Catholic Church, have sent shockwaves through the Jewish world. What the results will be is hard to predict. For, unlike Roman Catholics, Jewish religious communities are not unified in their religious rules, behaviors, or attitudes. Rather, they are divided, contentious and famously argumentative. Behind the headlines of recent sexual scandals there have been some strange synchronicities between the Catholic and Jewish incidents.

On the same day in late 2012 that the charges against Bishop Mahoney were detailed in a lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles archdiocese, a State Supreme Court Judge in New York sentenced Nechemya Weberman, a prominent member of the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, to the attention-getting sentence of 103 years in prison. Weberman’s victim, an eighteen-year-old Hasidic woman whom he had been abusing for six years (under the pretext of being her “therapist”) had implored the judge to impose the maximum sentence. He fulfilled her request.

In the six years that she was abused, this Hasidic young woman did not remain silent about her situation; she complained to family members and school authorities. But she could not break through the wall of silence imposed by her ultra-Orthodox family, school, synagogue, and community. State Supreme Court Justice John C. Ingram praised the victim’s “courage and bravery in coming forward.” Sadly, though, the perpetrator’s and victim’s own community, the Satmar Hasidim of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Kiryat Yoel, New York, have not displayed the same courage and bravery in confronting abusers in their midst. To the contrary, like their Catholic clerical counterparts, they have tried to keep the lid on news of this and other emerging scandals.

That sexual abuse could be hidden, and news of it suppressed, within the Satmar Hasidim (American Judaism’s most separatist community) is not that surprising, since most of its members have little contact with the outside world.

A much greater scandal erupted when – a few months after the revelations about Weberman the Ultra-Orthodox “therapist” – a pattern of sexual abuse, deception and cover-up at Yeshiva University was revealed. YU is the flagship institution of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Reports of abuse were revealed to the press by an intrepid journalist and activist, Mordechai Twersky. Now living in Israel, Twersky was himself abused while at the Yeshiva high school—and he had been petitioning YU’s leaders to address the issue for over a decade. It seems that his patience finally ran out.

In contrast to the separatist and anti-modern tendencies of the Satmar Hasidim, the Orthodox Jews affiliated with Yeshiva University pride themselves on their openness to modernity. YU’s motto is Torah Umada—Torah and Science—an explicit embrace of both tradition and modernity. One would expect that a community that fully embraced modernity would be able to face such revelations in a direct and rational manner.

The revelations about Yeshiva University concern rabbis and male students at Manhattan Talmudic Academy, the boys’ high school affiliated with Yeshiva University.

These young men (close to forty cases have emerged to date) had been abused by their teachers in the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties.

The Y.U. case came to public attention in December 2012 when the New York Jewish newspaper, The Forward, broke the story. In that same period, stories about covered-up cases of sexual abuse at prep schools—Horace Mann and Deerfield, among others—appeared in the press. Forward journalist Paul Berger reported that “Yeshiva University for years ignored students who claimed that they were sexually abused by two former staff members at Y.U.’s high school for boys in Manhattan.”

While many American Catholics now seem open to criticism of their own communities, and of their clergy, no matter how elevated the status of the clergyman, spokespersons  for Jewish communities, reluctant to wash their laundry in public, have been fiercely protective of clergy and teachers.

The Forward has been descrying the reluctance of Y.U. faculty and students to demand action by their university. This past month a graduate of Y.U. called on the school chancellor, Rabbi Norman L­amm, to resign. But L­amm is not only the university’s chancellor, he is also its Rosh Yeshiva, the institution’s spiritual leader. Voices calling for Lamm’s resignation, though, are few; for the most part, the Modern Orthodox Jewish community has been silent. Of the thousands of Y.U. graduates appealed to in an email petition, only 250 were willing to hold the university leadership accountable.

Both Catholics and Jews are minorities within the United States (Catholics forming one-quarter of the U.S. population, and Jews two percent).  Members of both religious communities have confronted religious prejudice in Protestant America. Yet it seems that the smaller the minority, the more protective its reputation and leadership.


Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University

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