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The Great Institutional Sin


I recently came across a disturbing story in the New York Times. It’s about the discovery that conservative Hasidic Jews (the group written about by Chaim Potok) have a stubborn subculture of child sexual abuse, often involving highly-placed men in the community.

What made this story so disturbing was not just that it was happening among these very pious people (it happens in most groups, though with a higher incidence in groups that isolate themselves from surrounding society) but that civil authorities found it nearly impossible to do anything about it. When someone made a report of abuse by a teacher or by a highly-respected rabbi in the ritual bathhouse, others would turn against the family that reported it, effectively expelling them from the only community they’d ever known. It couldn’t have happened, defenders said. You are blackening the good name of a great man. Exposing God’s Chosen to ridicule by taking the report to outside authorities. When a case was brought to trial, prosecutors would find their victims and witnesses had vanished. Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, who took the scandal public with a website and call-in line, was not only denied participation in religious ceremonies, but had bleach thrown in his eyes as he walked a Brooklyn street. (If you want to read the part of Rabbi Rosenberg’s story that even the NYT wouldn’t print, you’ll find it here. I warn you, though, it’s disturbing.)

Then there was PBS’s Frontline documentary (first broadcast in February) called “Secrets of the Vatican.” It was a stunning exposé, even if nothing there was entirely new: corruption in the Vatican Bank, a secretive Curia, the cult-like Legion of Christ, blatantly homosexual priests, all overshadowed by the church’s poor handling of pedophilia. Seeing it brought together in one place, it seemed to me even the most loyal Roman Catholic would see need for organizational repentance and reform. Yet influential voices in the Catholic church argued otherwise. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called “Secrets” a “hit job,” “contrived melodrama,” and “propaganda” by “Catholic bashers”. Of pedophilia, he says the “problem is practically non-existent in the Catholic community these days, and is rampant in public schools, as well as in the Orthodox Jewish community.”

There are plenty of other examples, and sadly, we can’t exclude our own church. Fresh in our minds is Dr. Samuel Pipim, an intelligent, polished scholar, one who became our most articulate apologist for a certain kind of Seventh-day Adventism, and who, it has now become clear beyond any reasonable doubt, is a serial sexual predator. When this was first accused, one could be forgiven for questioning it. No one wants an innocent man’s career ruined. But in Dr. Pipim’s case, the murk cleared quickly. The Michigan Conference overcame its denial, and warned others not to invite him. More recently came a similar warning from the Ohio Conference, in one of whose churches Dr. Pipim was baptized in a secretive ceremony.

And then … [crickets]. What concerns me (and ought to concern General Conference Risk Management) is that the burden of preventing more damage by this dangerous man with a worldwide following seems to have fallen on a few local conference leaders in the NAD.[1]

Michael Lesher is a Jewish attorney and author who investigates sexual abuse among the Hasidim. Here’s his take on why that community won’t deal with sexual abuse (the italics are mine): “This isn’t a problem about a few aberrant cases or an old-fashioned community reluctant to talk to police about sexual matters. This is about a political economy that links Orthodox Judaism with other fundamentalist creeds and with aspects of right-wing ideologies generally. It’s an economy in which genuine religious values will never really rise to the top, so long as they’re tied to the poisonous priorities that elevate status and power over the basic human needs of the most vulnerable among us.”

Institutions are necessary to the functioning of human society. But these stories expose the great temptation of institutions: for people the organization hurts to matter less than the organization does. In religious organizations it has too often happened that poisonous priorities—defending orthodoxy, avoiding damage to reputation and assets, keeping powerful men powerful—matter more than justice for victims.

Why is it so hard to say out loud that we have found among us a dangerous person masquerading as a religious leader? Instead, we hear silence from many, and excuses like these from others:

It didn’t happen. Or, “We weren’t there. How do we know what really happened?” If there’s any way to wiggle out of admitting it, we will.

Don’t be unfair to the perpetrator.Astonishingly, there are still people who believe that Samuel Pipim was mistreated, even though he confessed. They mutter that it wasn’t that bad. Or, it was just once. Or maybe just a few times. Anyway, the Christian thing to do is to forgive and forget.

It wasn’t his fault. One report about the Hasidic abuse told of a child ordered to apologize to the man who raped him—for committing the sin of seduction! It is a conservative talking point, going back thousands of years, that ever since Eden women have set traps for men. Nandipa and the other women who accused Dr. Pipim were tools of Satan to take him down because he’s been so truthful. This myth is reinforced by Dr. Pipim’s self-centered and self-justifying books.

Well, OK, maybe it did happen, but it isn’t happening anymore, so let’s move on.That is, let the institution and its important men move on. Michael Lesher quotes one of his clients: “When you’re abused as a child and you grow up to be an adult, and you know the man who violated you was never punished, the violation never leaves you. You’re never whole.”[2]

Other communities are doing worse things than what happened among us.So?

