Are Rabbinic Guidelines on Sex Abuse Working? California Case Shines Light
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Are Rabbinic Guidelines on Sex Abuse Working? California Case Shines Light

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A lengthy battle over how the Reform movement should handle a charge of sexual misconduct against a California rabbi is coming to a head. On June 20, the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the movement’s rabbinical arm, is expected to decide whether to uphold its earlier reprimand of Rabbi Michael Mayersohn or to censure him, a more serious step, which the conference’s Committee on Ethics and Appeals initially had recommended.

The issue stems from a May 2002 complaint by Chavah Hogue of Huntington Beach, Calif., who alleged that Mayersohn tried to seduce her during a closed-door marital counseling session while he was the rabbi at Temple Beth David in Westminster, Calif.

Mayersohn, who has since left his congregation and now is a full-time pastoral counselor, vehemently denies the charge.

The California case returns the spotlight to rabbinic ethics policies in the wake of several high-profile case! s of sexual abuse in the Jewish community, as well as the well-publicized scandals of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

It also comes nearly eight years after a groundbreaking series by JTA heightened awareness of the issue in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most prominent Jewish scandal in recent years involved Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox day school principal in New Jersey, who was convicted and jailed in 2002 for sexually abusing teenage girls and women and physically abusing boys as an official of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

A report for the youth group’s parent organization, the Orthodox Union, found that Lanner’s superiors did not act forcefully enough to intervene after receiving complaints about his behavior.

“The Lanner case and what happened with the Catholic priesthood raised the awareness of the public, and gave the public the sense that we should not ignore it if a member of the clergy is doing something wrong,” said Rabbi Joel! Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbi nical Assembly.

Hogue, 44, who was raised in an Anglo-Catholic home, said she discovered Jewish roots in her family and joined the Reform congregation in 1999, changing her name to Chavah from Lori and converting along with her daughter in a Conservative ceremony a year after joining the Reform temple.

Her husband did not convert. Hogue said she chose a Conservative conversion to ensure that her young daughter would be accepted by most Jews in America when it comes time to marry.

In a telephone interview with JTA, Hogue alleged that Mayersohn began “hitting on me” some eight months after she joined the temple, trying to kiss her, hug her or touch her inappropriately.

Hogue was experiencing marital problems involving interfaith issues, and at the rabbi’s suggestion began attending pastoral counseling sessions alone with him, she said. After asking about her sex life in their first session, the rabbi “groped me and kissed me and tried to convince me to have sex w! ith him” in a second meeting, she said. Hogue refused.

In May 2002, Hogue filed a formal sexual misconduct complaint to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee on Ethics and Appeals, which handles such charges. Her complaint against Mayersohn alleged “sexual boundary violations.”

Mayersohn, 52, has flatly denied all of the allegations to Reform movement officials, and he reiterated his denials to JTA.

“There was absolutely nothing inappropriate about our relationship and there was nothing, from my end, that was sexual about it,” he said. “Nothing that she alleges happened in those meetings happened. Unfortunately, like all rabbis who meet with people behind closed doors, I am vulnerable to people’s fabrications.”

The rabbi also maintained that it was Hogue who initiated the pastoral counseling sessions, which he said he conducted with many congregants.

Though Mayerson said he sometimes touched congregants in public in a “warm, friendly” m! anner, Hogue “confused” his gestures for something else.

She “misto ok my rabbinic concerns for her well interest” for “romantic or sexual interest,” he said.

He also told the ethics panel that he took pre-emptive action against Hogue’s “misperceptions,” notifying the temple board and the Central Conference of American Rabbis of her assertions soon after their counseling sessions.

After the three-member ethics committee’s investigating team looked into the case, the panel in June 2003 said in a report to Gold that Hogue’s charge “cannot be clearly confirmed or denied,” but that it was “troubling to dismiss her experience here as having been entirely imagined.”

Though the panel could not prove Mayersohn was guilty of any ethical lapse, it maintained that “there is an indication of a rabbi in need of some kind of support and/or training.”

The panel found there was sufficient evidence Mayersohn had “exercised poor judgment” in his dealings with Hogue and in August voted to censure him. That was less than the gravest possible penalti! es — expulsion or suspension — but more serious than a letter of reprimand.

Under the Reform code of ethics, a reprimand remains the least serious form of punishment. It takes the form of a private letter to the rabbi involved.

By being censured, Mayersohn was required to undergo psychological evaluation, therapy and counseling for teshuvah, or repentance.

If a censured rabbi fails to fulfill such orders or additional problems surface, the Central Conference of American Rabbis could recommend that they be removed from some or all of their professional duties.

In a letter notifying Hogue of the censure, the ethics panel’s chairwoman, Rabbi Rosalind Gold of Reston, Va., said Mayersohn had the right to appeal to the rabbinic conference’s board of trustees.

Yet the full board overturns such decisions only “when the proper process of adjudication has not been followed; I do not believe there is any ground for such an appeal in this case,” she wrote at the time! .

Mayersohn stepped down from his pulpit that same month, after giv ing his temple a required six-month notification. He said the action against him and his leaving “have nothing to do with each other,” but that after 13 years in the pulpit, he wanted to be a full-time pastoral counselor.

Mayersohn also appealed the censure, a move that forestalled any of its requirements, and in January 2004, Gold wrote Hogue that the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ board had reduced the penalty to a reprimand.

Ultimately, neither Mayersohn nor Hogue was happy with how the seven-month investigation was handled.

“I understand the difficulty of their task, but I do believe either flaws in the system or mistakes in the process have resulted in injury to me,” Mayersohn said.

For her part, Hogue said, “They were dragging their feet and taking as long as possible to conduct this case.”

Gold, Central Conference of American Rabbis President Rabbi Janet Marder and other conference members declined to discuss the case with JTA, citing confident! iality policies.

Meanwhile, the full Central Conference of American Rabbis board acknowledged that in deciding to overturn the censure, it ignored a rule in the movement’s rabbinical ethics code, forcing this month’s second hearing on the matter.

Under the code, the board, before deciding on a complaint, is supposed to allow both the person making the charge and the rabbi involved to make their case, but this time only Mayersohn was invited to give his input beforehand.

Ultimately, Hogue maintains the Central Conference of American Rabbis was “falling down in their sacred duty to protect those who come to them for help.”

“I felt they were not giving my case the importance it deserved,” she said.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the group’s executive vice president, defended the way the rabbinic conference handles complaints about members.

“Anybody who looks at our process and how it has been implemented over the years would be hard-pressed to say it’s not serious,”! Menitoff said.

In a typical year, the rabbinic conference fields f ive to six complaints of rabbinic sexual misconduct, he said, and the charges are found worthy of some action “more often than not.”

But he and other officials would not discuss the details of those cases.

Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles who advocated for tougher Reform ethics rules and who helped shape the current guidelines in the mid-1990s, said the movement was among the first streams to get tough on rabbinic sexual misbehavior.

Now Schaefer hopes the movement will mandate more classes on sexual misconduct issues for rabbis and seminary students to prevent further abuse.

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