The US Church’s Failure to Stand Against Sexual Assault

A month before the election, a 2005 video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on an Access Hollywood taping surfaced. As I listened to Donald Trump joke about how his celebrity allowed him to assault women without consequence, I felt sick to my stomach.  Here we had a presidential candidate actively boasting about sexually assaulting women, dismissing it simply as “regrettable locker room talk,” and clearly demonstrating that he did not take violence against women seriously.

Violence against women and sexual assault are largely invisible and ignored in the public political discourse from the USCCB and most American church leaders. There was no public outrage from the US Catholic Church over Donald Trump’s recorded joking about sexual assault. No actual acknowledgement that the behavior described is in fact sexual assault. A few bishops lamented that Trump has “disrespected women” but never anything stronger.  In a statement titled, “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas,” Conference President Archbishop Kurtz began with a condemnation of the Podesta emails stolen by Wikileaks, which appeared to be the purpose of the statement, and ended by simply asserting, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.” The strongest statement simply acknowledged that political discourse had demeaned women without any further comment.

These statements miss the crucial element – in the video, Trump was describing assaulting women.  The Department of Justice definition of sexual assault explicitly describes it as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” including fondling.

After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a dozen women came forward to accuse and detail different incidents of sexual harassment and assault by Trump. And still, there was no added concern from the public voice of the American Catholic Church. Speaking to the Boston Globe, theologian James Bretzke, SJ called the silence “deafening.” Many bishops and priests continued to privately and publicly advocate voting for Trump.  In America Magazine, Michael O’Loughlin details just a few cases where parishes were told that Clinton “hates Catholics.” In my own diocese, the Bishop released a letter that came very close to outright calling Donald Trump the “prolife, pro-family, pro-truth” candidate.

In Amoris Laetitae, Pope Francis specifically lists all forms of domestic violence as a direct threat to the family and condemns all sexual submission of women. Yet, a few weeks after the irrefutable evidence of Donald Trump joking about sexual assault appeared, American bishops were still promoting him as a pro-family candidate.

Donald Trump won 52% of the Catholic vote, 56% of those who go to Church once a week, and 60% of the White Catholic vote.  Beyond this, he nearly won college-educated women (49%).  According to Atlantic Monthly, most Americans believed the women who came forward and yet, they voted for him anyway. Every aspect of these numbers disturbs me.

Unfortunately, minimizing the reality by using vague language like “disrespect” downplays the gravity and types of sexual assault. It also misses an opportunity for discussion about a widespread social problem. Domestically, 1 in 5 college students will experience some form of sexual assault before graduation.  Women and girls crossing the US border as migrants and refugees are subject to exceedingly high rates of sexual violence.

In 1992, the USCCB released a good pastoral letter, “When I call for help” on domestic violence.  More than twenty years later, this letter continues to be highlighted and invoked during domestic violence awareness month. But the USCCB has been largely absent from national conversations about sexual assault in the military, on college campuses, and the widespread reality of domestic violence.

The Catholic Bishops are a consistently strong voice for the voiceless and invisible victims of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Unfortunately, this same prioritization does not seem to be present for the more general and pervasive forms of sexual harassment and assault.  As I seek to understand how and why there was such deafening silence about sexual assault in the presidential election, I look back into recent political battles and the answers are distressing.

In 2013, the USCCB withdrew its support for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, despite previously being strong supporters of the bill. Ultimately, the issue came down to provisions regarding lesbian and transgendered victims of domestic violence. In expressing concerns, it took the time to reassert Catholic teaching on marriage as only between a man and a woman.

What prompted a public statement against the law after the fact? Within Catholic moral theology, there is no need to withdraw support from a bill because you find a provision in it unnecessary. The letter states that the USCCB recognizes that all domestic violence, regardless of the sexual orientation of the victim, is a grave sin and crime. These provisions were added because some states were denying these classes of victims’ services. Why then a public withdrawal of support after the bill was made law? Other political concerns overshadowed the pastoral call of the Gospel and the full dignity of vulnerable persons. What message does this send to victims of domestic violence?

This willingness to render victims of sexual harassment and assault invisible is harmful to both church and society.   I do not know how much consultation with women occurs in the determination of political priorities and public responses. However, a function of the Roman Catholic reality is that the voice itself is one represented by men – either bishops or priests.

Novelist Margaret Atwood has a telling quote on the different fundamental, almost existential difference in the sexes reflecting on what they are most afraid of.  She writes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Women, even in the United States, fear violence. There is no nation on earth that does not have a dangerous problem of violence against women.

Most women I know have had the personal experience of sexual harassment. The ubiquity of this became clear in the aftermath of Trump’s video. Women took to Twitter and Facebook sharing stories.  Yet, most male news anchors found themselves shocked. On MSNBC, Chris Mathews balked at how this could be going on without him knowing about it. Even with the efforts of Vice President Biden and the Obama administration, sexual harassment and sexual assault are largely invisible in public debate. They are even more invisible within Catholic public debate.  Silence in the face of grave systemic evil does great harm to the common good.

In the end, I fail to understand how sexual assault was brushed aside so easily. I have no words for a close friend who luckily escaped an attempted sexual assault as a college student.  Someone slipped a drug into her drink at the bar, but luckily her friends noticed something was off and brought her straight home.  More than ten years later, she has anxiety about going up and ordering a drink alone. Among the litany of intimidation and harassment incidents collected by Shaun King since the election, one particularly haunting one involved a 10-year-old girl whose parents were called to school after a young boy grabbed her vagina citing that if the president can do it, why can’t he?

This was a complicated and vitriolic election season. It seemed to bring out the worst in American culture. As we analyze what happened, the question of violence against women is important. Within that, the role of the Church and Catholics demands our attention. One in three women will experience some form of domestic violence, sexual assault or harassment in their lifetime; we must demand that they are no longer allowed to be pushed aside in the name of politics.