Sexual Misconduct by Clergy: Who's to Blame?

Sexual misconduct by clergy is as old as religion itself, but what if the larger problem is not so much with the clergy as it is with believers who always seem to be surprised by such behavior, and even more disturbingly, slow to respond to it when they finally admit it has occurred? Without letting any misbehaving clerics off the hook, especially when the misconduct betrays the innocence of a child, recent events in the life of one high-profile rabbi have me wondering about the ways in which otherwise decent people fail to address the very real problem of sexual misconduct by their chosen spiritual leaders.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, leader of two synagogues (one on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the other in the Hamptons) and a man noted for his penchant for hanging with the glitterati, has been served with a request for legal separation by his fourth wife, Tobi. The reason? Among other things, the rabbi was caught in a passionate embrace with a congregant with whom, it is alleged, he has been carrying on an affair and even impregnated.

If the story is true, Rabbi Schneier is certainly to blame for betraying his wife, his own stated values, his congregants, the congregant with whom he is having the relationship, and too many others to list. But it's also true that all those who have supported Rabbi Schneier while managing to miss what might elegantly be referred to as a complex personal history should also be examining their own role in this saga.

It goes without saying that when a rabbi, or any other religious leader, betrays a spouse with extramarital affairs, it is particularly egregious. Nobody is perfect, so it's not entirely surprising that it happens, but it stings a bit more when a teacher fails to live up to his or her own teaching, and because it's a story the media loves, we end up having to deal with the sting in public. But should it be, as attorney Susan Bender claims in the New York Daily News, "an embarrassment to Orthodox Jews"?

Why should an entire community be embarrassed by the bad acts of one member, even a high-profile one who happens to be a rabbi? Would Ms. Bender suggest that when an imam does something wrong, the entire Muslim community should be embarrassed? I hope not. Yet with all that, Bender may have stumbled into a truth about the ways in which congregants abet the misbehavior of their clergy.

Like members of the Catholic Church, who for far too long turned a blind eye to sexually predatory priests, and Muslims who simply claim that stoning women for adultery is "cultural and not really a problem with Islam," the members of this or any rabbi's congregation are responsible when they make excuses for, or simply ignore, bad behavior because of the service they get from their chosen leader. Although nobody is to blame for the sexual misdeeds of another, when a leader is allowed to continue leading despite serious moral or ethical shortfalls, the followers have some answering to do, as well.

How often do members of a community ignore or even cover up when these things happen? Whether out of embarrassment about how it looks to those outside their faith community or some twisted sense of "greater obligation" to the faith or the office of the clergy, it's wrong. And yet it happens all the time. That's not a problem for the clergy; that's a problem for the faithful. When loyalty to any tradition deadens our moral sensitivity, when faith is confused with apologetics, it's time to quit the faith.

What Rabbi Schneier did and with whom is something with which he will have to deal. How those who call him their rabbi will deal with it is something with which those people will have to deal. How they do so, not what Schneier did, could be a source of embarrassment to the Jewish community. And the same can be said for any religious group when their members turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of their community's clergy.