Experts in sexual ethics violations among clergy are criticizing Temple Emanu-El for the way it has handled the arrest of its cantor, Howard Nevison, on charges that he sexually abused his young nephew.
“It’s a huge mistake that they kept him on” after Nevison brought the issue to the attention of synagogue leaders, said Dr. Samuel Klagsbrun, director of the pastoral psychiatry program at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which ordains rabbis and cantors.
Nevison’s brother, Larry, and Larry’s son, Stewart, were arrested in 1999 and prosecuted for sexually abusing the same boy. Larry Nevison was convicted and is in prison. Stewart Nevison pled guilty and is out on parole.
The victim, abused between the ages of 3 and 7, feared Howard Nevison, according to an affidavit by the detective who investigated the case. In that affidavit, the victim’s father is quoted as saying that Howard Nevison, who is 14 years his senior, also raped him when he was a child.
Prosecutors were waiting until the boy, now 12, was ready to testify against his uncle before charging the clergyman.
Nevison is free on his own recognizance. He is expected to appear in court next month on a matter related to his extradition to Pennsylvania, which his attorney has said he will fight. The alleged abuse took place in Lower Merion Township, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Nevison’s attorney, Ralph Jacobs, said the cantor denies the charges and will plead not guilty.
According to a statement the synagogue released after Nevison’s arrest last week, “When Cantor Nevison first brought this issue to our attention, we considered and reviewed the matter with respect to the Cantor’s relationship to the congregation and found nothing untoward.”
A spokeswoman for the stately Reform synagogue on Fifth Avenue referred all calls to Senior Rabbi Ronald Sobel, who did not return several messages. The temple president, associate and assistant rabbis also did not return calls.
Several psychiatrists who train clergy on pastoral and ethics issues say that once Emanu-El’s board became aware of the allegations, it immediately should have suspended Nevison with pay pending the outcome of the police investigation for the emotional and physical well-being of the congregation.
At the very least, the psychiatrists said, the board should have modified and supervised his responsibilities.
That the temple apparently did not do so “is a classic example of people wanting to avoid dealing with a problem that’s staring them in the face,” said Klagsbrun, who is also executive medical director of the psychiatric Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, N.Y.
It also remains unclear what steps, if any, Emanu-El officials took to investigate the situation or to modify Nevison’s duties.
“I hope they did some kind of inhouse investigation of the allegations,” said Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan who also trains rabbinical students at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox seminary on the Upper West Side. “It’s quite tragic if they didn’t.”
Rabbi Sobel spoke briefly about the scandal last Friday night at Sabbath services.
“My friends, this is a sad time for Cantor Nevison and his family, as well as for the family of Temple Emanu-El,” he said before about 100 people. “The emotional stress is profound.”
Nevison did not attend the service. “It was felt best for Cantor Nevison not to participate at this time. We know you understand,” Rabbi Sobel said.
One male temple member in his 30s expressed sadness and disbelief.
“I don’t want to believe it,” he told The Jewish Week. “There’s something wrong with [the boy’s] story. It doesn’t quite make sense. Why did they wait so long to do this?”
“I think it’s an absolute disgrace,” a young mother dropping off her child at the temple’s nursery school said Wednesday morning of the Nevison case.
She said she was assured by Emanu-El officials there are no allegations regarding other children and Nevison.
Another mother in her 30s said she received a letter from the temple saying it supported Nevison. She said she was not concerned for her child because “the nursery school is totally separate from the temple.”
Attempts to reach Rabbi Sobel in person as well as by phone were unsuccessful. A security guard said he was in a meeting with a temple committee.
Temple Emanu-El is a member of the Reform movement’s congregational arm, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which has a “crisis team” of professionals and specialists who are sent to synagogues free to help them get through scandals and emergencies that involve sexual abuse, arson and embezzlement.
The synagogue has not yet requested its help, said Rabbi Lennard Thal, UAHC senior vice president, who directs the crisis team.
“The largest of the congregations tend to see themselves as self-sufficient,” said Rabbi Thal. “I can’t judge what they’ve done. Maybe they are doing a tremendous amount behind the scenes and waiting until facts are clear.”
But another Reform official said Emanu-El is mishandling the situation by not asking the movement for assistance. “They want to do things on their own and it’s crazy,” he said.
Cantors generally prepare students for bar and bat mitzvah, perform pastoral duties like counseling, officiate at lifecycle events and lead parts of prayer services.
Because Temple Emanu-El, which has some 3,000 member families, has four rabbis on staff as well as the cantor, it is not clear which of these typical roles Nevison played beyond adding his soaring voice to prayer services and meeting one-on-one for brief sessions with bar and bat mitzvah students.
