Accusations against Andrew Cuomo, sexual misconduct in the church and the three myths they have in common

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Baptist News Global

August 9, 2021

By Laura Ellis

Gov. Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women in his workplace through nonconsensual touching and inappropriate comments, according to a report published by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James after an extensive investigation into harassment accusations.

During the monthlong investigation, 179 witnesses were interviewed and 74,000 pieces of evidence were reviewed. The report details the women’s testimonies of suggestive remarks made by the governor and his unwanted hugging, kissing and groping.

As a civil probe rather than a criminal trial, the investigation did not find Cuomo guilty by law and cannot mandate a punishment. Allies within his own political party, however, are calling for Cuomo’s resignation, including President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and both U.S. senators for New York.

When the accusations were first made, Cuomo asked New Yorkers not to unfairly judge him until after an official investigation. It is now after an official investigation, but Cuomo is as defiant as ever in his denial of the women’s claims and the report’s findings.

Maintaining his innocence, Cuomo published an 85-page document defending himself in response to the report and released a recorded statement denying the allegations. People on both sides of the political aisle are doling out criticism about the governor’s defense, calling it gaslighting and cringeworthy. His response, featuring a photo montage of him kissing and hugging people, wholly misses the mark and fails to accept responsibility.

The testimonies of these 11 women, the procedural handling of the initial accusation and the governor’s “cringeworthy” response are all eerily similar to sexual harassment in church settings.

If we suspend political preconceived notions about Cuomo, whether positive or negative, Christian communities can learn a great deal from this political bombshell. In specific, here are three common myths shared by both the accusations against Cuomo and the pattern of sexual misconduct in faith communities.

Myth 1: A specific generation, culture or theology is a valid excuse for sexual misconduct.
Fact: There is no background or ideology that can excuse sexual misconduct.

Cuomo’s response to the report has received more criticism than praise. While he maintained his innocence, he apologized if his actions or comments were hurtful. He said his actions were misconstrued, defending himself by claiming generational and cultural differences — he is a 63-year-old Italian American.

In his video statement, he said: “I’ve been making the same gesture in public all my life. I actually learned it from my mother and from my father.” As he spoke, the video played a photo montage of Cuomo hugging and kissing people. “There are hundreds if not thousands of photos covering the same gesture. I do it with everyone. Black and white. Young and old. Straight and LQBTQ. Powerful people. Friends. Strangers. People who I meet on the street.”

Cuomo continued by defending himself against the complaint of the woman he kissed on the forehead and said “ciao bella” to at an office party. “I don’t remember doing it, but I’m sure that I did. I do kiss people on the cheek. I do kiss people on the hand. I do embrace people. I do hug people. Men and women. I do on occasion say ciao bella. On occasion, I do slip and say sweetheart or darling or honey. I do banter with people. I do tell jokes, some better than others.”

Cuomo’s generational and cultural excuses for his comments, banter, jokes and physical contact are little more than a shield for not wanting to change bad behavior.

“I do it to everyone” is an odd response to accusations of sexual misconduct. The consistent repetition of an action does not automatically make it morally right. And the response of “I’ve been doing it my whole life” is a weak and dismissive comment made only by people in positions of privilege when people with less power speak up about an injustice.

Beyond the oddity and uncomfortableness of the video, it’s also absurd to claim the inability to distinguish between friendly and consensual physical contact and the kind of inappropriate sexual groping detailed in the report.

If we believe the report to be true, then Cuomo’s generational and cultural defense falls flat. The excuse is eerily similar to the kinds of excuses used to cover up instances of sexual misconduct in the church where theological ideas are used to perpetuate abuse.

In church life, this manifests when clergy or congregants use purity culture to blame victims of sexual violence, employ complementarian ideas of headship to subjugate women or take advantage of hierarchal polity in order to hide abuse.

Sexual violence, which includes sexual harassment, assault and abuse, is first and foremost violence. When people hear the term “sexual violence,” they often focus on the word “sex.” But years of research in this field proves sexual violence is not about sex. It is about violence. And like other forms of violence, sexual violence is borne out of the desire for power and control.

The claim that bad theology leads to sexual misconduct is a myth because sexual violence is caused by the misuse of power and control. Bad theology, along with generational and culture differences, are not valid excuses for sexual harassment. Rather, these are held up like a shield to cover the more insidious reality of a harmful, misogynistic act.

Myth 2: Sexual harassment is only an issue for a certain political party or denomination.
Fact: Sexual harassment is pervasive in all political parties and denominations.

