Rabbis and other spiritual figures who use their influence to sexually exploit their followers could face the full weight of criminal law if a bill which was cleared for its first reading in the Knesset Tuesday enters the books.
Passed for preliminary reading in January, the bill forms part of broader efforts to create a framework for dealing with cults in Israel and calls for up to three years imprisonment for offenders.
But the wording will allow it to deal also with cases in which religious figures sexually exploit their followers. Activities would be deemed criminal should the authority figure exploit the “real psychological dependence” of his or her victim during or close to a period in which advice or guidance was given in one-on-one meetings.
The proposed legislation, introduced by Meretz MK Michal Rozin and signed by lawmakers from across the spiritual spectrum, places encounters such as these on a par with sexual relations between a therapist and patient, which are illegal, the Hebrew daily Haaretz reported.
“This is about psychological dependence, just as exists in a therapist-patient relationship,” Rozin said. “It’s the place of the legislature to determine that sexual relationships within the framework of such dependence cannot take place within the law and that they have to be prohibited by criminal law.”
Liat Klein, legal adviser to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, which helped to put the draft bill together, said: “Rabbis and spiritual individuals create great dependence among those who turn to them, usually during distress or a crisis.”
The police and prosecution services endeavored for years to prosecute cult leader Goel Ratzon, who presented himself as a spiritual guru, and was finally convicted in September of multiple sexual offenses, including rape, sodomy, sex with a minor, indecent assault and fraud.
Ratzon, 64, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of shekels in restitution to his victims, is believed to have had up to 32 “wives” starting in 1991. He also reportedly fathered at least 49 children, with some media sources estimating that more than 60 children were involved in his cult.
Prosecutors tried to create a legal precedent of “spiritual slavery” and argued that relationships, including sexual ones, with 12 women had to be seen within the context of Ratzon’s spiritual control which negated the womens’ ability to choose freely.
The court acquitted Ratzon of sexual slavery and rejected the prosecution’s attempt to enshrine spiritual slavery as a precedent.
According to the Israeli Center for Cult Victims, there are some 100 cults active in Israel, with 15,000-20,000 adults and 3,000 children in their ranks.