Hollywood, the Christian Church, and Sexual Abuse

Over the past weeks the masks have been ripped off the faces of many famous and powerful men, exposing sexual assault, harassment and conduct unbecoming to anyone who has a shred of decency.

On October 5, the New York Times broke the story that film Producer Harvey Weinstein had been paying off women who accused him of sexual misconduct for years. It opened a floodgate, and more than 30 women including Ashley Judd and Angelia Jolie have come forward with their own accounts of being sexually violated by a man who held enormous power in the film industry.

Those of us who are survivors of sexual violence are particularly impacted when this issue surfaces in the national spotlight. Our lived experience has taught us that no matter how many victims of a particular perpetrator come forward with credible allegations, there will be a swell of support for the offender, who typically denies or minimizes his actions. Disparagement is heaped upon the victims, many of whom don’t come forward due to shame, fear and reluctance to bear the public scorn directed toward them for speaking out. Despite the research showing that most victims of sexual harm never disclose, and when they do it is often a decade or more after the abuse, the predictable chorus of voices insists that there must be some ulterior personal, financial or political motive at play.

Otherwise, the victim would have mustered up her courage, confronted the offender, gone to the police or other authorities and otherwise marshalled all of the forces at her command to quickly seek justice. Even if she had no such resources or forces. Even if she was 14 years old, as in the case of Leigh Corfman. Leigh’s account of a sexual encounter with Roy Moore, currently the Alabama Republican nominee for a Senate seat, was published by the Washington Post on October 9. A detailed reading of the Post’s account reveals that Leigh did not “come forward” on her own, but was sought out by reporters covering the election when casual references to Moore’s attraction to teens when he was in his thirties kept surfacing as they interviewed his supporters.

It seems that Weinstein was just the tip of the iceberg. A tsunami of allegations of sexual abuse by actors such as Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Ed Westwick and others are roiling the entertainment industry, notably known for its progressive politics. It’s battering the halls of congress, with staffers and female legislators telling harrowing stories of being sexually harassed by powerful men. It’s once again hitting the Christian church, with Roy Moore as its latest embodiment. But sexual assault and misconduct know no political party, religion, ethnicity, social class or race. It is distributed across all those sectors and more.

Unfortunately, dozens of women or men alleging sexual abuse as children or adults by celebrities, political power brokers, church leaders, sports icons and others has become all too common. What typically follows is predictable: fans, supporters, congregants and political constituencies rally around the alleged harm-doer. Demands are made for hard evidence, which is often not attainable even a few weeks after a sexual assault, let alone after the time it takes most victims to disclose. Statues of limitations that do not take into account that many victims are not emotionally ready to pursue justice for years following an assault preclude prosecution. And even if by some miracle a criminal prosecution years after the fact takes place, the “reasonable doubt” standard is a high bar and difficult to meet due to the very nature of sexual crimes.

What it comes down to is the credibility of the victim, plus any independent evidence that collaborates the story.

In most types of crimes, victim-witness testimony carries considerable weight, and multiple similar witness accounts can constitute a reasonably good case against the person accused. At the very least, victim witnesses are not publicly castigated, called liars, manipulators, gold-diggers, or accused of having political agendas. They don’t receive hate mail, have to change their social media profiles, or deal with anonymous threats of harm from web trolls. This deference, however, has not traditionally applied to victims of sexual crime.

Until now. We just may have reached the public “tipping point” that so many of us have worked toward for a long time: that victims of sexual crimes are given the same benefit of the doubt as a victim whose home has been robbed or whose purse has been snatched on the street. What is distinctly different this time around is that by and large, the sexually abused victims are being believed. And even in the absence of “proof” meeting a standard of law, powerful and popular public figures are being forced to resign, losing contracts, and in a growing number of cases, admitting they have done harm and issuing apologies.

Unlike Harvey Weinstein, who is a liberal Democrat, donor and friend to the Clintons, Roy Moore is a conservative Christian. Previously the Alabama Supreme Court Justice, he was dismissed from the bench in 2003 for ignoring a federal court order to remove a 5,280 pound granite Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the judicial building. Now known as the “Ten Commandments Judge”, he is wildly popular among Alabama’s Republican base that strongly and proudly identifies as Christian, binding their faith to their politics by supporting a man they say represents their values. “If you want a good leader, some things have to be overlooked”, explained an elderly man from Alabama who continues to support Moore despite the additional allegations that have come forward, including reporting that it was an open secret that in his 30s, he liked teen girls. A lot. So much so that he was banned from a local mall and YWCA.

This kind of “open secret” and willingness to overlook sexual predation in a man who builds his reputation on being a good Christian is all too common among conservative and progressive churches alike. Rare is the progressive church that makes sexual abuse a social justice issue on par with other worthy causes such as environmental justice, racism, homophobia, anti-immigrant nationalism and other issues. And rare is the conservative church that does not overlook sexual predation in its most powerful members or, simply allows a carefully scripted confession and expression of remorse to be good enough.

When asked about Leah Corfman’s account of Moore having molested her at age 14, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zieger stepped up to his defense. “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became the parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here – maybe just a little bit unusual.”

The legal age of consent in Alabama, then and now, is 16. Under Alabama law in 1979, and today, a person who is at least 19 years old who has sexual contact with someone older than 12 and younger than 15 has committed sexual abuse in the second degree. Sexual contact is defined as touching of sexual or intimate parts.

However, it is not Ziegler’s disregard for the law that bothers me most. Clearly, the acts Leah describes qualify as a sexual crime. What sickens me is his attempt to justify molestation of a child by using the Bible.

The way it looks now, the Ten Commandments Judge may well be elected to the Senate by his “Christian” supporters, despite a growing number of Republican senators who say they find the victim accounts credible and call on him to step aside. However, the lack of critical mass of church leaders from all denominations publicly denouncing this man and calling on him to withdraw from the ballot may well aid and abet his election.

Unlike the uproar from fans, as well as industry leaders that pressured Weinstein and others to step aside, the silence of the church at large on this issue calls into question if it has any moral ground left to claim. If Roy Moore skates into the Senate on the votes of his Christian supporters and without massive protest from church leaders, that question will be answered.

Visit Samaritan Safe Church Blog

Review & Commentary