Ethics Process Part I: When the Ethics Committee Receives a Complaint


Rabbi Andi Berlin, Ethics Committee Chair
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Ethics Committee Vice-Chair

As CCAR members continue our ongoing study of the Code of Ethics (the Code), we write this three-part series on the Ethics Committee Process to continue to illuminate the work of the Ethics Committee (EC). The CCAR will also offer ethics webinars this coming year.

Ethics Process Part I: When the Ethics Committee Receives a Complaint

We rabbis of the CCAR have adopted a complaint-driven ethics process. This means that the Ethics Committee (EC) does not begin our process until we receive a formal complaint. We often field inquiries from rabbis and potential complainants as to whether certain behaviors may constitute a violation of the Ethics Code (if true). These confidential conversations only sometimes result in formal complaints.

In most cases, potential complainants have reached out to the chair of the EC before submitting the formal complaint. During this contact with a potential complainant, the chair outlines the process; if the complainant is also an alleged victim, the chair seeks to understand the alleged victim’s support services.

When we receive a complaint, the EC first asks the question “If this complaint is true, does the allegation rise to the level of a violation of the Ethics Code?” If it does not, the complaint is dismissed at that moment. If the allegation does rise to the level of a potential violation, the chair of the committee reaches out to the rabbi, explains that we have received a complaint, outlines the ethics process, discusses the complaint, and shares the support services that are available to CCAR members (including our CCAR social worker). The complaint is then sent to the rabbi.

At this time, each case is assigned a case-manager from the committee to help shepherd the complaint through the process and to be available to the rabbi, the complainant, and potential victims and witnesses. The case-manager system is relatively new and is intended to facilitate the process for everybody.

Upon receipt of the complaint, the rabbi has two weeks to send a written response to the EC. The case-manager also reaches out to any alleged victims, which often include the president of the congregation. The alleged victims also have two weeks to send written responses to the EC.

During these two weeks (and throughout the process), the case-manager remains in contact with the rabbi, the complainant, and alleged victims, answering questions and discussing any issues that arise.

After receiving the written responses, the EC has to answer another set of questions. First is “Do we have enough information to make an adjudication decision now without a Fact Gathering Team (FGT)?” If so, the EC can adjudicate or it can ask for some clarifying information from the rabbi and complainant to ascertain if adjudication is possible without the FGT.

The EC will also look to other questions such as whether there is contradictory information; whether the initial written responses raise other potential Code violations; and whether there are a significant number of witnesses that can help bring light to the complaint. Both the rabbi and complainant have the opportunity to proffer names of potential witnesses. The EC again asks if the information provided still indicates that, if true, the alleged behavior violates the Code. If we find any of this to be the case, we then assign an FGT.

Depending on the nature of the allegations against the rabbi, an FGT is made up of either three rabbis or two rabbis and one layperson. We reach out to different people to serve on the FGT, depending upon their areas of expertise and experience. For example, sometimes we seek a layperson (and rabbi) with a background in law, psychology, or finance. Once we have filled the FGT, the members receive training based on our Code and on an ecclesiastic information-gathering process that is uniquely different from a legal process. We remind them that their role is to gather information, orient them to the case, and provide them with all available background information. The FGT goes to the community in which the violation is alleged to have occurred. There the FGT meets with the rabbi, complainant, victims, and relevant witnesses.

The FGT is looking to gather sufficient information for the Ethics Committee to adjudicate a complaint. The FGT is not the group that decides if a Code violation exists. When the FGT finishes its information gathering, the FGT members write a report their findings. The report is sent to the rabbi, complainant, victim, and witnesses. Each has an opportunity to respond to the report. The report, all documentation, and everyone’s responses are sent to the EC. Members of the EC carefully review all of the material.

After the FGT report is reviewed, the rabbi and the complainant have another opportunity to be heard—they can appear separately before the EC. At the next EC meeting after they have each had the right to be heard, the case is either adjudicated or dismissed.

While giving the rabbi and the complainant at least five opportunities to be heard can unfortunately extend the process, it does allow each to fully and thoroughly address the issues raised in any complaint. At this point, before adjudication, the five separate opportunities to be heard are the initial conversations with the EC chair; the complainant or the rabbi’s written response to the complaint; the interview with the FGT; the written response to the FGT report; and appearing in person with the EC.

In our next CCAR Newsletter article, we explain how we make an adjudication decision. In future series we will talk about the right to appeal an adjudication and the t’shuvah process. Lastly, thanks so much to all who serve on the Ethics Committee, on Fact Gathering Teams, the Appeals Board, the T’shuvah, Rehabilitation, and Counseling teams, and the Ethics Process Review Committee.

The EC members are Andi Berlin (chair), Ana Bonnhiem (vice-chair), Darcie Crystal, Michael Friedman, Mark Kaiserman, Bob Loewy, Thomas Louchheim, Stacy Offner, Debra Pine, Beth Orlansky, Beth Singer, Mark Washofsky, Brian Zimmerman, Hara Person (ex-officio).