Saturday, April 28, 2007

Who will save your soul?

Today on, there's an article talking about how Christian Jewish and Muslim houses of worship are struggling with the problem of what to do when a sex offender wants to worship.

Of course, many significant stories have been in the media over the past few years - notably there were the problems with the Catholic Church hiding its offending priests by relocating them to poor communities and refusing to deal in other ways, but the Jewish community, too, has had it's struggles: the question of Whether R. Shlomo Carlebach, during his lifetime, was extremely inappropriate with women (reported first in Lilith magazine), the highly publicized case of David Kay (who, when caught in a sting resigned his membership in the Rabbinical Assembly and claimed to be "defrocking" himself) who was featured on "Dateline NBC" for seeking a sexual encounter with an underage boy in a chat room, and not least of all the case of R. Kolko and others whose abuse of students in their care has been documented by Failed Messiah and The Truth About Agudah.

But the question that is raised in the Salon article is both simpler and more difficult: what to do when someone who is a known, say, child molester, comes to the community, and wants to join it?
According to the article, one synagogue decided that
Rather than bring it to the congregation, the temple's executive committee made the decision about how -- and whether -- to welcome offenders to its temple. The verdict: The men could worship with them -- "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all Peoples," explained the rabbi, quoting Isaiah 56:7 -- but could not have any contact with children.

but another went quite a different way,
Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, Calif., faced the same problem many years ago, when he was rabbi of another temple. In that case, the offender, just out of prison, had molested children in a neighboring community. "I told him I wouldn't prevent him from coming to services, although I would rather he didn't. He came to worship and there were people in the congregation to whom it was so deeply upsetting to have him there, they couldn't pray. People came to me in pain over it," recalls Spitz. After that initial reaction, Spitz did some research into the nature of sex offenders and consulted a psychologist who specialized in the subject. "I wound up writing [the offender] a legal letter saying he was not welcome." Spitz is doubtful it would be different with his current congregation. "Realistically, I do think it would be a problem. A congregation is a very big family and some people are more secure in dealing with danger than others."

At one church, the pastor was shocked to discover,
the normally progressive, welcoming congregation balked at the notion, and the resulting firestorm forced pastor Madison Shockley to tearfully ask Pliska not to come to services until the church could sort things out..."Nothing in my almost 30 years of ministry has prepared me to turn somebody away," Shockley told the local paper. But Shockely's biggest surprise wasn't that a sex offender wanted to worship, but that so many members of his congregation had been sexually abused as children; he estimated one in four of female congregants and one in 10 men. Having an offender in the pews with them on Sunday -- even one who had served his time, registered with the authorities and voluntarily identified himself to the pastor -- was too big a hurdle for these former victims, Christians or not.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men. I suppose that isn't much of a shock to those who have been following feminist claims about this sort of thing for years (albeit this seems to be a particularly victimized congregation), but it does make one wonder just how dilatory we have been in our attempts to address the problem specifically as one of, not people in power, but of a scourge of society in general.

Of course, as the Salon article points out, the identified offenders are the least of the problem. Indeed, once you know that someone has served time for such an offence, one can at least make some kind of arrangements to make sure that they're not, say, allowed to run a youth group program. It's the unidentified, those who have not yet been caught, who are the danger - and isolating offenders who are identifiable, or even who make themselves known, only serves to make it harder for those trying to go straight to do so, since they will also have to fear not being able to find anyone to be in community with - even if their risk factor is, or can be made, very low.

More to the point, as Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies and director of the Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University, says in the article, "In Islam, there is a doctrine that says someone who repents from their sin, it is as if they have no sin anymore. This is the tension you have with the issue. Can religious communities overcome their fear of this man's psychopathology and accept that he has paid society's penalty or does he have to suffer the consequences of his crimes forever?"

Judaism, too, has such a -we'll keep with calling it a doctrine. But the rub is, how can a human being know if someone has truly repented? Especially with a sin such as this type, where we know
there are personality components that are not easily cured. Jail time alone just doess't do it - sometimes even when the offender really wants to do right.

So what should we do? What is our obligation as Jews to receive the one who has done tshuvah? What are the obligations of our communal leaders to both protect us and to show that tshuvah is accepted for those who seek it? And most importantly, how?


Angry Grrl said...


Hi, it's Paul's wife Laura.

I had something a little similar come up a few years ago in the online support group that I ran for Pagan female sexual assault survivors. Being an online group, we'd get women from all over the world, though most of us were in the US. One day, a woman from Mongolia joined the group.

The group is set so that new members have to submit their answers to a questionnaire to the group's listowner (me, at the time) -- this was to keep the group a safe, female-only space. Also, if the member gave permission, parts of the questionnaire were then posted as the new member's intro (they had the option of which parts they wanted held back).

So this woman sent her info, and told us all about her rape. OK, seemed legit so I let her into the group. All was fine, then a few weeks into things, she casually mentioned that she was in a consensual incestuous relationship with her grown son(!).

Ultimately, I let her stay in the group, as she was also a rape victim, but I put her on moderated status (meaning all her messages had to be cleared before being posted), and she was told in no uncertain terms that if she wanted to talk about healing from her rape that was acceptable, but we were not going to discuss her ongoing incest.

Kol Ra'ash Gadol said...

Wow, that's....I don't even know what to say. Is it possible to have a consensual incestuous relationship with one's child? (No, please, nobody answer that). That's... a really bizarre position to be put in. Congrats on figuring out some way to handle it.