The Forward has a report on the recent decision by a NY State court to dismiss a suit against Rabbi Mordechai Tendler.
Here's the heart of the piece:
…In a unanimous decision, handed down June 25, the New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Tendler had abused his position to manipulate his former congregant. The court did not say that the relationship did not exist. Instead, the judges determined that Tendler had not been established to have a “fiduciary duty” to Adina Mermelstein, the congregant in question, that would have prohibited him from such behavior.
“Fiduciary duty” is a term used to describe professional relationships that involve disparities of power and authority, such as therapist-patient, attorney-client and professor-student.
Most professions forbid sexual relationships between professionals and their clients, particularly in situations where vulnerability is an issue. For example, divorce lawyers are forbidden to have sex with clients, and a sexual relationship between a therapist and a patient is automatically considered abusive by the law. This arises out of an assumption that in each case, the professional holds a position of power over the emotionally vulnerable client.
The same might be thought to be true of rabbis, but the judges decided that it is not so clear-cut.
According to the decision, the relationship between rabbis and congregants, even one that includes “aspects of counseling,” does not automatically create a power differential of the sort that characterizes a fiduciary duty. To prove that duty, a congregant has to demonstrate that he or she became “uniquely vulnerable and incapable of self-protection regarding the matter at issue.”…
The Forward goes on to cite experts who note among other things that the very idea of clergy abuse is too recent to have much developed case law for a court to rely on:
…But they say that the boundaries between clergy and adults are less clear, as courts try to balance the rights of consenting adults against the unique power and prestige of the clergy.
“The mere status one has as a member of the clergy and as a member of a congregation doesn’t automatically establish a fiduciary relationship,” said Mark Chopko, former general counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
One reason that the law on this front is not fully settled is that these lawsuits against clergy are a relatively recent phenomenon.
“People never sued churches, synagogues or their religious leaders; it was part of the social contract at the time,” Chopko said. “You may find a handful of historical examples that go back 50 or 100 years, but for the most part, the body of law has grown up over the last 15 to 20 years.”…
Is Chopko accurate? Not really.
His history may be correct, but his assertion – “the mere status one has as a member of the clergy and as a member of a congregation doesn’t automatically establish a fiduciary relationship” – is questionable.
Despite claims to the contrary, there is a fiduciary duty between congregational rabbis and their congregations, just as there is between a teacher and his students, or a noted haredi rabbi and members of the haredi community:
…“The clergy congregant relationship has a higher dimension of trust, because clergy have what they call ‘reverential deference.’ Because they are revered and make a claim to divinity in various forms, they enjoy a particular position of special trust,” said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who specializes in cases of clerical abuse.…
While other professions – divorce lawyers, psychotherapists, etc. – have banned sexual relationships between professionals and their clients, most clergy have not. And, in New York, those clergy have disproportionate political influence.
The Catholic Church has used that influence to block mandatory background screening for religious school teachers, and has done so with an unusual partner – Agudath Israel of America, which represents haredim on issues of government intersection with religion.
In issues of church (and synagogue) and state, New York is eons behind the rest of the country, largely due to the difficulty running political campaigns in such a large state, and the dependence candidates have on leaders – clergy, including haredi leaders; union heads; etc. – who can deliver bloc votes.
The Tendler decision should be understood in that light.