Don´t think it can´t happen to you´


NEW YORK (JTA) — As an attorney representing several victims of sexually predatory Catholic priests, Mark Itzkowitz has witnessed the church´s pedophilia scandal from an almost too-close-for-comfort vantage point. “Some of the details are absolutely horrifying,” said Itzkowitz, 49, who lives in the Boston area. “I´ve seen things that have made my blood run cold.”

Not long ago, Itzkowitz´s life took a surreal turn when he found himself confronting clergy sexual abuse from a different perspective: The problem had come home to roost in his own synagogue.

Robert Shapiro, the esteemed longtime cantor of Temple Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in Randolph, Mass., was accused of repeatedly molesting a mentally challenged congregant, a woman in her late 20s and early 30s when the incidents allegedly occurred between 2001 and 2003.

When the news broke in early February 2003, Beth Am was within days of again renewing the then-70-year-old Shapiro´s contract.

“The people in the synagogue would have followed him to the ends of the earth,” Itzkowitz said. “He had been there longer than the rabbi — more than 20 years.”

Once the shock of the disclosure wore off, Beth Am leaders regrouped and tried to figure out how to manage the situation. That involved not only ensuring that criminal, civil and moral justice would prevail, but also preventing the congregation from disintegrating.

In-house guidelines were nonexistent. And attempts to find advice from officials at the Conservative movement´s headquarters were unsuccessful, according to both Itzkowitz, the synagogue board´s attorney, and its rabbi, Loel Weiss.

While Jewish morality is founded on the Torah and other sacred texts, “synagogues aren´t Coca Cola or IBM churning out specific policies and procedures on right and wrong,” Weiss said. “There is a certain expectation that in a religious institution, people will act properly. But what could have been written on a piece of paper? My mind doesn´t think in those terms.”

Weiss said the little practical information he found that helped guide him through “this hell,” as he put it, was contained in a book about a suburban New Jersey congregation whose rabbi had become involved in a major crime.

“It confirmed my instincts that we needed to give people in the congregation a chance to share their sadness,” Weiss said. “Remember that even before the allegations had been confirmed, people were basically sitting shiva for a longtime cantor who was in many cases a friend of theirs.”

The task faced by Beth Am was daunting: While the case was being investigated internally — and by the police — the rights of the alleged perpetrator and the victim and her family had to be preserved. Meanwhile, the congregation had to be protected. So Shapiro was suspended with pay pending completion of the police investigation.

That probe ultimately revealed that the victim had been assaulted at the synagogue, at Shapiro´s home, in his pool, in a car and elsewhere.

Shapiro was allowed to be alone with the woman because he was a trusted friend of her family, which eventually sued Shapiro, as well as Beth Am, Weiss and the former congregation president.

The latter three defendants were dismissed from the suit after the judge determined they could not have known that Shapiro posed a risk, according to news accounts.

Regarding damage control at Beth Am, Itzkowitz said he resolved to do the opposite of what the Catholic Church had done when its priests became embroiled in controversy. Rather than circling the wagons, stonewalling and failing to acknowledge the community´s anguish, Beth Am officials would be forthcoming, compassionate and responsive, he said.

Since Shapiro had privately tutored many bar and bat mitzvah students, several parents were concerned that their children might also have been victimized. Synagogue representatives were able to assuage their fears, however, noting that there was no evidence of other incidents involving the cantor — at Beth Am or elsewhere.

“This was not a case where somebody passed the buck to us,” Weiss said.

Shapiro originally was charged with seven counts of rape, but as part of a deal with prosecutors he pleaded guilty in September 2005 to 14 counts of indecent assault and battery on a mentally retarded person. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and 10 years probation.

Earlier this year, a civil court jury ordered Shapiro to pay $5.2 million to the victim and $750,000 to her parents — an award that will total $8.4 million including interest, according to the lawyer representing the victim and her family.

“If there is such a thing as a victory in this case,” Itzkowitz said, it is that Beth Am remained intact. The 400-family synagogue lost no congregants during the ordeal, except the victim and her family.

“And until they come back,” Itzkowitz added, “we haven´t really won.”

An attorney representing the family did not respond to a JTA request for comment, and an attorney representing Shapiro said his client would not comment.

In the wake of the incident, the synagogue has instituted a policy aimed at preventing another one. Beth Am clergy are now prohibited from being alone in the synagogue with any individual, child or adult.

“It´s good in theory,” Weiss said, “but it doesn´t work from a practical standpoint.”

That is one of the many lessons — practical, moral and spiritual — that have been learned in the wake of the Shapiro case.

Weiss and Itzkowitz came away with a renewed sense of affection and admiration for the Beth Am community, which they said responded with courage, restraint and cohesiveness.

But because of his vocation, Itzkowitz encountered the ordeal from a unique perspective. As an attorney, he had already seen his share of lives ruined and houses of worship shattered by sexually predatory clergymen. And as a result, he offered this sobering advice to any congregation: “Don´t think it can´t happen to you.”

Recommended from JTA