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A defining moment for American justice

There are so many deep fractures in American society right now that it’s hard to predict and perceive all of them. Of course, the general polarization is quite predictable: Right-wing Republicans will defend the president, gun ownership of all kinds and the repeal of Roe v. Wade. Left-wing Democrats will support a woman’s right to choose and gun control and will criticize the president. Nothing new there.

But is it defensible to make sexual misconduct a partisan issue? The mesmerizing televised hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 27 giving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who is accusing him of sexually attacking her with a friend while they were in high school, the chance to tell their stories, was often disturbing. It clearly delineated a deep partisan divide.

The argument that the alleged incident happened so long ago that it should hardly be considered when evaluating a person’s character is one that would not  fly in the Northwest Corner right now. After all, it was just over a month ago that the administration at The Hotchkiss School released an investigative report on sexual abuse and misconduct at the school over the years, but especially during the 1970s and 1980s. The school was open and deeply regretful in its response to the findings of the investigators. The 30-year statute of limitations has run out in relation to the incidents, so criminal charges are not part of the equation. However, the stories of those the school clearly believes are survivors of abuse have been heard and taken seriously, and the administration has apologized to them. 

Following the Hotchkiss revelations, accusations of child abuse against a former Salisbury Recreation Department employee by a former Salisbury resident drew out numerous current and former residents who said they were also abused. There were charges raised publicly at the town’s Sept. 10 selectmen’s meeting. Salisbury’s first selectman, Curtis Rand, last week announced that the town has hired a firm to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations.

So important entities in our region take seriously the accusations of people who tell stories of abuse. In the time since the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994 and in the era of #MeToo, one would have hoped that the perception of revelations of abuse or harassment would have changed in the wider world as well.

The shrill and aggressive protestations by Kavanaugh in his part of the hearing, though, showed a less than measured side of a powerful man’s reaction to such accusations, which would indicate not much has actually changed. This is especially as contrasted with the quiet yet chilling description of the incident by Ford during her time before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

However, it could be seen as encouraging that Republican Sen. Jeff Flake listened to Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and survivors of abuse and insisted, with the support of other senators on the fence about the nomination, on an FBI investigation before he would vote on the confirmation of Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. The week’s extension for the investigation before the final vote is a consideration that may make a difference.

Or, it may not. 

But no matter what the outcome is of the investigation, we should all fervently hope that victims of sexual abuse and misconduct, no matter how powerful the accused may be, are heard and respected and given the benefit of the doubt in a way that did not happen in past decades. For the sake of all those survivors, in this area and across the country, who have spoken out and should continue to do so despite the fear of repercussions, we must not go backward as a society on this issue.