Abuse of Power


Published April 07, 2010, issue of April 16, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Roman Catholic Church’s defensive response to the cascading charges of clergy sexual abuse has unleashed an astonishing spectacle: the world’s most powerful church draping itself in the mantle of victimhood. In the process, the church has managed to draw Jews into this story, with an offensive comparison made by the preacher of the papal household that the church’s bad press is somehow akin to historical antisemitism — a statement the Vatican later disavowed.

As this drama unfolds, it’s important to focus on the real victims: certainly not the church itself, no matter how much it protests, but the thousands of people who claim to have been abused by Catholic priests and whose stories were cruelly ignored or discounted while the alleged perpetrators have been allowed by a protective church hierarchy to skirt justice and accountability.

This pedophile scandal is sui generis because the Catholic Church is truly like no other religious institution, with its rich and complicated history, adherents worldwide and, of course, a pope who is not accountable to any earthly superior. But there are uncomfortable echoes of this scandal with similar ones within the Jewish community.

The common thread is not necessarily sex, or sexual abuse. That is, instead, the painful byproduct, the awful consequence of unbridled, unchecked power.

To some outsiders, the Catholic conundrum can be traced to the church’s insistence on celibacy, and the unnatural expectations that places on the men who become priests. (Little mention is ever made in this context of the women who become nuns.) But the requirement to “serve the Lord without distraction,” as Paul said, is an insufficient explanation for the epidemic of reprehensible behavior.

Rabbis who have been caught in their own abuse scandals were not celibate. Moreover, child sexual abuse is more likely to occur inside a family than in a church, synagogue or schoolroom.

Instead, the common thread is the abuse of power, the willingness of a closed and autocratic leadership to avoid transparency and protect the lives and reputations of those within their ranks, rather than those who have been harmed.

We’ve seen this same dynamic play out in some of the recent scandals involving rabbis in the United States and Israel. Take, for instance, the case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon, accused of having sex with his male students. A charismatic leader in Israel’s religious Zionist community, Elon was forced into “retirement” four years ago by Takana, a private forum on rabbinic sexual abuse, after it quietly investigated the charges against him without revealing the names of alleged victims to civil authorities.

This is eerily reminiscent of attempts by the Catholic hierarchy to probe, sometimes punish — and too often protect — its own. While any institution has the right to guard against unfair accusations, the failure to openly confront alleged wrongdoing compounds the hurt of victims and endangers the public’s trust.

The Vatican is faced with an enormous challenge, in part religious, in part managerial, and blaming this crisis on the media or anyone else only prevents the Holy See from completing the painful self-examination and institutional reforms necessary to reclaim the faith of its flock. The church’s predicament should serve as a warning to other faith communities: Power can corrupt even those who claim to walk with God.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.