Whatever his job has entailed, “it would have been prudent with such accusations for the synagogue to have installed some degree of monitoring or supervision,” said Friedman. “In this case, not letting him have unmonitored contact with children would have been the responsible and wise thing for the temple to do.”
Clergy In The Headlines
Nevison’s arrest comes at a time when sexual abuses by clergymen are already in the headlines: the Catholic dioceses of Philadelphia and Manchester, N.H., turned over to prosecutors last week the names of dozens of priests accused of molesting children. And John Geoghan, a former Boston-area priest, is facing criminal charges and 84 civil lawsuits for the sexual abuse of children over many years. He was transferred by superiors from one church to another when allegations arose.
The Jewish community has faced its share of clergy sexual abuse scandals as well. They usually involve rabbis, but allegations also have been raised against cantors.
As a result of this, and the current climate of heightened awareness about sexual boundaries, cantors’ professional organizations, like those of rabbis, are paying more attention to these issues.
Though Nevison for 23 years has been serving one of Reform Judaism’s flagship temples, he is not a member of the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors.
Instead, he is a member of the Conservative movement’s professional organization, the Cantors Assembly. Nevison gained admission to that group 12 years ago, said its executive vice president, Cantor Stephen Stein.
Nevison was not trained in a cantorial program, Stein said. Instead, he earned a conservatory degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and apprenticed under a leading cantor and teacher, who is now dead.
Several months ago, Stein sent to his 550 members guidelines suggesting measures to take when tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students.
He urged cantors not to be alone with a child in a room and encouraged parents to sit in on lessons. If that is not possible, Stein suggested that cantors should have at least two students in the room at the same time.
Stein also recommended that cantors not sit right next to students — “I have a large office, and I sit across the room,” he said in an interview — and that they avoid any physical contact. He also said giving a student a ride home after tutoring is not a good idea, but if a parent cannot pick up his child and it is unavoidable, the student should ride in the back seat.
Stein was spurred to draft the guidelines by hearing about training received by his wife, a teacher, at her school.
“Unfortunately it has become necessary to take what seem like more drastic measures,” said Stein. “Improper conduct on the part of a few has made the rest of us feel the need to be more cautious.”
The Cantors Assembly presently does not plan to sanction Nevison, said Stein. “I don’t see what would be gained by putting him on a leave of membership,” he said. “What would we do, stop sending him mail?
“We’re taking a position similar to the one his congregation has taken,” Stein said. “We don’t want to prejudge him, and will see how the legal process plays itself out.”
The Conservative group has no formal code of ethics, but has an ethics committee that meets on an as-needed basis.
“If he was to be found guilty, I’m confident they would remove him from membership,” said Stein, adding that if Cantor Nevison were to turn to the Cantors Assembly for help looking for a new job, “we would not refer him to congregations while this matter is unresolved.”
The Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors has no jurisdiction over Nevison but does have in place a 14-page code of ethics that is being revised to conform to the model established in recent years by the movement’s rabbinical organization.
In response to a number of prominent cases of sexual misconduct by its members, the Central Conference of American Rabbis revised, and then refined, an extensive ethics code with detailed processes and types of discipline.
Cantor Richard Cohn, president of the 380-member Reform cantors’ group, said that in the several years of his involvement, no member has been expelled or suspended for an ethics violation, though some have for contravening professional placement policy.
Representatives of both cantors’ groups said that the best ending to a breach of sexual ethics is when the cantor repents — does teshuvah — repairs relationships within the congregation and stays on.
They were also uncertain of whether abuses that take place outside of a cantor’s official duties should be assessed the same way that those he commits on the job are.
But experts in clergy sexual abuse say that it should make no difference.
“The rights of children have to be protected no matter what the venue,” said Herbert Nieburg, who instructs rabbinical and cantorial students about pastoral issues at JTS and directs the student counseling service there.
The new official Catholic practice of turning abusers over to prosecutors “is clearly much more morally appropriate and ethically correct than the way Emanu-El has handled it,” said Nieburg.
“The attitude toward this is changing,” he said. “We tended to protect the offenders. We’d fire them or they’d resign and go somewhere else. But child abuse is such an epidemic problem that we’re really beginning not to exempt anyone.”
The steps taken by those Catholic dioceses are “giving a clear message now that you’re going to be responsible, ethically and morally, for the consequences of your behavior,” said Nieburg.
In terms of its impact on the Jewish community, he said, “I think we’re going to follow suit.”