Clerical sex abuse is not just a Catholic problem. I know this from personal experience

As a goodly number of sentient beings are by now surely aware, the Roman Catholic Church is mired in yet another near-global, clerical sex-abuse and institutional cover-up meltdown. How it unfolds will undoubtedly alter the church’s future trajectory. Whether that will be for better or worse remains to be seen.

But this post is not primarily about the Catholic hierarchy’s serious and pervasive failings. Rather, it's my attempt to remind readers that such failings are far more about the human condition than any particular faith group.

I know this because, though I am not Catholic, I was also a victim of clerical sexual abuse.

In my case, it happened when I was about 11 in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the New York City borough of Queens, where I grew up.

This was the synagogue that my parents trusted to provide me with a grounding in religious Judaism. Instead, the trauma of my experience distanced me from the faith — actually, all faiths — for decades to come.


I never told my parents about any of this, out of shame and fear, so they went to their graves ignorant of what happened. All they knew was that I refused to ever return to that synagogue, not even for my needed Bar Mitzvah lessons. (Both the lessons and the actual Bar Mitzvah took place elsewhere.)

Synagogue clerical sex was most likely one of my earliest experiences of adult hypocrisy — not counting what I experienced in my own family, of course. Who knows? Perhaps it was the trauma that led me to become a journalist.

Because if adult hypocrisy angers you, where better to uncover it than in the arenas of human endeavor — politics, the so-called justice system, the business world, and as I now know, institutional religion and even journalism — that one continually encounters as a reporter?

I'd say working as a journalist is a damn good way to learn about the world as it truly is, warts and all.

Before preceding further, let me state that sharing my experience here is in no way meant to provide comfort to those many Catholics desperate for such institutional comfort. That’s for you to find, or to cease searching for, on your own.

Certainly, though, I think that there’s something about imposed celibacy in our modern world — if not throughout human history — that for the overwhelming majority of us is impossible to abide. But of course it’s not just institutionally imposed celibacy that’s the problem.

Celibacy does not exist within mainstream, contemporary Judaism. My abuser was engaged to be married, and in fact was expected to be sexually active within a committed, heterosexual marriage for the purpose of having children. Anything else would have caused those in his community to think less of him.

Buddhism also has a celibacy tradition. Monks and nuns, as Buddhist women renunciates are also called, are generally required to refrain from sex. And while serious breaches of celibacy and sexual abuse have in recent months made news in the international Buddhist world as well, for sound and obvious journalistic reasons its coverage in the West has been far less.

Guess what: Buddhists can be just as “good” — or is the better word “bad” or “skilled”? — as Catholic leaders, when it comes to institutional coverups.

That’s not to say there’s been no elite media coverage at all. Here’s a  hunk of a relevant piece that ran in The New York Times in July.

In a shrine on the sixth floor of a Manhattan office building, a photo of a man in golden robes hangs above an altar. Another photo of him sits upon a throne.

He is the head of one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, Shambhala International, a network of more than 200 outposts in over 30 countries where thousands come for training in meditation and mindfulness and some delve into deeper mysteries.

The man is Mipham Rinpoche. He is known as the Sakyong, a Tibetan word that translates roughly as king, and his students take vows to follow him that are binding across lifetimes. These days, they are feeling sad, confused, angry and betrayed.

Late last month, a former Shambhala teacher released a report alleging that the Sakyong had sexually abused and exploited some of his most devoted female followers for years. Women quoted in the report wrote of drunken groping and forcefully extracted sexual favors. The report said that senior leaders at Shambhala — an organization whose motto is “Making Enlightened Society Possible” — knew of the Sakyong’s misconduct and covered it up.

Here’s another parallel between this Buddhist organization and the Catholic hierarchy. Both appear to have great difficulty when it comes to learning from their past mistakes.

In Shambhala, bad behavior runs in the bloodline. The organization was founded by the Sakyong’s Tibet-born father, Chögyam Trungpa, a wildly charismatic man, brilliant teacher and embodiment of the concept known as “crazy wisdom,” whose alcoholic exploits and womanizing were well known. He died in 1987. In between Chögyam Trungpa and the Sakyong, Shambhala was led by an American-born Buddhist who is mainly remembered for having sex with students even after he knew that he had AIDS.

I urge you to read The Times piece in its entirety. It’s chock full of official sexual misconduct in the Buddhist world. And if that’s not enough for you, feel free to also read this Reuters story about the resignation of a top Chinese Buddhist leader for — you guessed it — sexual impropriety.

I've focused here on Buddhist wrongdoings, but had I chosen to I could have easily used examples from Islam, Hinduism and non-Catholic Christian denominations. Because as I said above, the scandal that’s engulfed institutional Catholicism is not so much about this particular hierarchy as it is the centrality of sex to the human condition.

After all, without the human sex drive, who of us would be here to curse institutional religion's sexual failings?

Perhaps it’s time for some journalists with the requisite psychological sophistication to break away from the story’s daily grind to write about the deeper truth revealed by the Catholic story -- which is the universality of human sexual needs and desires, and how they become twisted by uneven power dynamics and counter-intuitive institutional rules.

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