Jesus is weeping on the cross this week. Instead of saying, after Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?" perhaps he is asking, "My God, my God, how could we let our children be forsaken, by people, by religious leaders, by trusted servants of the Church, by figures of authority, by men of God? My God, my God, how could we turn our children over to monsters, while also turning a blind eye?"
Jesus is weeping on the cross this week. There are others within the Catholic Church weeping right alongside him, weeping for these innocent children. And there are others throughout the world weeping too. There are priests, good priests, humble, genuine, selfless, loving men, in service to their God, their Church, and their communities, who would never, never even think of doing something steeped in such utter depravity. We must remember and honor those men for their sense of what is right and just, for their conscience and courage to confront the unconscionable.
Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Shoftim, contains one of the most famous and oft-quoted verses in the entire Torah. We read, "Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. Justice, justice, shall you pursue, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you." Justice, justice, shall you pursue -tzedek, tzedek, tirdof in the Hebrew, words that speak so plainly to this abominable reality.
Tzedek - justice. Thank God for this grand jury. Thank God for their thoughtfulness over two, long, arduous years. Thank God for their willingness and openness to listen to testimony, to accept the painful, disheartening, tragic stories of victims. Thank God for their bravery and their courage in speaking truth to power and presenting an 884-page report on an issue that must be brought to the surface, again and again and again. Perhaps this is why Deuteronomy calls upon the Israelites to "appoint judges and officials" for the tribes. We need external, impartial voices, to be able to see that justice, what is right and what is just is served properly. As more information comes to light, as more people come forward to share their stories, not only in Pittsburgh, but also throughout the world, we pray that those in positions of authority and leadership will continue to bear witness to this path of tzedek.
But justice from secular authorities is only the first part of tzedek tzedek tirdof. The second tzedek, the second call for justice, must come from within the Church itself. All leaders need to be open to criticism and to differences of opinion. One doesn't become a leader or ascend to the highest position in an organization without a willingness to accept flack. The Catholic Church needs a stronger voice, a voice of outright condemnation from Pope Francis on this subject. Leadership on this subject must come from the top, and work its way through every channel of the Church.
But the voice from Church leadership is yet to be perceived as strong enough. Greg Burke, director of the Vatican's Press Office used the words "shame" and "sorrow," acknowledging, "The Holy See condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors." Yet the initial response from the Pope, in the form of a Tweet, merely said, "Still today there are so many martyrs, so many who are persecuted for the love of Christ. They are the real strength of the Church!" Pope Francis has been outspoken on so many relevant and timely issues in the world, and it takes time to reform a Church, to change centuries of long-held practice, but leadership requires not only the right words, but also the right actions.
Justice, tzedek,must come from within the Church, as well as beyond its walls. Justice, tzedek, must come from the Catholics among us, people who we know in the wider community, who will give voice to their own stories, who are brave enough to speak in their own communities, who are courageous enough to reach out to their own priests, to articulate to leaders in the Church about the changes that they must see, about the moral behaviors for which they wish any religious organization to embody, practice, model and teach. We need to stand with theseCatholics, and we need to stand with these priests who are receptive to this message. Let them comment on similar actions in the Jewish community, because it happens here too, and let us all stand together in acknowledging just how wrong and tragic all of this actually is.
The world needs to see tzedek from legal efforts outside of the Church, as well as tzedekfrom conscious, moral outrage within the Church. Finally, there is tirdof, a Hebrew word written in the singular, meaning "youshall pursue," indicating that the quest for justice, the effort to create what is right in the world, falls upon each of our shoulders. You may be asking, "What's a Jewish congregation going to do to reform the Catholic Church apart from expressing our moral outrage?" And the truth is that this problem is not going to go away overnight. But in addition to considering the Church, and the activities of the Church leadership, maybe we should also think about the victims, and think about the survivors of child sexual abuse.
Most accounts of child sexual abuse go unreported. But studies show that 1 in 5 girls under the age of eighteen is a victim of child sexual abuse. The number for boys is 1 in 6 though because of certain stigma attached to manhood and masculinity, that people will think less of a man if he comes forward to share his story, only approximately 10% of that 1 in 6, ever reach a point of feeling open enough to share their truth. Consider that many childhood sexual assault survivors live with waves of depression and anxiety, traumatic and often painful memories, an absence of trust especially when it relates to figures of authority, a sense of shame and loss of dignity, a need for validation and affirmation because their very boundaries of body and soul have been violated, and among other things, feelings of blame and self-loathing, believing that the heinous victimization that they have endured was their fault, even though, it's not their fault.
Tirdof, you shall pursue, and if each of us is to pursue justice, then each of us needs to be an advocate, and each of us needs to be receptive, and open to these stories. Survivors come forward when they feel safe doing so, in their own time. The greatest gift that we can offer is a listening ear and a compassionate presence as a person comes forward to give voice to their truth. Psychotherapist Mike Lew writes, "For an adult survivor it is vital to receive aware, loving attention. No, listening to someone is not "doing nothing." Active, aware attention is a special skill. To develop that skill and offer it to another human being is a valuable gift. It makes a world of difference to the survivor."
Thankfully, there are a considerable number of resources for victims and survivors of sexual assault within Bergen County. Every county in New Jersey has a sexual violence resource center. Here in Bergen County, the YWCA offers a volunteer program through which people may volunteer their time on a 24/7 Sexual Assault Hotline, go on accompaniments with clients who need to go to the hospital or court, and attend outreach events.
On Thursday, September 13 from 10 am until 5 pm, the YWCA HealingSpace is holding their annual Clothesline event on the Green in Hackensack across from the Bergen County Courthouse, to raise community awareness of violence against women, men, and children and to demonstrate to survivors that they are not alone. The Clothesline Project, now in its 25th year, features thousands of T-shirts created by survivors of sexual violence, domestic violence, child abuse, and death as a result of personal violence. Creating shirts promotes healing by providing survivors and their loved ones with an avenue to break the silence. Visitors can participate by creating their own shirts and pledging their support for the community's anti-violence efforts. What a mitzvah it would be for some of our own members to attend and participate and learn, to be trained as advocates, to be trained as confidential responders on the local hotline, to know how to receive someone, processing and learning to embrace life, even while holding these nightmares.
Trusting our statistics, we recognize that childhood sexual abuse happens not only in the Catholic Church, it happens in other parts of our community too, and sadly, it happens, or has happened, to people whom we know. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Together we must envision a world, all of us, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or background, where those who harm children are brought to justice. The only words that form on our tongue as our own broken hearts weep, are words of how wrong this truly is, of how much accountability we hope to see, and how together, we might become receptive to the depth of pain that so many people carry with them.
Mike Lew, Victims No Longer, Kindle Locations 5427-5434.