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Speaking Truth To Power On Sex Abuse

Evangelical churches and other social institutions will be devastated by sex abuse cover ups

I’ve only got a few minutes before I’ve got to head back out the door for a talk in Houston. There’s not nearly enough time for me to address various facets of the Roy Moore situation, as well as the situation with the now-disgraced comedian Louis C.K., a compulsive public masturbator who admitted today that the allegations against him are true. But I want to say a couple of things.

Take a look at the (NSFW) comment the lesbian actress Ellen Page posted to Facebook, alleging vile sexual harassment by director Brett Ratner, who has a reputation for that sort of thing. It’s not just Ratner. She writes:

When I was sixteen a director took me to dinner (a professional obligation and a very common one). He fondled my leg under the table and said, “You have to make the move, I can’t.” I did not make the move and I was fortunate to get away from that situation. It was a painful realization: my safety was not guaranteed at work. An adult authority figure for whom I worked intended to exploit me, physically. I was sexually assaulted by a grip months later. I was asked by a director to sleep with a man in his late twenties and to tell them about it. I did not. This is just what happened during my sixteenth year, a teenager in the entertainment industry.

Look at the history of what’s happened to minors who’ve described sexual abuse in Hollywood. Some of them are no longer with us, lost to substance abuse and suicide. Their victimizers? Still working. Protected even as I write this. You know who they are; they’ve been discussed behind closed doors as often as Weinstein was. If I, a person with significant privilege, remain reluctant and at such risk simply by saying a person’s name, what are the options for those who do not have what I have?

Emphasis mine. Page’s comment is threaded with Social Justice Warrior cant, but you don’t have to buy into it to recognize that she’s talking about something very real. Her remarks ought to put into context the behavior by studios, agencies, and other Hollywood entities reacting to the burgeoning scandal of sex abuse in the film and television industry. I appreciate that some studios and others are taking this stuff more seriously than, say, the Alabama Republican Party — think about that — but they remind me of the Catholic bishops back in 2002 who expressed public shock and contrition for clerical sex abusers which had been outed by the media. Many of these men were knowingly concealing many more, while trying to give the public impression of moral concern and seriousness. It was public relations.

I remember quite specifically watching one high-ranking bishop on national television pulling a long face and talking about how heartbreaking this scandal was, and how the Church just didn’t realize how bad things really were. At the same time, he and his lawyer were trying to throw journalists off the trail of his own extensive history of sexual abuse of adults under his authority. It’s in the same league as Weinstein.

My point is this: don’t be quick to credit Hollywood with taking moral responsibility today. I believe Ellen Page: a lot of powerful men and women know who the abusers are and have been. The only way there will be a semblance of justice done is if enough women (and men) who aren’t in a position of power find the courage and the encouragement to step forward.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about how much this reminds me of the Catholic abuse scandal, which began to break big 15 years ago. Here is an incredible, almost heart-stopping recollection by the swimmer Diana Nyad, about her own sexual abuse as a young teenager by her swimming coach. Excerpt:

I didn’t suffer the Holocaust. I’ve never been through the horrors of war. I don’t paint my youth as tragic, yet I spent every day of my high school years terrified that it would be yet another day that he would summon me after practice, for a humiliating ride in his car or a disgusting hour in the motel down the street. I wasn’t studying with my friends. I wasn’t home with my family. I was clenching my teeth, squeezing my legs tightly together, waiting to breathe again. And I was silent. Always silent. He assured me that what we shared was something special, that my life would collapse if anybody else knew, that this was magic between us. Our special secret.

One spring day, the elite of our team had a light practice, preparing to leave the next day for the nationals in Oklahoma. We were scheduled to spend a few minutes each in private consultation with Coach in his office, to talk over strategies for our races.

When I headed in for my session, I had zero fear of a molestation episode. We were on campus. The other swimmers were chatting right outside.

