Donna Zerner.jpg
Donna Zerner

Sunday program deals with betrayals of trust by people of faith

The plague of sexual assault exposed by the #MeToo movement is widespread, not just in Hollywood and politics, but in places where trust is most deeply placed — among spiritual leaders of Christian, Jewish and Buddhist religions and, in fact, in all religions.

That’s the theme of an evening of storytelling, music and learning called “Unholy Betrayal: Confronting Sexual Abuse by Spiritual Leaders” starting at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 20, at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland. It is free and public.

The purpose of the event is to bring out the stories and experiences of female spiritual leaders, mostly in this region, because, “Unless we are willing to shine light on the darkness within our own faiths, the cycle of sexual abuse will continue. Only self-reflection honesty, confession can bring repair and healing. We hope this evening will be a start,” said Rabbi David Zaslow, of Havurah, creator of the event.

The evening features the Rev. Norma Burton of Unity in Ashland, Lama Yeshe Parke of Kagya Sukha Choling Buddist Temple, the Rev. Dr. Karen McClintock, an Ashland psychologist, author and trainer of church leaders across the country in sexual ethics and boundaries, Portland storyteller Donna Zerner and host Ayala Zonnenschein of Havurah.

Burton was involved for many years at Graduate Theological Union as a support therapist for clergy referred there for sexual abuse from all denominations, and was director of a battered women’s shelter.

“I’ve seen a widespread problem through my whole life,” Burton says. “It’s a difficult issue for people because we put spiritual leaders on a pedestal as holy, as people we’re not supposed to be aggressed on by. It destroys your faith, hurts your relationship with God and is the worst blasphemy because it destroys your connection with your own soul. You lose your grounding and identity.

“That’s probably why it’s so hard, because people are so shocked by it. If you can’t trust your spiritual leader, who can you trust? The leader has a lot of power over you. They use their power to get the person to trust them and then they totally misuse the power. So it destroys a person’s own power to trust the universe.”

Other fallout often includes fleeing from religion — and into use of drugs and alcohol and falling into depression, Burton says. “The problem grows more complex when it comes out that abusers are often victims of abuse themselves. It’s amazing how widespread it is.”

After beginning work as a clergy consultant, McClintock says, “I soon realized an underlying pattern among clergy and congregations that set the stage for sexual harassment and abuse. The problem is shame. Sexual shame in faith traditions distorts and represses sexuality and keeps secrets.”

Zerner, a friend of Zaslow’s, will present “an inspiring analysis of sexual misconduct in the Jewish world,” he said.

In an interview, Zerner said, “I’ll be telling my personal story, an involvement with two charismatic spiritual leaders (rabbis) who abused sex and power. I will share what it feels like inside and how I was affected. I feel this is the only way this phenomenon is going to change, not just with spiritual leaders but anyone in power who abuses power.

“It’s for women not to be silent now, but tell their story. That’s what brought down Harvey and Cosby. The shift is happening and more people are willing to speak out and realize how empowering it can be to tell the truth.”

The message, Zerner says is that “we elevate charismatic spiritual teachers and give them power they don’t deserve. We need to understand that a teacher can be highly spiritually evolved and at the same time be relatively unevolved psychologically and/or ethically.”

Trauma from abuse by religious leaders is “often much more profound than from entertainers or politicians, especially if (victims) are young,” says Zerner. “It really damages their connection with God and access to the spiritual. It’s very severe and needs to stop. It’s happening a lot — obviously in the Catholic church, but I will talk about two rabbis. It’s happening in Buddhism, Hindu — anytime someone is in power, there are situations when they can take advantage of it.”

Zaslow notes, “I came up with the idea for this evening a few months ago when I realized that for #MeToo to be meaningful it needs to penetrate all worlds — media, Hollywood, the corporate world, and the religious world. Over past decades there has been scapegoating of the Catholic world because of the scandals of sexual abuse by priests.

“But really, this misconduct is found in all religious and spiritual traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, in the Abrahamic faiths, and in the indigenous communities as well. As religious leaders we are each responsible to look within our own worlds and to courageously try to make amends to the victims hurt by members of our own clergy. I hope our evening “Holy Betrayal” will be the start of a serious conversation within the religious traditions in Southern Oregon. My dear friend Donna Zerner is a fantastic storyteller and her presentation promises to be enlightening, and not all negative.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at

Share This Story