I read with interest the “personal statement of apology” made by Rabbi Barry Freundel in the Sept. 10 issue of Washington Jewish Week. As a social worker with 30 years of clinical experience, I hoped the rabbi might have explained, especially to the victims and the Jewish community in which he was revered, what drove him for many years, to risk his family life and stature by sexually traumatizing so many women who so deeply trusted him.
Freundel is not the first, nor the last person of great stature to abuse power in such a heinous way. I was saddened, frustrated and angry that the statement was so simplistic and seemed especially lacking in self-awareness about his motivations and the indelible mark he has left on the vulnerable women who were his victims. It is not how many times the rabbi apologizes — but rather how he understands what he is apologizing for, that makes all the difference.
Here is what he could have shared that would have meaning to those he deceived and abused: First, he could have acknowledged that he sexually abused his victims. Nowhere in the statement did the rabbi describe what he did as sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. He used these women for his own erotic pleasure without their consent. Moreover, he did this repeatedly, over years, continually misusing the power of his position and the trust of his victims for the purpose of taking sexual advantage of them.
Victims of sexual exploitation carry deep shame because they feel they were in part to blame for the abuse. This shame can profoundly affect their ability to trust themselves and others for a lifetime because they somehow “let it happen.” The rabbi could have said, “To all that I have sexually exploited and abused, I know you feel shame, as though you were somehow complicit. I want to take back the shame that you carry. I bathed you in my shame. I used my role in the Jewish community and my authority to take advantage of you. You did nothing to deserve what I did to you.”
Finally, Freundel didn’t expose any personal vulnerability in his public apology. As a perpetrator, he groomed victims over time and set up situations to gain his own prurient pleasure at the victims’ expense. The rabbi could have used his public apology as an opportunity to reveal what he is beginning to understand about his own life experience that may have led him to sexually prey on others. Such a disclosure would be an indicator that he is taking real responsibility for his actions and would have educated the religious and larger public community about abuse of power and sexual exploitation.
This kind of personal statement would take real courage and self-awareness. It could have made a difference in the lives of the women he abused and in furthering the healing process in the Jewish community.
The writer is a Silver Spring-based licensed social worker.