No sooner had I begun expressing my worry about not having tapered enough, when he flew from behind his desk to behind my chair. He ripped my suit down and grabbed my breasts. He swiftly dragged me into a little bathroom in his office and pushed me up against a single mattress that was propped up in the shower stall. My body knew its response; I went rigid. He pleaded with me to open up, but my survival system was gripped with fear. His eyes glazed with pleasure as he called me his “little bitch.” I recoil at the word to this day. He bucked, panted, drooled and, once again, ejaculated onto my stomach. My breath was short, in my throat, as he bounced back into the office and called out for the next swimmer to come in. Mortified as I exited past that kid, I aimlessly walked out to nowhere. The self-hatred, the welling shame, was all-consuming. I wasn’t an elite athlete of my school, heading off to the United States Nationals the next day. I was inconsequential. Utterly inconsequential.

These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life. I studied. I had friends. I won awards. On the outside, I was a bold, overly confident, swaggering success. But the veneer was thin. On the inside, I lived the perpetual trauma of being held down, called misogynist names and ordered to be quiet. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anybody but me.

I was 21 when I told someone the whole horrid saga for the first time. I took a weekend trip to Michigan to celebrate the birthday of my best friend from high school, and every heinous detail, every recounted word, came spewing forth. The relief was palpable. I wept. My friend cried with me, hugged me, took a long pause and said, “Well, Diana, hold on to your hat because the same thing happened to me.” The same coach. The precise same words. The mattress in the office shower stall. The same covert manipulation. The same special secret. And we soon learned that it wasn’t just the two of us. It never is.

Please read the whole thing. It’s important. And read this short account by the conservative Christian writer Nancy French, molested at 12 years old by her pastor. Excerpt:

At 12 years old, I swooned over my good luck. He picked me out of all the girls at church. But the relationship, especially after he moved on, reset my moral compass. If all the church conversation about morality and sexual purity was a lie, what else was fake? Now that the “family of God” felt incestuous, I rejected the church and myself. Didn’t I want the preacher’s attention? Didn’t I cause this? When I careened from faith, I made a series of poor romantic decisions that later almost cost me my life. Still, I couldn’t very well criticize the church because I was an utter emotional mess.

On Thursday, all this came back to me after I read one sentence in The Washington Post. The article was about allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually touched a teenager when he was in his 30s. A sentence from Leigh Corfman, who was 14 at the time, jumped out at me.

“I felt responsible,” she said. I swallowed back tears as I read the rest. “I felt like I had done something bad. And it kind of set the course for me doing other things that were bad.” After her life spiraled “with drinking, drugs, boyfriends,” she attempted suicide two years later. In fact, she didn’t come forward earlier because she worried that her three divorces and poor financial history would make people doubt her story.

This is a common effect of sexual abuse on young people. It messes them up in ways they often can’t understand till later. Makes them self-destructive, mostly because they are poisoned by self-loathing. And because they often do things that give them a reputation for instability and worse, they are seen by others as lacking credibility, even if they are telling the truth.

Besides which, victims know well that nobody wants to confront the fact that figures they look up to — clerics, entertainers, sports figures, and so on — are in fact monsters who rape, molest, and degrade the weak, even children. I saw it happen over and over and over in the records of Catholic priests. They didn’t want to believe the accusers because if the accusers were right, then the framework that those people used to make sense of the world was wrong. Therefore, the accusers must be lying, or have been put up to this by enemies of the Good People, et cetera.

Fortunately, we live in a time in which it’s harder for powerful sex abusers to get away with what they do forever. Some do still get away with it, but the odds are better that justice will be done. The reason the Catholic abuse scandal broke so big is because the Internet made it possible to share information. A Boston judge but the trial records into the public record, and it became instantly shareable on the Internet. Reporters and others all over the country were able to see exactly what the Archdiocese of Boston had done for decades, and then started to dig into the records of their local dioceses. Victims became bolder about speaking out. And more of the public were willing to listen.

