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Workshop: When Male Clergy Harass Women

On March 28 at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, 27 Protestants, Catholics and Jews (only four of them male) gathered for a conference entitled “Sexual Harassment and Exploitation of Women in the Religious Community: An Interfaith Workshop for Clergy and Laity.”

Beginning with a panel of three women from different religious communities, the program continued with a screening of the hour-long film. Not in My Church, which dramatizes the concerns that face a religious community when its spiritual leader is accused of sexually exploiting congregants. After the film, two women (one Catholic, one Jewish) told their harrowing tales of victimization. (The Catholic woman, to deal with her trauma, became a nun, but was sexually assaulted again at her convent by two priests; the Jewish woman discussed her rabbi’s exploitative use of his professional role in dating and sexually manipulating young female congregants.) The day ended with small group discussions and wrap-up.

Rabbi Julie Spitzer, one of the three facilitators at the conference and a board member of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, presented statistics, including a survey of 140 women rabbis that revealed that 70% of them had been sexually harassed during their careers; that 25% of them experienced sexual harassment at least once a month; and that only 14% of these rabbis are in a workplace that has an explicit policy opposing sexual harassment.

Another facilitator, a Methodist administrator, talked about the importance of firmly denoting professional boundaries. Spitzer discussed the complex ambiguities of the clergy role—how rabbis are regarded as both professionals and “friends.” Congregants often are reluctant to believe that clergy can be flawed, participants noted. Issues of power and gender hierarchies, and of professional ethics were discussed–for example, “unrehabilitated” sexually abusive clergymen are often helped to find jobs as ministers in new communities.

The conference raised important issues, as yet unresolved. Is it right to put a permanent mark of Cain on a person? Is rehabilitation appropriate for all abusive clergy? How can a congregation heal from a traumatic experience with its spiritual leader? The facilitators of the conference say they would like to work with both seminaries and clerical organizations to create new curricula that teach communities how to hasten their own healing from abusive clergymen.

For more information, contact Rabbi Julie Spitzer, Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 2027 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington DC 20036. A model policy on sexual harassment and exploitation will be available at the end of the summer.