Another week and at least one more prominent figure is accused of sexual harassment or assault. A movie producer, a U.S. senator, a congressman, a local radio personality, numerous TV figures, even the current president of the United States.
What do all these individuals have in common? To begin with, they are all men. They also share in a culture that for too long has looked upon sexual harassment, in its many forms and degrees, as “boys being boys” in spite of the fact that these “boys” are many decades past the age of puberty.
We may agree that every individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty, but in many of these cases the accusations are too plentiful and too credible to be ignored. We can recognize what a Washington Post columnist recently noted, that when we speak of sexual misconduct we should be mindful of the “precariously gray continuum from annoyance to harassment to assault.”
That said, we should recognize that none of it has any place in a decent society.
The recent flood of sexual harassment accusations is not simply about the men being accused. It is about us. It is about our culture. It is especially about men and our willingness to tolerate behavior toward women that we would find abhorrent if directed toward our daughters.
Sexual harassment violates every principle of Catholic social teaching — especially that of respecting the sacred dignity of every other person.
We can speak of respect for human dignity in terms of responding to the needs of persons who are living in poverty, or groups who are excluded or persecuted, or any other category of persons suffering in faraway lands. Yet, none of this is real if we are unable or unwilling to recognize this dignity in the persons living next to us, the persons with whom we work, or share a classroom, or our home.
Respecting the dignity of other persons, in this case women, requires more than simply “doing no harm.” It means that we speak out and take necessary action to prevent others from doing harm to women. It means changing the culture that for so long has given silent consent to sexual misconduct toward women.
It is difficult to believe that in many of these cases no one else knew that sexual misconduct was going on, hard to believe that someone could not have helped to stop the offending actions. Yes, it can be risky to speak out or to intervene. But for the victims of sexual harassment it is more than risky — it is devastating.
Doing our part
In a recent talk, Pope Francis reminded all of us why we must take bold steps to change what is wrong. Our failure to do so can be a sin of omission.
“All too often we have the idea that we haven’t done anything wrong, and so we rest content, presuming that we are good and just,” he said.
“But to do no wrong is not enough.”
We sin by omission when we see something that is wrong but fail to act, when we say it’s not my problem; it’s society’s problem. On judgment day God will not ask if we felt righteous indignation at wrongs that were being done to others, but whether we acted to stop these wrongs and prevent them from happening in the future.
Sexual harassment in any form is wrong. We know it is happening, and each of us is responsible for bringing it to an end.
We should applaud the women who are finding the courage to name it and speak out against it. Men who recognize it for the evil it is, should also find the courage to join the fight against it, to find the courage to move beyond righteous indignation and to engage in effective action to change this sad aspect of our society.
Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.