Brett Kavanaugh allegations roil Catholic faithful still grappling with clergy abuse
By Libby Berry
October 6, 2018
|The entrance to the Georgetown Preparatory School, the Jesuit prep school in Bethesda, Md., that Judge Brett Kavanaugh attended.|
Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta
The Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford testified in front the Senate Judiciary Committee, local Catholics congregated for mass in Washington. Toward the end of the service at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, parishioners recited a prayer for healing victims of clergy sexual abuse.
“Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our brothers and sisters,” they said.
The prayer highlighted anguish in the Catholic church that is resonating in the Supreme Court confirmation battle.
Newly confirmed nominee Brett Kavanaugh had cited his Catholic faith when defending himself before the Senate against allegations of sexual misconduct raised by Ford and two other women. He noted his Jesuit education at Georgetown Preparatory School and said that going to church on Sundays was as routine as brushing his teeth.
But his religious credentials were not enough for some Catholics already grappling with reports of widespread abuse by priests within their own church. Despite what he may deliver from the bench on issues like abortion, members of the church find themselves just as divided on his nomination as the rest of the country.
The embattled judge’s Catholic faith was “more like a Boy Scout badge he could add to his resume” during his testimony, said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. “Got it: Catholic. Nice badge. Really cool, but it doesn’t affect the way I look at anything, including being accused of being a predator.”
America Magazine, a Jesuit publication well respected in the Catholic community, rescinded its early endorsement of Kavanaugh’s nomination over the abuse allegations. “This nomination battle is no longer purely about predicting the likely outcome of Judge Kavanaugh’s vote on the court,” the magazine’s editors wrote. “It now involves the symbolic meaning of his nomination and confirmation in the #MeToo era.”
When explaining the editorial board decision, executive editor Sam Sawyer said in an interview the switch was not about judicial philosophy. In its original piece supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the magazine hoped he could serve as the fifth vote needed to overturn Roe v. Wade. The reversal wasn’t intended to make a determination of truth or take a side, he said, but to call for a nominee who would not cause so much division in American society.
“The experience of the last couple months in the life of the Church have certainly underlined how important it is . . . to respond well and transparently and with openness when allegations of abuse . . . are brought forward,” Sawyer said.
In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report alleging decades of abuse and coverups by church officials in six dioceses across the state. The 18-month investigation identified 1,000 child victims and detailed abuse by over 300 priests. Like the widespread pattern of clergy abuse and coverups documented by the Globe in 2002, the allegations sparked a wave of anger and recriminations, as well as promises from church leaders to punish offenders and act with sensitivity toward victims.
Zach Hiner, the executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), also drew parallels between Ford’s decision to come forward with those sharing stories of institutional abuse within the church.
“I understand that it’s political by nature of who it is and the highest office in our country in many ways, but . . . what are we saying to people who come forward with these kinds of allegations with this case?” Hiner said. “This is a real moment for us to show that no matter the power of the person accused, no matter of their profile, when people come forward they should be believed.”
Supporting victims of sexual abuse should not come at the expense of due process, others argue. Dr. Paul Braaton, a board member with the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), said that the group of medical professionals is committed to working with those impacted by sexual abuse within the church. Still, the allegations against Kavanaugh did not dissuade the organization from supporting him.
“I think a lot of people, particularly on the left, have jumped into guilty until proven innocent, and I don’t think that’s the way it should be,” Braaton said. “In the church, we don’t even have that policy now. You’re innocent until proven guilty in the church.”
Antiabortion groups also stood by Kavanaugh throughout the confirmation process. “Such a circus of hate in order to preserve the ability to abort America,” tweeted Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List. On Facebook, American Life League President Judie Brown went live as she prayed a rosary for Kavanaugh, his family, and victims of sexual assault.
In response to America Magazine’s editorial, Sawyer said they’ve gotten feedback from Catholics across the board. While some readers appreciated the magazine’s reasoning, others thought the editors hadn’t given sufficient consideration to the facts of the case. “People of goodwill are disagreeing about what the basic truth is,” he said.
Tensions also rose at The Catholic University of America when National Catholic School of Social Service Dean Will Rainford bluntly questioned the allegations against Kavanaugh on his official @NCSSSDean Twitter account. He was suspended for the remainder of the semester.
“Swetnick is 55 y/o. Kavanaugh is 52 y/o. Since when do senior girls hang with freshman boys? If it happened when Kavanaugh was a senior, Swetnick was an adult drinking with & by her admission having sex with underage boys,” Rainford wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted. “In another universe, he would be victim and she the perp!”
In response to his posts, The Washington Post reported, over 100 members of the community protested on campus. The demonstrations included both liberal and conservative Catholics.
“The Catholic University of America has no position on the Kavanaugh matter,” University President John Garvey said in a press release. “But let there be no doubt that our University, and particularly our National Catholic School of Social Service, has a special concern for every victim and survivor of sexual assault.”
Rainford released a letter apologizing for his actions, writing his tweet had been “impulsive and thoughtless.”
With Saturday’s vote, the Kavanaugh confirmation battle has nearly concluded. But what will endure for Catholics, Hiner said, is the desire to see a new day for their church. Many are tired of the scandals and want to know what they can do to make them stop. “It’s just the ability to stand up and say ‘We want to do something. We believe you. We are here to support you,’ ” he said. “And I think that is likely happening in small parishes across the country.”