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When Our Religious Leaders Become Predators

Reports of widespread sexual abuse by clergy in the Pennsylvania Catholic Church raise troubling questions for all faiths

Beth Kissileff
August 23, 2018
Screenshot from Youtube channel
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro releases the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into clergy abuse at six of the state's Roman Catholic Dioceses.Screenshot from Youtube channel
Screenshot from Youtube channel
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro releases the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation into clergy abuse at six of the state's Roman Catholic Dioceses.Screenshot from Youtube channel

“It doesn’t happen in the Jewish community,” my friend says as we chat at school drop off here in Pittsburgh. She’s talking about the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report that summarizes in stomach-turning detail how 300 priests of the Catholic Church of sexually abused over 1,000 children in six Western Pennsylvania dioceses over a period of seven decades.

The AG’s report is not only a record of charges against those priests and church officials who committed or abetted crimes. It is also an attempt to reform how the Catholic Church, and by extension, other religious organizations, deal with clergy who commit sexual crimes.

My friend is right in the sense that there has never been a crime of this magnitude committed by religious leaders in the Jewish community on this immense scale, but that does not mean that nothing like this has ever happened. It happens, in the Jewish community, like in every other. With child predators in the church a subject of intense public scrutiny due to the Pennsylvania AG’s report and earlier revelations like the Boston Globe’s 2002 Spotlight report, the questions raised by the news are reverberating in Jewish communities as well, especially in Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was confronted with the problem of sexual abuse several times over the past few years. There were two separate incidents involving allegations of sexual assault against yeshiva faculty in February 2017 and in March 2018. In both cases, so far as has been reported, law enforcement authorities were contacted and there was no cover-up. In the aftermath of 2017 case in which a yeshiva teacher was accused of sexually assaulting at least three boys, the school held an open meeting with the community and brought in child advocate Deborah Fox of the Magen Yeladim organization according to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. That marked a considerable improvement over how such cases had been dealt with in the past according to what the Chronicle learned from a detective in Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police Sex Assault Team who “has been assigned to four separate cases in the Pittsburgh Jewish community — including in the non-Orthodox community—in the last six years involving suspected child molestation.” The Chronicle reported that “in each of the other cases, [the detective] said, the institutions involved declined to cooperate with police, and he was unable to make a case against the suspected abuser.”

Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in support of the current bishop of Pittsburgh David Zubik and his role. In it rabbi Bisno wrote, “though this scandal’s particulars concern the Catholic Church, no one who values religion’s role within society, or who identifies with a faith tradition of any kind, nor any who know or love good, sincere clergy or religion, is unaffected.” He commended Zubik for his role in confronting the deeds and addressing the “conspiracy of silence within his church.”

Rabbi Seth Adelson of Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh spoke in his Shabbat morning sermon of a friend of his growing up in Williamstown, Massachusetts who had been molested by a priest in the early 1980s. Adelson recounted in his sermon which appears on his blog how his friend received a settlement from the Springfield, Massachusetts Diocese for his abuse at the hands of a priest who had prior allegations against him and yet was given more access to minors. Adelson calls the behavior of predatory clergy a “hillul Hashem” a defamation of the name of God. “The echoes of those sins described in the report, and the failure of these dioceses to respond properly, will continue to ring in the ears of those who are looking for an exit not only from the church but from all forms of religious life, including ours,” Adelson writes.

Another Pittsburgher, Shira Berkovits, is the founder and CEO of a national organization Sacred Spaces which according to its website, “provides Jewish institutions with the professional services necessary to develop robust policies and training to prevent opportunities for abuse and guide them responsibly should abuse occur.” In an email to Tablet about the recent Pennsylvania report, Berkovits wrote: “Predatory abusers don’t end up in youth-serving organizations by accident—they work hard to get there. Faith communities face increased risk. Predatory abusers tell us that they find religious communities easier to operate in—people are more forgiving, tend to judge favorably, are less likely to report because they don’t want to ‘gossip’. They also report that religious context gives them a respectable cover for abusive behaviors (e.g., “what are you doing here?” “I came to pray”). Knowing this information, youth-serving organizations in faith communities must do everything they can to protect their children. This is our sacred duty.”

The Pennsylvania report is a moment of reckoning for any religious organization that has not done everything possible to root out possible predators in its midst let alone enabled one. Nationally, one Jewish lawyer Timothy Lytton Associate Dean for Research & Faculty Development and Distinguished University Professor & Professor of Law at the Georgia State University law school has been writing about the issue for years, most notably in a book titled Holding Bishops Accountable: How Lawsuits Helped the Catholic Church Confront Clergy Sexual Abuse. In a phone interview with Tablet, Lytton explained that he became interested in this issue after doing work on lawsuits and gun violence and realizing that they were not able to effect change in the same way other suits were. For him, lawsuits are the only way to force those in the Catholic hierarchy to be accountable for enabling predators to continue to have access to victims, as he wrote in The Conversation on August 21. The take away for Jews at this moment, Lytton believes, is that we should “respect rabbis, not elevate them.” He adds that this is “as true in the Reform and Conservative as in the yeshivish world. Ordination does not put a rabbi on a higher spiritual plane.”

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at