We don’t want to ruin the reputation of the institution or its leaders.I recently found a link to the account of the woman who accused Morris Venden of leading her into a sexual relationship. In spite of the official vote on the matter, what emerges when you read the responses of the committee appointed to investigate is that they knew what had happened, but couldn’t bring themselves to say out loud that this influential man had done what a vulnerable young woman accused him of.

We’re handling it privately. Behind the scenes.The Hasidic victims were ordered to deal with pedophilia by reporting it only to the rabbis. The result? Nothing happened. Offending leaders were suspended or moved—or not even that. (At least one prominent Hasidic “counselor” with multiple allegations and convictions in absentia was allowed to slip away to Israel, which won’t extradite him.) Perhaps the General Conference has told top church leaders, “We don’t want to say it out loud, but don’t let Pipim come to speak—pass it on.” If so, that hardly seems sufficient for a worldwide figure. Pulpits in our denomination are often filled without checking with the conference, much less the union or division. (One website claims that Pipim is already a featured speaker in Ghana.) Why no public statement? One General Conference leader speaks pointedly and often against meditation. Why so quiet about the abuse of young women?

We have the truth, so shut up and quit picking on us.Catholic apologist Adam Bowers says it’s unfair to blame the church at all. “This is all bad, evil stuff, but it is unfair to imply that the reasons are institutional rather than individual.” In its rightness, a church is a great, flawless, holy thing. But if there’s injustice and abuse in the church, well, that’s just people—no reflection on us. And then follows this whiny explanation: “The Church isn’t despised because of the sexual abuse crisis or any other scandal (this is just delicious opportunity); she is hated because in spite of the sin and hypocrisy of all of her members, she always holds to what is true, even while all of us individual Catholics perpetually fall short.” Poor us! They criticize us because we are so right about everything, so truthful, not because we’re doing the opposite of what Scripture says!

It is impossible for institutions to avoid this tension between institutional health and individual justice. It’s built in to human organizations, as inevitable as gravity. The good of the many vs. the good of a few: “Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50). We who are invested in the institution will attempt to preserve what we consider essential, and that’s usually reputations and assets. Wise institutions know that, and build in processes for overcoming their own self-protective impulses. 

Yet “genuine religious values will never really rise to the top, so long as they’re tied to the poisonous priorities that elevate status and power over the basic human needs of the most vulnerable among us.” Perhaps we’re unclear about what our genuine religious values are, whether they’re values that preserve institutional power and keep our leaders respected and creeds convincing, or something more basic, like protecting women and children. “All of the above,” someone will say. But when they come into conflict, someone will lose, and too often that’s the vulnerable among us.

[1] I have heard rumors that the NAD or the GC are doing damage control. If so, it isn’t being done publicly.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.

UPDATE AUGUST 28, 2014: The Communication Department of the North American Division contacted the Spectrum blog about this column. The NAD had this statement to make:

On August 21, 2014 Spectrum published an article by Loren Seibold, “The Great Institutional Sin,” on the issue of Sam Pipim and his membership in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The North American Division does not have the authority to approve or deny acceptance into church membership of an individual. That is an issue solely within the purview of the  local church.  This is clearly laid out in the Church Manual. The “crickets” Mr. Seibold hears from the North American church leadership in response to Mr. Pipim being rebaptized are not only fake sounds but non existent.  If Mr. Siebold has information and names of people at the GC or NAD as he claims who are covering up the acts of Mr. Pipim or supporting and endorsing him, he should make them public to us so we can deal with these individuals as that is not acceptable behavior or behavior we will tolerate. If he does not have evidence or proof, he needs to stop disparaging unnamed individuals and church organizations and cease spreading unfounded rumors. 

UPDATE AUGUST 29, 2014, Loren Seibold responds to NAD:

I am grateful that my column was noticed by the NAD, but surprised and profoundly disappointed by the evidence that it wasn’t read carefully enough before their communication staff responded.

I never  wrote that the NAD has authority over Samuel K. Pipim’s membership. Nor did I ever say that anyone in the organization defended or approved of Mr. Pipim’s actions. My point is that the GC and NAD haven’t warned the church within their jurisdictions about Mr. Pipim as he continues to speak and travel, assuming a role of a leader now as a legitimate church member. (By the way, “crickets” is a meme that means “silence”, not some kind of defense, as the respondent implies.) It remains a fact that only the Michigan and Ohio Conferences that have made public statements in attempts to restrict Dr. Pipim’s public role in our denomination.

By not dealing accurately with my column, this response from the NAD Communication Department sounds defensive, and I fear confirms my premise that there is institutional failure in this matter.

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