“I’m really sad, and I’m really tired. I normally share thoughts, but tonight it’s emotion.”
Actress-singer Rose McGowan, a cofounder of the #MeToo movement and survivor of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, posted these words to Twitter on April 29, announcing her tearful departure from the Democratic Party over its treatment of Joe Biden accuser Tara Reade.
Miss McGowan shared her pain at discovering “the Democrats and the media” were just as bad as Republicans in their response to subordinates accusing powerful men of exploiting them sexually. Instead of upholding “we must listen to all women,” she saw many Democrats and journalists rushing to excuse Joe Biden by discrediting Tara Reade.
I should know what’s wrong about that; I’m a Catholic priest.
Having experienced our own rage and sadness on the way to holding clergy accountable for sexual abuse, not just of minors but of adults, Catholics have reason to share Miss McGowan’s concern about the Democratic establishment’s troubling response to Ms. Reade — and not only because it may help Donald Trump or because Mr. Biden is Catholic.
We have reason to be concerned because Democrats seem to be repeating the mistakes of the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s tone-deaf response of minimizing, silencing and discrediting victims based on the long-held belief that no one as honorable as a clergyman could ever assault a child or another adult sexually.
Until summer 2019, it seemed particularly impossible to many Catholics that a high-ranking bishop like the disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick could sexually molest his adult seminarians for years, but promote himself as a voice for victims in his 2002 leadership of the U.S. bishops’ response to the abuse of minors.
But it happened.
Like those discrediting Ms. Reade for political reasons, we Catholics have also given unintentional ideological cover to clerical abusers. For years, conservatives politicized accusations against Legion of Christ founder Rev. Marcial Maciel as a progressive smear, while progressives politicized accusations against Chilean Bishop Juan Barros as a conservative smear. Both men proved guilty; Pope Francis apologized in April 2018 for defending Barros.
After years of tragic blindness, the church removed these men from public life.
Precisely because the American church has resolved to never let it happen again, we now have a zero tolerance policy against the sexual abuse of minors, and have started to remove those accused of abusing adult subordinates in professional settings as well. One test case was the 2019 removal from ministry of the Rev. C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who converted many high-profile Republicans, over the revelation of a credible allegation that he groped a woman in spiritual direction. Like Mr. Biden, he had received no other assault accusations, but it ended his public career.
Saddest yet might be the March 2020 revelation that the late Jean Vanier, a French Canadian layman often compared to Mother Teresa for founding L’Arche to minister to the intellectually disabled, took advantage of his charismatic authority in spiritual direction to force several long-term affairs with female assistants.
The church’s belated awakening on sexual exploitation of adults reflects the work of Miss McGowan’s #MeToo movement to believe all victims, regardless of the political inconvenience of when they step forward. So what about Mr. Biden?
Denying the allegations, Mr. Biden’s campaign turned the media loose on Ms. Reade to “vet” her. Publicly, it insisted on full investigation while rebuffing requests to search only for Ms. Reade’s name in his personal Senate files at the University of Delaware.
Articles in Slate, the Nation and The New York Times have argued on the basis of the evidence and what we know about survivors that Ms. Reade is telling the truth. Meanwhile, the media circus has worked to discredit Ms. Reade, apparently buying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that Mr. Biden could not have assaulted her because he is the honorable Biden. They’ve magnified discrepancies in Ms. Reade’s story, even though such inconsistencies remain common among confirmed victims, while arguing Mr. Biden’s only proven offense of touching women inappropriately in public remains less egregious than Mr. Trump’s sexual history.
Many Democrats and journalists fear Ms. Reade’s allegation will remove Mr. Biden from the presidential race because they believe only he can beat Mr. Trump.
But do those who believe Ms. Reade a fraud based on media reports seriously think that if she had accused a Catholic priest with even this level of imperfect corroboration, it would be enough for the church to say the media had discredited her? Does someone being violated sexually matter less when she accuses a politician instead of a priest?
If anything, Ms. Reade shows the need to treat politicians the same way we treat priests in sexual allegations involving adults. Until we make it clear this behavior is unacceptable no matter who does it, it will continue. While people once held Catholic priests to a higher standard, we must now hold everyone to the same high standard, rather than perpetuate the dysfunctional clericalism of priests as “meta-humans” different from mere mortals.
Ms. Reade has provided enough corroboration of her story to deserve more than a trial by media. If she had complained about a Catholic priest doing what Mr. Biden allegedly did, many U.S. bishops would increasingly take the following action: Without presumption of guilt, they would remove him from his public role for an independent investigation, reinstating him only if a review board of psychologists and other professionals made no objection. In theory, it would not matter if he was a layman or the next pope.
To protect people from sexual harassment and assault by those above them, we have the right to expect the same of our political leaders that we demand of religious leaders. It’s not acceptable to leave such investigations to the media alone.
Treating Mr. Biden like an accused priest would not make him guilty, prevent him from returning to the ticket if cleared or ensure Mr. Trump’s reelection if Mr. Biden proved guilty and stepped aside for another candidate.
Mr. Trump’s behavior does not exempt Mr. Biden from it. The bad political timing of Ms. Reade’s allegation does not excuse the Democrats from it. Only when Americans refuse to support politicians and bishops who resist transparency will victims feel safe to tell their stories in government as well as church settings. It’s just the right thing to do. Because #IBelieveTaraReade. And I believe in #MeToo.
• Rev. Sean M. Salai, S.J., writes as a special contributor for America Media. He is an author of multiple books on Pope Francis and Ignatian spirituality, and a former newspaper reporter.
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