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US-based Episcopal leaders offer pastoral responses in wake of Kavanaugh hearings

Posted on: October 4, 2018 6:39 PM
Judge Brett Kavanaugh (left) and Dr Christine Blasey Ford
Photo Credit: US Court of Appeal for District of Columbia and US Senate Judiciary Committee

[Episcopal News Service, by David Paulsen] With Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court potentially on track for a final vote in the Senate as soon as this weekend, some leaders of the US-based Episcopal Church are adding their voices to the ecumenical response to Kavanaugh’s hearings and the sexual assault allegations against the judge. The National Council of Churches, of which the Episcopal Church is a member, issued a statement on Wednesday (3 October) calling on President Donald Trump to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination because of his testimony during the hearings and his judicial record.

“Judge Kavanaugh exhibited extreme partisan bias and disrespect towards certain members of the committee and thereby demonstrated that he possesses neither the temperament nor the character essential for a member of the highest court in our nation,” the Council of Churches said.

The statement referred to testimony on 27 September in which Kavanaugh vehemently denied allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who had testified earlier in the day that Kavanaugh had pinned her down and tried to remove her clothes at a house party when he was 17 and she was 15. Kavanaugh, now 53, called this and other allegations “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” by Democrats.

The Council of Churches also raised concerns about “several misstatements and some outright falsehoods” in Kavanaugh’s testimony. “Moreover, Judge Kavanaugh’s extensive judicial and political record is troubling with regard to issues of voting rights, racial and gender justice, health care, the rights of people with disabilities, and environmental protections.”

Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde issued her own statement about the hearings on Tuesday (2 October), highlighting the regrettable prevalence of sexual assault and offering pastoral support for victims.

“Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last week opened another floodgate of memories for women and men who have experienced sexual trauma”, Budde said. “Many now feel emboldened to tell of their experiences, and thank God for that. Others do not because they know it’s not safe.”

Budde also referred to the Episcopal Church’s efforts to atone for its past failures to protect victims of harassment, exploitation and abuse, including those within the church. The church’s efforts have coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement, in which women have gone public with their own stories of harassment, assault and sexual misconduct, including by prominent men.

The House of Bishops held a “Liturgy of Listening” in Austin, Texas, on 4 July during the 79th General Convention to share stories from victims of sexual misconduct perpetrated by someone in the church, chosen from 40 stories submitted in response to the bishops’ request for reflections.

“Added to their trauma was shame”, Budde said this week, “for they were both violated and left to feel somehow at fault for what had happened to them.”

Kavanaugh, a federal Court of Appeals judge, had appeared headed for easy confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate, with supporters describing him as one of the most qualified nominees to be picked for the nation’s highest court. The allegations made by Blasey Ford threw the confirmation into question, with two more women coming forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was young. Kavanaugh denied all the allegations.

Republicans need to be nearly unified in the Senate to approve Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. After pressure from Democrats and one key Republican, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, Senate Republicans asked for a supplementary FBI investigation into the allegations against the judge. The report from that investigation was completed and submitted to the Senate today (4 October), setting up a procedural vote tomorrow (Friday). A final vote could come in a matter of days.

It wasn’t yet clear what evidence, if any, the FBI may have found. “We’ve seen no additional corroborating information,” Flake told reporters today.

“I believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford”, Budde said. “I also believe that Judge Kavanaugh, like anyone who stands accused, deserves a fair process in response to such allegations. Regardless of whether Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment is ultimately confirmed, I am certain that the country will look back on these past weeks as a watershed moment. We will long remember the time when survivors like Dr Christine Blasey Ford and others inspired by her bravery resolved to speak of their abuse and hold the perpetrators of sexual violence accountable.”

Delaware Bishop Kevin Brown also released a statement on Wednesday offering support for victims of sexual assault.

“All of this very public conversation has heightened our awareness around sexual assault and it has led us into a time of much needed and long overdue debate and conversation about sexual assault in our country”, Brown said. “For many of us, the conversation is about someone else, but for many of us, this is not an abstraction. This is a reality. The percentage of Americans touched by sexual assault is stunningly high.”

Some Episcopal congregations have responded to this heightened awareness by planning worship and other outreach to offer comfort for victims and those who support them.

All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, scheduled a Service of Lament and Remembrance at 7 pm EDT (11 pm GMT) today (Thursday) to “offer a shared space for those who have been particularly affected in a personal way by the events of the last week in Washington during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing,” the Rector, Simon Mainwaring, said in an online announcement.

“We recognise that these are pain-filled memories that we are seeking to tend to, yet we believe that as a community that knows how to love one another well we can draw strength from one another,” Mainwaring said.

Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is preparing a video response for sexual assault survivors, with the message “our doors are open.” The congregation hopes to release the video in the next day or two.

Last week, the hearings also sparked a more pointed response from hundreds of female Episcopal clergy members, who objected to quotes in a 17 September New York Times story by former US Senator John Danforth, a priest in the US-based Episcopal Church, expressing sympathy for Kavanaugh.

“I just feel so terribly sorry for Kavanaugh and what he’s going through,” Danforth, a Missouri Republican, told the Times. “Here’s a man who’s had just a marvellous reputation as a human being and now it’s just being trashed. I felt the same way about Clarence.” Danforth was a senator during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, who faced sexual harassment allegations from law professor Anita Hill.

“No one, not least a priest of the church, should publicly shame, blame or question the motives of women who step forward to report instances of sexual abuse,” the letter to the New York Times says. It was submitted by a Missouri priest with 327 additional names attached.

“Those in ordained ministry are called to display Christ’s love for both accuser and accused, fulfilling the baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.”

Danforth shot back in an email to the Episcopal News Service, saying the letter’s characterisations “bear no resemblance to anything I have ever said or thought.” He added: “I believe that both the accused and the accuser should be heard.”