Editor’s Note: This is the first in the five part series analysing why the rich, powerful men – from politicians to spiritual leaders – across the world are victimising themselves upon being accused of sexual harassment.
The international #MeToo movement, which began spreading last year, is taking on new dimensions with the unfolding saga of a 44-year-old nun in Kerala — a state in India’s southwest coast — who is struggling to achieve justice after accusing Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal of repeatedly raping her over a two-year period.
The narrative in the anonymous nun’s case mirrors that of so many others who have stepped forward to say “me too”. A powerless victim is exploited by a rich, powerful, and influential predator who, when allegations of abuse are leveled against him, dismisses all charges as baseless lies while simultaneously attempting to blame and shame his accuser. Meanwhile, those in positions of influence frequently leap to the defense of the accused; in some cases, accused abusers even defend accused abusers.
In the United States, where the movement began, victims have identified abusers in every field, ranging from entertainment to news, sports to the military, and politics to religion. Some of the biggest names include film producer Harvey Weinstein, TV host Bill O’Reilly, and comedian Bill Cosby. Within politics, the accused hail from all partisan persuasions. Republicans include failed senatorial candidate Roy Moore and Congressman Pat Meehan. Democrats include Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers. Since 2017, at least half-a-dozen members of the US Congress have resigned or retired amidst sex abuse scandals.
Yet, the accused don’t always fade away into obscurity. The more powerful they are, the more likely they are to double-down and fight the accusations. And in America’s political scene, no one more perfectly illustrates this than President Donald Trump.
In 2017, three women accused Roy Moore of sexually assaulting them (including two who said it happened to them as teenagers). “He denies it,” said Trump. “He totally denies it”. Trump then strongly endorsed Moore’s campaign for Senate. Moore lost. Earlier that year, Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges from six different women. Days before O’Reilly was fired from a 21-year career at Fox News, Trump remarked, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Perhaps Trump’s eagerness to brush aside the allegations of victims, however, is linked to the long string of accusations he faces himself. In October 2016, as he was running for president, an audio recording surfaced in which he bragged that as a celebrity, “you can do anything” to women and get away with it. Afterwards, over a dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of harassment and even assault. In response to the charges, Trump painted himself as a political martyr.
“I am a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country,” he declared. “I am being viciously attacked with lies and smears.” Attacking his accusers, he suggested they were making allegations because “they get some free fame”. Calling them “phony accusers,” he singled out one specific accuser as a “horrible woman”. Insinuating that she wasn’t attractive enough for him, he said, “she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” As the clincher, he implied that accusing him of sexual misconduct was tantamount to an anti-national activity, stating, “they are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
While it’s deeply troubling when a presidential candidate — who is now the sitting president — is accused of being a sexual predator, it’s far more disturbing when spiritual leaders face similar allegations. Within the realm of religion, one of the groups most frequently accused of abuse is the Catholic priesthood. And, over the past year, the scandals which have dogged the Church for decades appear to be coming to a head.
Beginning in the 1990s, victims started coming forth to reveal how they’d been abused — usually as children — by their own priests. Thousands of victims across all continents have spoken out, many alleging that they were subjected to rape. Last year, Pope Francis admitted that the Church, which processes cases internally, has a 2,000 case backlog.
Most recently, over 300 priests in Pennsylvania were accused of molesting approximately 1,000 child victims. The case inspired at least eight other US states to launch investigations. They’ve also prompted Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro to report, “We have evidence that the Vatican had knowledge of a cover-up.”
This adds insult to injury. The accused are guilty of profaning the innocence of youth, violating the most sacred trust, and exhibiting rank hypocrisy as they publicly preach Catholicism while secretly breaking their vows of celibacy. Yet, the highest authorities in the Church are sheltering the accused instead of their victims.
The Pope has spoken out against sexual abuse as recently as August 2018. In an open letter, he stated, “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet, or silenced.” Speaking of “shame and repentance,” he admitted, “We did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” He even called it an “abuse of power.”
In September 2018, however, he delivered a sermon with a message that appeared to suggest victims who level charges are siding with Satan. “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” said the Pope. He seemed to imply that exposing abuse is the work of the Devil, saying that “[the Great Accuser] tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”