I was actually not planning on giving a formal sermon this week, given that I should be dedicating my time to preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And then the report released by the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into more than 1,000 victims of abuse by Catholic priests over the last 70 years hit the news. And I realized that I cannot let this go by without comment.
And here is why: we who care about religion, and the image that religious people have, are all affected by this. Yes, it might be easy to say, “That’s not us; that is the Catholics.” But that would be an exercise in rationalization. While I think it would be difficult to make the case that the horrific, even systematic kinds of abuse described in this report exist to this extent in the Jewish world, there have certainly been a few cases among the Jews, and even here in Pittsburgh as well, and recently.
I do not think that there is anything that anybody can say or do that can help those who have been hurt in this way by religious leaders. There is nothing that will remove the fear and suspicion, pain and mistrust caused by the abusers. It is a “hillul haShem,” a profanation of God’s name of the highest possible order. And I am simply devastated that those victims may never again be able to put their trust in God, or even in people.
This is not good for the Jews. It’s not good for Judaism, because we, the faithful, have to continue to reach out to those who have been turned off by the appalling behavior of few outwardly pious people. As you know, it is not only my job, but yours as well, to make the case for the value of our tradition, of our prayer and learning and community. However, the echoes of those sins described in the report, and the failure of these dioceses to respond properly, will continue to ring in the ears of those who are looking for an exit not only from the church, but from all forms of religious life, including ours.
Perhaps the only upshot that will come from this is that the report has made it clear that, even though the Church claims that it handles abuse allegations very differently from in the past, the most important thing to do if you ever hear anything that suggests that a case of abuse has taken place is to go immediately to local law enforcement.
You might say that this principle is enshrined in the opening of today’s parashah, Shofetim, which mandates the creation of “shofetim veshoterim,” judges, courts, and law enforcement officers, and gives the imperative, “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof.” Justice; you shall pursue justice. It is our responsibility as Jews to ensure that we live in a just society, and that we have the people in place to enforce justice.
A childhood acquaintance of mine, Andrew Nicastro, was abused by his Catholic priest in my hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, when we were in junior high school. Most of you know that I grew up in an idyllic New England setting, a small college town where life was generally quiet; scandals happened elsewhere.
My perspective as an adult makes everything back in my childhood home seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes. The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.
My current realities of fatherhood, of meetings and mortgages and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth. We grow, we change, we mature.
But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices. We learn independence, and we learn how to lead.
A few weeks back, in Parashat Va-ethannan, we read the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot. It is worth noting that in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and in Devarim it is called Horev / Horeb.
Why the change? What’s the difference?
The names are different precisely because the context is different. Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe’s sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny, but not yet mature. We all know that the generation of freed slaves, as if they were children, whined their way across the desert. “Moshe, are we there yet?” “Moshe, we’re thirsty.” “Moshe, we miss the meat and the leeks of Egypt.”
But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later. The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective. As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God. They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land. They have grown.
Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind. Sinai is a place of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following. Of responsibility.
At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him. At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation. This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation. As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.
Now back to Massachusetts. My abused friend, Andrew Nicastro was awarded a settlement of $500,000 in 2012 for his civil lawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholic church. Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves. The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere within the diocese in 1976, and had covered it up.
I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until 5 years ago. However, the details of this case suggest that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.
I am clearly not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues; let’s leave that to God. But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership. Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests in Pittsburgh and all over the world when such charges came up.
The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai. They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix. This is not leadership. We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.
I was shocked when I first heard this news a few years ago. But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally. And I remembered Andrew again this week. And I remember that although I never went to St. Patrick’s Church in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on some level, that could have been me.
This tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing. We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb. We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs. Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves. Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.
The grand jury report demonstrates that the shofetim veshoterim / judges and law enforcement officers are the right people to handle cases of abuse at the hands of clergy. As for the task of restoring faith in religion, well, I leave that up to all of us to continue to teach the values of the Torah, among them the values of leadership, of responsibility, of making the right choices in our interactions with everybody.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/18/2018.)