Yesterday, I published an op-ed in The Washington Times online edition, asking Democrats not to repeat the mistakes of the Catholic Church with Tara Reade. It appeared in the newspaper’s print edition this morning.
Many good people have asked me: Why not Republicans? Why not Donald Trump? But while I used the Democrats as an example, I was not arguing against either political party.
As a Jesuit priest, I was arguing against the double standard by which our society now treats sexual misconduct allegations against politicians and priests differently, and was merely using Reade’s harassment and assault accusations against Joe Biden as an illustration.
My argument is that we should treat Biden the same way we would treat a Catholic priest accused of using his position in an analogous way to sexually assault an adult subordinate, lest we risk sending the message that such allegations matter more when they involve clergy than when they involve politicians.
Although I compared the way some Democrats and media have responded to Reade with the way many Catholic bishops responded for decades to clergy sexual abuse allegations, I was not primarily interested in addressing the double standards of Democrats and Republicans who only take such allegations seriously when they involve members of the other party.
While the Catholic Church in the United States has increasingly erred on the side of transparency and believing victims in sexual misconduct cases which involve adults as well as minors, our two political parties continue to get away with keeping their confidential files sealed and with throwing accusers into a trial by media to be devoured.
In Reade’s case, Biden has called for investigation while refusing to open his personal senate files at the University of Delaware to an independent search just for her name, and his campaign has urged the media to “vet” her.
The simple truth is that the American Catholic Church would not be able to get away with any of these things today, had Reade accused a priest or Catholic lay leader of abusing his office to do what she says Biden did to her.
Reade has made an allegation, produced people who corroborate that she told them about what happened at or around the time of the incident, confirmed court documents in her own domestic marriage disputes that mention the incident, and identified a video of her mother calling Larry King Live around the time of the incident to mention something had happened. Her story has inconsistencies, but so do many stories of survivors.
Based on that, my Washington Times op-ed argued that Democrats should treat Biden the way our U.S. Catholic bishops increasingly treat priests in this same scenario: suspend him temporarily from his public duties for an independent investigation in collaboration with appropriate civil authorities. Without presumption of guilt, many bishops would now make the pastoral judgment of suspending him to err on the side of protecting the vulnerable, and then reinstate or remove him permanently after consulting a review board comprised of psychologists and other professionals.
Since Biden is already confined to his home, broadcasting campaign appearances from his basement in coronavirus lockdown, that could mean shutting down his public platform and suspending his campaign if the Democrats took Reade as seriously as many U.S. bishops would now take her in an analogous clergy case. The same standard would apply to Republicans with their own leaders in similar accusations.
Since 2002, this kind of zero tolerance has been the policy of the American Church for all clergy and Catholic lay leaders accused of sexual abuse of a minor. But since the Catholic Church’s #MeToo moment revealed in 2019 that former cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually harassed and assaulted his adult male seminarians for years, U.S. bishops have increasingly treated priests accused of any non-consensual sexual misconduct with adults in the same way.
That’s why several American clergymen like Opus Dei priest C. John McCloskey and Jesuit bishop Gordon Bennett found themselves removed from their public roles in the past year. They had received no allegations of abuse against minors, only allegations involving legal adults they exploited in their public roles.
In arguing that we should treat politicians just as we treat Catholic priests in #MeToo scenarios, I obviously think the same standards should also apply to substantial allegations involving Donald Trump, as I believe both major political parties need to set up similar structures of accountability to relocate sexual misconduct investigations from the politicized media into a more formalized independent process that will be fairer to both the accused and the accusers.
I focused on Reade as the current example of what “media vetting” an allegation does: It creates competing politicized narratives, destroys the public lives of the accuser and potentially of the accused as well, and possibly silences other victims by sending the message that the same will happen to them if they speak up against a politician in the press.
While the media makes an excellent servant in exposing sexual assault allegations, it makes a terrible master when it tries to render a definitive verdict. That’s because they have no legal authority to compel a Biden to turn over documents for examination. As such, it remains easy for powerful politicians in a Biden scenario to turn the media loose on their accusers and refuse to open their records for investigation.
The U.S. Catholic Church no longer behaves in this way. In an effort to be more transparent, Pope Francis has even abolished the confidentiality of the “papal secret” that some bishops may have once used to keep their files closed to outside investigators, and U.S. dioceses have become more transparent about publishing the names of all Catholic clergy accused of sexual misconduct with adults as well as with minors.
It was in this spirit of transparency that L’Arche, an ecumenical ministry to the intellectually disabled, revealed in March 2020 that its late founder Jean Vanier had exploited his charismatic authority in spiritual direction to force several of his young female assistants into long-term sexual affairs with him. Vanier, often compared to Mother Teresa for his work, had received the Templeton Prize in 2015.
Our American bishops have made firm decisions in recent years to err on the side of victims of all ages. Even in cases involving alleged assault against adult subordinates, scenarios where psychologists have made no clear recommendation to remove the accused priests from ministry either temporarily or permanently, many bishops now make the pastoral judgment to take them out of their public roles to await the outcome of an investigation.