I wish that the Evangelical church leaders — both national and local — who have been so quick to excuse Donald Trump, and who are not getting on the “defend Roy Moore at all costs” bandwagon, would have the good sense to recognize what the Catholic leadership did to itself with the way it handled the abuse scandal. I’m talking about people like the chancellor of Liberty University:


What the bishops did — especially in Ireland, but also here — is to severely damage, and even destroy, their moral credibility. This political situation with Trump and Moore is somewhat different, but certainly like enough to take the comparison seriously. I told you this summer that I had been present at a conversation among Evangelical campus ministers and other pastors in Nashville, all of whom told me that they were dealing with a number of young Evangelicals who were disgusted and even thinking of leaving the faith because their parents and their home churches had gone gung-ho for Donald Trump — this, despite his documented lechery. It made the authorities they had looked up to growing up look like frauds.

I remember thinking at the time that it made no sense to me that these young people would leave the church (as opposed to particular congregations) over Trump. But then I thought that this is what a lot of Catholics said to me when I lost my Catholic faith over the scandal. It may not have made sense in the abstract, but it made sense emotionally. The sense of disgust, of rage at the injustice and the hypocrisy, and the inability to trust church authority finally overwhelmed me. I simply did not have it in me to believe as a Catholic anymore.

Back in 2007, Los Angeles Times religion reporter William Lobdell wrote a piece about how covering scandals in the Catholic Church and other Christian churches destroyed his ability to believe in God at all. Excerpt:

In the summer of 2005, I reported from a Multnomah County, Ore., courtroom on the story of an unemployed mother — impregnated by a seminary student 13 years earlier — who was trying to get increased child support for her sickly 12-year-old son.

The boy’s father, Father Arturo Uribe, took the witness stand. The priest had never seen or talked with his son. He even had trouble properly pronouncing the kid’s name. Uribe confidently offered the court a simple reason as to why he couldn’t pay more than $323 a month in child support.

“The only thing I own are my clothes,” he told the judge.

His defense — orchestrated by a razor-sharp attorney paid for by his religious order — boiled down to this: I’m a Roman Catholic priest, I’ve taken a vow of poverty, and child-support laws can’t touch me.

The boy’s mother, Stephanie Collopy, couldn’t afford a lawyer. She stumbled badly acting as her own attorney. It went on for three hours. 

“It didn’t look that great,” Stephanie said afterward, wiping tears from her eyes. “It didn’t sound that great … but at least I stood up for myself.”

The judge ruled in the favor of Uribe, then pastor of a large parish in Whittier. After the hearing, when the priest’s attorney discovered I had been there, she ran back into the courtroom and unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to seal the case. I could see why the priest’s lawyer would try to cover it up. People would be shocked at how callously the church dealt with a priest’s illegitimate son who needed money for food and medicine.

My problem was that none of that surprised me anymore.

As I walked into the long twilight of a Portland summer evening, I felt used up and numb.

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don’t. It’s not a choice. It can’t be willed into existence. And there’s no faking it if you’re honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.

Readers, you’ve heard me say this many times, but I have to say it again: It could happen to you. You think that you’re in control of what you believe, but the day could come — and you might not see it coming (I certainly didn’t) — when you become so angry and alienated from the institutional church that you find yourself unable to believe.

There are things you can do right now to protect yourself, and your faith — and to reach out to protect your friends and their faith. But I am pretty sure that Evangelicalism will lose significant numbers of its younger people over all this tribalism. That would be an enormous tragedy. Who cares if Hollywood studios and talent agencies go down over this? Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people. It’s not such a bad thing, all things considered, if the Republican Party blows itself up. Nor is it such a bad thing if the Democratic Party, which stood tribally by Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, blows itself up.

But the church — now that is something different. Souls are at stake — not only the souls of those so discouraged that they quit believing in God, but all the descendants they may yet father or mother, who may never come to faith because the link in the chain was broken.

The responsibility the Jerry Falwell Jrs of the world will have for that will be enormous. But they don’t think about that. They just think about power. But God is not mocked, not forever.

And these worldly men who claim to speak for Him are freelance ventriloquists for someone else. Don’t forget that.

You men and women who have responsibility for secular and religious institutions, you will be judged. Nothing will remain hidden forever. You had better make it right, and had better do it now, while you can.



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