Ethics Process Part II: How the Ethics Committee Makes Decisions


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, we write this second piece in a 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 II: How the Ethics Committee Makes Decisions

In the last newsletter, we reviewed what happens when the EC receives a complaint. If a complaint is not dismissed, either we move straight to adjudication or we assign a Fact Gathering Team (FGT) that writes a report summarizing its findings. In the case of the latter, the rabbi and complainant write responses to the report, and each has the opportunity to appear before the entire EC.

The next step is often the most difficult: determining if the case should be dismissed or adjudicated. We are acutely aware of how impactful our decision will be—to the rabbi, the alleged victims, and the complainant.
We have several factors that guide our decision, three of which are: is the complaint actionable, is the complaint credible, and if so, what does the rabbi need in order to be safe and sacred?

1. Is the complaint (and the information gathered by the FGT) actionable?
For a complaint to be actionable, the behavior in the complaint, if true, needs to rise to a violation of our Code of Ethics (the Code). A rabbi can behave in a way that is unprofessional or immoral without the behavior rising to an actual violation of the Code. In these situations, the employer of the rabbi is best suited to respond. A rabbi could also behave in a way that is either legal or would be acceptable if the rabbi were a layperson, and yet rises to a violation of the agreement CCAR members have with each other—the Code. In a potential adjudication, the first job of the EC is to determine whether or not, if deemed valid, the behavior in question is an actual violation of the Code. If it is not, we dismiss the complaint (this usually happens before an FGT is assigned). A complaint, if deemed valid, that rises to a violation of the Code is actionable. That is, the Code directs us to adjudicate by either Reprimanding, Censuring, Suspending, or Expelling a member of the CCAR. Our next step, then, is to decide if the complaint is credible.

2. Is the complaint credible?
At this point in the process, we have heard from both the complainant and the rabbi at least 5 or 6 times (depending on whether or not we assigned an FGT). If we have not used a FGT, the rabbi’s response to the complaint has already confirmed the narrative of the complainant, and thus we know the complaint is credible.

When have used an FGT, we have the complaint, the rabbi’s initial response to the complaint, the report from the FGT (including interviews with witnesses, the rabbi, the complaint, and alleged victims, as well as other evidence), the response to the FGT report from the rabbi and complainant, the live meeting with the rabbi and complainant, materials and documents, and ongoing conversations with the rabbi and the complainant.

The FGT has already shared their impression of the credibility of witnesses, the rabbi, and alleged victims. This impression is based on many factors (i.e., consistent information, descriptions of physical space and time of day, other memories of the day, contemporary corroboration, plausibility, written communication, unprompted testimony, pictorial evidence, etc.). The EC must now make the same determination. We ask ourselves about the potential motivations the complainant has for making an accusation, we look at potential patterns on the part of the rabbi, and we weigh the veracity of the testimony and evidence given to the FGT.

(We very rarely have situations in which a complaint and a rabbi give us completely different stories, colloquially, a “he-said, she-said” situation. In the vast majority of cases, the narratives are similar, with somewhat different understandings of motivations, intentions, and severity.)

At this point in our discussions, we again decide whether or not to dismiss the case. After reading the FGT report, we may find it does not, in fact, rise to a violation of the Code, or we may find the complaint is not valid. However, if we find the complaint to be both actionable and credible, our next decision moves to the phase of adjudication (Reprimand, Censure, Suspension, or Expulsion).

3. What tools does the rabbi need to be safe and sacred?
The why of the violation is the most important factor in our adjudication. We are not a system of punishment, one in which a person is punished based on the harm s/he has done to another. Rather, we are a system that is concerned with maintaining a safe and sacred rabbinate. We ask ourselves what intervention a rabbi might need in order to act in a safe and sacred way in the future. The answer to this question guides our adjudication.

“We are a system that is concerned with maintaining a safe and sacred rabbinate.“

For example, we may have rabbis who lack self-awareness and thus do not realize the severity with which they have violated the Code. Others may have a difficult time controlling their anger, even while realizing that the results of this anger do violate our Code. In these cases, therapy may be necessary. Other rabbis’ violations are so severe that we need a psychological evaluation to determine what led the rabbi to perform the various Code violations.

Yet others may have made poor decisions in difficult situations and simply need a good coach or mentor with whom to discuss strategies for handling difficulties or stress in the future. The more intervention a rabbi needs, the more significant the adjudication. A Suspension most often means the rabbi will need a psychological evaluation, a T’shuvah Rehabilitation and Counseling (TRaC) Team, ongoing therapy, and restriction from rabbinic work. A Reprimand usually means the rabbi could benefit from good mentoring or coaching and does not need restrictions from rabbinic work. A Censure, published or unpublished, will fall somewhere in between. Expulsion is reserved for those rabbis who are unwilling or unable to do the work necessary to become safe and sacred again.

Whatever we decide regarding adjudication, we try to inform the rabbi and complainant in as timely a manner as possible, while providing the rabbi with a robust explanation of why we made the decision we did and what to expect next.

All of these decisions are made with the utmost respect for rabbis, their families, and their alleged victims (of which the community is one). The EC has robust systems in place to help us act with self-awareness and to hold us accountable for any perceived prejudices or biases. We leave time in our meetings to discuss meta-issues that may affect our adjudication decisions. We train with experts in the fields of law, psychology, addiction, investigation, sexual boundaries, and other relevant fields. We have one-on-one thought partners (other members of the EC) with whom to process our emotional and intellectual reactions to specific cases and our work in general.

Each meeting, we pray together using words gifted to us by our colleague Rosalind Gold, a previous chair. We pray we are able to have wise discernment and compassion for victims and rabbis. We pray we can uphold each other through this process. We pray we remember how impactful our decisions can be. We pray we are ever mindful of those impacted. At the beginning and end of each meeting, we pray. May it be Your will, Holy One, that these prayers are effective and that we never forget the sacred work with which we have been tasked.