Despite seeming harsh, taking priests out of public sight in this way helps resolve the outrage of media and victims at these men continuing to work in plain sight, and relieves these priests of needing to defend themselves whenever they appear publicly during the ordeal. At the end of each investigation, the results of any relevant civil or criminal process weigh strongly on the bishop’s decision about whether to reinstate the priest or remove him permanently.
In a just society that treats all adult victims of alleged #MeToo abuse the same way, I believe we must treat all substantial allegations of sexually predatory behavior consistently, regardless of whether they involved a politician or a priest.
Pointing out that Reade’s allegation would be sufficient to get a U.S. Catholic priest suspended from his ministry and investigated, I argued in my op-ed that treating allegations in church and state with this same seriousness will help our society better protect people from the sexual exploitation and public retaliation of those above them.
But for those who disagree, I invite them to answer these questions: Why should we treat politicians differently than priests? In a Reade scenario, what do we gain by regarding allegations against priests more seriously than those against politicians?
Perhaps the most common answer remains that we have this double standard because most priests take a vow of celibacy to give up physical intimacy, making us expect more of them. They are ipso facto moral leaders who should be held to higher standards than politicians, sports figures, and entertainers.
But I’m not sure we can so neatly separate treating accused priests and politicians differently from treating the alleged victims differently based on who they accuse. If we jump to suspend and independently investigate a priest accused of sexually abusing a seminarian or lay client, but allow non-priests to “discredit” alleged victims in the press without an outside investigation into the relevant files, aren’t we exhibiting a tendency to disbelieve anyone who accuses a popular or politically powerful person in a non-church setting?
And why shouldn’t we expect the same public accountability of leaders in marriage vows, considering that the vast majority of politicians and celebrities accused of #MeToo sexual misconduct with younger subordinates tend to be already committed to a spouse? Furthermore, when a young adult subordinate accuses an unmarried or divorced non-clergy authority figure of sexual harassment and assault, should they be less entitled to action simply because they work in a non-religious setting?
While some Catholics may object that the growing trend of bishops to “suspend and investigate” has made priests look guilty in advance of due process, the Catholic hierarchy’s mistakes have shown the wisdom of acting out of an abundance of caution to protect victims from abusers using their public platforms and reputation to retaliate against allegations, for example by encouraging ideological allies to discredit accusers in the media. We may recall that Catholic conservatives once defended Legion of Christ founder Rev. Marcial Maciel as the victim of a progressive smear campaign, just as Catholic progressives once defended Bishop Juan Barros as the victim of a conservative smear, but both men proved guilty.
Reade’s case shows the need for Republicans and Democrats to set up structures of accountability similar to what the Catholic Church has done, establishing independent review procedures to hold their own people accountable for substantial allegations, rather than continuing to throw accusers into the media circus to be destroyed. In short, we desperately need a way to remove politically inconvenient accusations from politics, collaborating with civil authorities on fair and independent investigations which tune out the media noise.
We have finally made progress in doing that with the Catholic Church in the United States. Why should we not do it in all of our private and civic institutions as well?
Practically, having a double standard for priests and politicians accused of sexual misconduct with adults suggests the uncomfortable idea that being sexually violated matters more when a priest does it than when a politician does it, implying that both the alleged perpetrator and victim will be likelier to receive justice in the church than in the state.
Theologically, it perpetuates the clericalism of elevating priests above mere mortals, holding us to higher standards than everyone else. In the old days, we treated priests as more credible than ordinary people in abuse cases. Today we treat them as less credible than politicians. Both attitudes do a disservice to victims.
Democrats who believe only Biden can defeat Trump worry that suspending his campaign would ruin their chances for the White House along with his public reputation. Catholics have expressed the same concern about priests, pointing out that a suspended cleric may never be able to return to public ministry even after being acquitted in a court of law — a limit case now being tested by media treatment of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s emergence from prison on an appeal that overturned his conviction for sexual abuse of minors.
But if a powerful figure has really harassed or assaulted a younger person sexually, can we afford to leave him in public during an open investigation? The U.S. Catholic bishops have increasingly said “no” in allegations of adult as well as minor abuse.
Some have pointed out that, based on media accounts, Reade “seems not to be” credible. But if she accused a priest with even the imperfect level of corroboration she has provided of her allegation against Biden, do they really think the Catholic Church could get away with saying “the media has discredited her” without further independent investigation?
So my op-ed was not about politics per se, but about the need Reade shows us for a fairer mechanism of public accountability in sexual misconduct allegations against politicians. Perhaps it might involve an independent review board process, similar to that of the U.S. Church, which the two major political parties run separately for their own people or as a bipartisan effort. While I cite Reade and Biden to illustrate what’s not working right now in this conversation, I do not see them as targets to attack the Democrats in a way that exculpates Republicans.
We need a better #MeToo conversation about public accountability at all levels of society. Currently we seem to accept a double standard that treats #MeToo allegations as inherently more actionable when they involve priests rather than politicians. But if we want to treat all victims consistently, then allegations of young adults being violated sexually by those above them should invoke the same “suspend and investigate” procedure for politicians that they increasingly do for priests. With due respect to the sadness and rage many of us still feel about the tragic blindness of Catholic leaders, does anyone sincerely believe upholding this double standard is a good thing for victims? Dear God, let it not be so.
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