Responding to sexual abuse will take years—and it should
The flood of revelations about sexual harassment and assault, whether in Washington or Hollywood, is unlikely to stop anytime soon. The walls of denial built up by position and self-protective ignorance have been breached. If the tragic revelations of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis are any guide, the process of reckoning with problems that have been avoided for decades will itself take decades.
Neither the church as a whole nor the editors of this review are in a position to prescribe a comprehensive remedy for the systemic patterns of harassment, abuse and denial. But there are pitfalls to be avoided and small measures of hope to be encouraged, and the church’s experience has some lessons to offer.
The process of reckoning with problems that have been avoided for decades will itself take decades.
The first lesson is that the voices of the victims must be heard. The attention of media and society too easily turns to parsing the harassers’ and abusers’ excuses and apologies while simultaneously calling for their exile from public life and for policy changes that might have prevented their abusing in the first place. Senator Mitch McConnell, responding to the accusations against Roy Moore in Alabama on Nov. 13, joined calls for Mr. Moore to withdraw from his Senate race. Where many others had hedged their criticisms with “if these accusations are true,” Mr. McConnell said squarely, “I believe the women, yes.” While surely Mr. McConnell is not completely ignoring political risks and benefits, his clear attention to the voices of the women who have accused Mr. Moore is significant.
The second lesson is that while some form of social and professional exclusion may be a necessary first step in redressing the damage done by harassers and abusers, it is not by itself a sufficient response. The swift firing or ostracizing of abusers does not absolve institutions or communities of their collective responsibility, whether they were complicit in covering up abuse or merely ignorant of its prevalence.
The Puritan impulse to cast out the evildoer as the sole response to his transgression seeks catharsis rather than justice. Justice requires not only that past and future victims be made whole and safe but also that the structures that protect the privileged rather than the powerless be reformed. And justice also recognizes and encourages the possibility of redemption, after repentance and penalty.
The church still needs to learn and relearn how to listen to victims. It also must face the reality of sexual harassment, alongside the problem of the sexual abuse of children it has painfully learned to acknowledge. But its experience offers evidence that it is possible to begin turning even an organization as large and as old as the church toward primary concern for victims. As painful as these most recent revelations of abuse and harassment are, they are even more necessary.