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Wake Up, Jews And Catholics: Sex Abuse Turns People Off Religion

On Tuesday this week, the Catholic Church was once again thrust into the limelight when a grand jury released a scathing report. The report documented horrific torture and sexual abuse of over 1,000 children at the hands of 300 priests in six of eight Pennsylvania dioceses. It also detailed the extreme extent the Church went to cover it up.

The report is the first of its kind, and only covers half of the Catholics in the state, making clear just how widespread abuse has been in the Church over time.

But it was the second exposé in as many weeks. The Roman Catholic world was also recently rocked by the resignation of Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, a prominent former archbishop of Washington, D.C. who became the first cardinal in history to resign due to allegations of sexual abuse. McCarrick stands accused of sexually abusing both minors and adults in his charge. As The New York Times reported, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation and ordered him to a “life of prayer and penance.”

When sexual abuse scandals gripped the church in the 1980s and 1990s, many naively believed that all of the bad guys had been rooted out — but then, this year, the allegations made against McCarrick and hundreds of Pennsylvania priests ripped open the old wound once again.

The Catholic Church has a lot of work ahead if it hopes to truly protect and serve its parishioners. The hurt it has caused is unimaginable.

But in addition to the direct victims of their abuse, there are other, lesser victims. For sexual abuse doesn’t just cause lasting psychological and physical harm; it also causes people to lose faith in religion itself. It’s something we know all too well in our own context, the Jewish community.

As editor-in-chief of the Catholic News Agency, JD Flynn, tweeted, “the American [Catholic] hierarchy is facing a crisis exceeding in magnitude any other in recent memory.”

Church officials also recognize the seriousness of the situation, and Bishop Robert Barron, a high-ranking member of the church, recently suggested “that the bishops of the United States — all of us — petition the Holy Father to form a team, made up mostly of faithful lay Catholics skilled in forensic investigation, and to empower them to have access to all of the relevant documentation and financial records.” Those steps would be unprecedented for a notoriously private organization, but these are serious times.

And it’s not just the Catholic Church. A recent study found that formerly Orthodox Jews were much more likely to have been sexually abused as children than those who remain Orthodox. Experiencing sexual abuse was also correlated with experiencing greater mental distress and lower intrinsic religiosity than their non-abused peers.

When they lose their innocence, they often lose their faith along with it.

And it’s not just children. A few years ago, the revered rabbi of Kesher Israel, Barry Freundel, also of Washington D.C., secretly filmed hundreds of women, including me, while they were using his synagogue’s ritual bath, and secretly filmed women with whom he was having extramarital affairs.

Freundel wrote the standards for conversion and then went on to victimize converts.

While rabbis universally condemn sexual predation, they are often blind to it when it happens in their own community, and the victims are often shamed into silence — or out of religious life altogether.

Since the Freundel scandal broke, I’ve personally seen the shockwaves his crimes caused throughout the D.C. community and beyond. Numerous individuals have confided in me over the years about how his abuses affected their personal religious journey.

As one young mother told me, “Having been abused by a rabbi, it feels next to impossible to continue on in a religion based on centuries of rulings by rabbis. I can no longer glorify the gadolim [sages] of years gone by enough to follow rulings that seem counterintuitive, outmoded, sexist or burdensome. I am still able to say that the Torah itself has value for my life, but the rest of it now is, sadly, just commentary.”

Another young woman involved in the situation agreed, telling me, “I used to see rabbis as wellsprings of knowledge, both in a halachic [legal] sense and beyond-reason sense. The rigor of becoming a rabbi and the drive required to get there gave me a sense of deep, consistent morality on their part. After the whole Freundel affair, I lost reverence for the title as a whole. ‘Rabbi’ as a title is no longer an indicator of strong mental functioning. It wasn’t a sign of a steadfast moral compass either. I felt flattened and as if I had to start answering my own questions. I have fully stopped trusting the authority of rabbis; I no longer ask rabbis about kashering my oven, taharat mishpachah (menstrual purity) questions, what types of rooms require mezuzot. Nothing. I lost ‘faith’ in rabbis as an institution.”

How the Catholic Church responds to this latest scandal, which could expand well beyond McCarrick and Pennsylvania, will determine its fate. A 2015 Pew survey of American Catholics found that two in five individuals raised as Catholics ended up leaving the religion for good.

Given what we now know, is it really any surprise? And what will the shockwaves be after this latest round of revelations?

Many Jews worry about an “intermarriage crisis” that might one day cause a drop in the number of practicing Jews. But if we truly want to keep people in the fold, we should first focus on the trouble within our own house, and make sure no one in our community is allowed to sweep sex abuse scandals under the rug, or commit the abuse in the first place.

Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.


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