Cuomo is the latest in a long line of politicians facing such allegations after the #MeToo movement, which empowered many victims to share their stories. This movement has proved sexual harassment and assault are not partial to one political ideology, as people at all points on the political spectrum have been accused.

Some politicians and political pundits misconstrue accusations in order to claim that sexual misconduct is primarily a problem of a certain political party. Opposing sides are often quick to attack a perpetrator from the opposite party and hesitant to condemn someone in their own party.

The reality is this problem is not partisan. Cuomo is a Democrat, but Republicans have been accused as well — a Republican named Donald J. Trump comes to mind. This is not a problem of the Democratic party. This is not a problem of the Republican party. This is a problem of power, and one that is not solved through villainization of a specific political party.

Likewise, sexual misconduct is not solely a problem for a specific Christian denomination.

In recent years the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have faced serious, wide-scale testimonies of sexual abuse. Many of these victims faced ongoing harassment and abuse at the hands of pastoral leaders and were silenced sometimes for decades.

These reports are horrifying. They call for swift removal of the perpetrators, communal repentance and structural changes to protect future potential victims.

However, it is important to recognize these reports do not exempt faith communities that are outside these denominational lines from guilt.

It is all too easy to use the magnitude and horror of abuse outside our denominations to assume abuse does not exist within our own. The danger of the extreme scandalization of these reports is that it insinuates our own innocence.

We can accidentally drift dangerously into enjoying the scandal and the downfall of an opposing side. When we do so, we sacrifice truly caring about the pain of victims. And if we scream loud enough about our outrage of the abuse in these communities, perhaps we won’t have to ask if there is abuse within our own circles.

After the #MeToo movement, #ChurchToo also became a popular hashtag as women and men of all denominations and creeds shared their personal stories of the abuse they lived through in their churches.

The #MeToo movement proved sexual misconduct is not solely an issue for people with a certain political view. Similarly, the #ChurchToo movement teaches us sexual abuse is not solely a problem of denominations with certain kinds of theology.

Myth 3: Reporting sexual abuse will ruin a person’s career or ministry.
Fact: Whether they are caught or not, the act of sexual abuse ruins and forever taints a person’s career or ministry.

Although Cuomo was alone in his acts of harassment, he was not alone in his awareness of these acts. One of the important facts revealed by the AG’s report was that Cuomo’s senior staff, led by Melissa DeRosa, was aware of these accounts of misconduct and helped to cover up the truth.

The report mentions DeRosa 187 times — the exact number of times Cuomo himself is mentioned. DeRosa spearheaded efforts to discredit one of Cuomo’s accusers. Other victims who came forward were asked to stay quiet by senior staff and other supervisors.

The AG report revealed that Cuomo’s Executive Chamber valued and required secrecy of its employees, claiming: “Witnesses reported that the Executive Chamber under Gov. Cuomo cultivated an environment that was highly protective of the governor, above all else.”

This language is reflective of a serious problem in many faith communities that all too frequently cover up the truth and silence victims for the sake of protecting the minister or ministry.

I’ll never forget a small group discussion I was a part of in seminary where the topic of preserving the ministry above all else came up. A student told our group about his friend who was sexually assaulted by the pastor of her church. His friend was asked to leave the congregation to save the pastor and the church from the shame the pastor’s action would cause if the woman was not silenced.

The student who told us the story sincerely asked the rest of the group if we thought this was the right decision. He personally felt conflicted because his friend was treated unjustly, but the ministry of the church was preserved.

There is a hesitancy of reporting harassment and assault accusations in many organizations for fear of destroying the career of a good man or the ministry of a good pastor. But how much value should we place in the benevolence of a career or ministry with such a dark underbelly?

Reporting might be the tipping point that publicly harms a career or ministry, but the career or ministry is tainted the moment the person decides to sexually harass or assault another individual.

Sexual abuse is often ignored or hidden for the sake of preserving something or someone else. Victims end up being silenced and sacrificed for the “greater good” of the congregation. Covering up accusations insinuates the honor of the minister or ministry is valued more highly than the pain and shame of the victim.

Cuomo is beloved by many for his handling of the pandemic and promotion of many democratic values for the state of New York. This AG report does not negate the good of his career. But let’s also not forget the good of his career does not negate or erase the harm committed against these eleven women.

Laura Ellis currently serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. She recently graduated from Boston University School of Theology with a master of divinity degree. While in Boston she worked at Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership against Domestic Violence and Elder Abuse on matters of sexual misconduct in faith communities. She is originally from Abilene, Texas. 

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