Religious leaders get guidelines on proper conduct with congregants


JERUSALEM (JTA) — An interfaith initiative has created international ethics guidelines for religious leaders to insure proper conduct with their congregants.

The Ten Guidelines were announced last week in Jerusalem by the International Conference of the Israeli organization Tahel, Israel’s Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children. The new initiative calls upon religious leaders around the world to unite and discuss issues of sexual violence and abuse within the community, and to formulate and adhere to international guidelines.

The Ten Guidelines include a reminder to clergy to trust their instincts. For example, the guidelines say “If you feel that extra distance is appropriate in a specific circumstance, trust your feelings. It’s a red flag, warning you to take extra precautions.”

Another guideline urges religious leaders to avoid virtual communication with their students, congregants and followers, since words can be misconstrued and understood as inappropriate or harassing. They are also encouraged to install glass doors in their offices, place a desk between themselves and their guests, document any meeting in writing, and avoid all physical contact.

Among the world leaders who signed on to the guidelines are Rabbi Doctor Aharon Adler from Jerusalem, a Talmudic scholar; Elizabeth Petersen, an Anglican Catholic who founded The South African Faith and Family Institute, which unites leaders of various faiths in Africa; Ramadan Dabash, mukhtar in eastern Jerusalem; and Victor Vieth, a Catholic legal scholar who founded the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center.

“What’s unique about the initiative is its emphasis on the hierarchy of the religious environment that makes it such fertile ground for sexual offenses within the community,” Tahel Director Debbie Gross said in a statement. “Religious victims of abuse will often turn to their faith leader long before they appeal to the authorities on the assumption that they feel secure enough to go public at all. The tendency to hush up stories within the community in order to preserve its solid reputation and avoid betraying the group causes many teachers, guidance counselors and school principals to look away rather than report problematic situations.”

The guidelines for clergy come in the wake of a series of sexual assault complaints against prominent American men in the entertainment, sports, political and media worlds.

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