The panelists discussing sexual abuse by the clergy seemed to agree: Any religious leader guilty of abuse should be removed from his position. “It's a no-brainer,” one speaker said. “Leadership is a privilege, not a right.”
The panel discussion in New York City in January focused not on Roman Catholic priests, however, but on a notorious case within Orthodox Judaism. The scandal had resulted not only in the indictment of a prominent rabbi, Baruch Lanner, but also the resignation of a senior Orthodox official and continuing criticism of the handling of sexual-abuse complaints within the most conservative branch of American Judaism. The debate over the case against Lanner — who is awaiting trial — illustrates that sexual-abuse cases are by no means unique to the Catholic Church. Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis and Hare Krishna gurus have all faced recent accusations of sexual misconduct.
Just this year, an Episcopal priest in Maryland, Kenneth Behrel, was found guilty of abusing a teenage boy in the 1980s, while a North Dakota jury ordered a former Lutheran pastor, Dale Trautman, to pay $48,000 to a woman in his congregation with whom he had a sexual relationship. In New York City, Howard Nevison, the cantor at the prominent Temple Emanu-El, is awaiting trial after surrendering himself in March on charges that he molested his young nephew.
Some of those cases have provoked charges — comparable to those against the Catholic hierarchy — that the religious organizations have mishandled or even actively covered up the complaints to avoid public scandal. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is facing a civil suit stemming from charges that it ignored evidence of sexual misconduct by a former minister, Gerald Patrick Thomas, while he was pastor of a church in the small East Texas city of Marshall. Thomas was accused of showing pornographic videos to teenage boys; he faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to possessing child pornography.
With no comprehensive statistics, experts disagree whether sexual abuse is more prevalent within Catholicism than within other faiths. “I don't believe that there's any evidence that Catholic priests are more involved than other groups,” says Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. “I'm not saying that there's not. The evidence just isn't there.”
But Anson Shupe, a professor of sociology at the Indiana University-Purdue University campus in Fort Wayne and author of several books on clergy misconduct, says the problem is more serious within the Catholic Church. “You don't find the amount of pedophilia among Protestant ministers that you do among Catholic priests,” Shupe says. In addition, he says only the Catholic Church appears to have had a practice of reassigning clergy after complaints of sexual abuse.
Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination with 16 million members, have long had a “one-strike-and-you're-out” policy, according to Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“Anyone who has sexually abused a child has forfeited the right to be a minister,” Land says. “There are things that disqualify someone from the ministry, and child abuse is one of them.”
Lanner, the former head of the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth, was first accused of sexually abusing several teenage girls while serving as principal of a Jewish day school in New Jersey in the 1980s. A rabbinical court called a Beit Din heard the charges in 1989 and found them to be unproven. Lanner left the school position in 1997.
Investigative reports by Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, brought renewed attention to the case in 2000. Two former students — now adults — told the newspaper and then New Jersey prosecutors that Lanner had engaged them in sexual activity repeatedly in his office. Lanner was indicted in March 2001 on two counts each of aggravated criminal sexual conduct and is awaiting trial. The scandal eventually forced the Union's top official to resign, and a special commission issued a sharply critical report on the handling of the case.
Today, the Union's executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, says the Lanner case also has led to new standards and extensive training for staff members who work with youths as well as a clear way for parents or youths to complain. “We're trying to develop a culture of vigilance and continuous improvement,” he said.
Some critics say rabbinical courts still protect accused rabbis. But Weinreb said that anyone who suspects abuse should go to law enforcement authorities, not to a Beit Din.