Episcopal clergywomen raise concerns about Danforth’s comments on Kavanaugh allegations

September 26, 2018
John Danforth

John Danforth signs a copy of his book “The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics” for Diocese of New York Bishop Andrew Dietsche after Danforth’s September 2016 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service] A letter to the New York Times this week that was endorsed by hundreds of Episcopal clergywomen raises concerns about comments former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican and Episcopal priest, made about the confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s latest nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The letter, posted to the Times’ website on Sept. 25, was authored by the Rev. Teresa Danieley, a Missouri priest, and was submitted with 327 additional names attached. The clergywomen specifically question Danforth’s defense of Brett Kavanaugh, 53, in the face of allegations the judge sexually assaulted a teenage girl while he was in high school.

“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 says. “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, in an email to Episcopal News Service, strongly objected to how the letter described his comments about Kavanaugh.

“The characterizations in the letter bear no resemblance to anything I have ever said or thought. Specifically, I have never shamed, blamed or questioned the motives of women who report instances of sexual abuse,” Danforth said. “I believe that both the accused and the accuser should be heard.”

Danieley first learned of Danforth’s defense of Kavanaugh in the Times from a friend in seminary.

“Personally, it was just very dismaying that he would say anything at all,” Danieley told ENS in a phone interview. “It just seems antithetical to a pastoral response.”

The Episcopal Church has grappled with its own neglect in addressing sexual harassment. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, issued a call to the church in January to examine its history of failures to protect victims of harassment, exploitation and abuse.

“When facts dictate, we must confess and repent of those times when the church, its ministers or its members have been antagonistic or unresponsive to people—women, children and men—who have been sexually exploited or abused,” Curry and Jennings said in their letter to the church.

Kavanaugh, a federal Court of Appeals judge, had appeared headed for 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 Christine Blasey Ford have thrown the confirmation into question, with two more women coming forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was young. Kavanaugh has denied all the allegations.

The allegations also have led to comparisons to the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 and the sexual harassment allegations against Thomas made by law professor Anita Hill. Danforth, a senator at the time and a prominent Thomas defender, was quoted by the New York Times in a Sept. 17 story headlined “Echoes of Anita Hill, but in a Different Era for Women.”

“I just feel so terribly sorry for Kavanaugh and what he’s going through,” Danforth told the Times. “Here’s a man who’s had just a marvelous reputation as a human being and now it’s just being trashed. I felt the same way about Clarence.”

Danforth also referenced the #MeToo movement, in which women have gone public with similar allegations of harassment, assault and sexual misconduct by prominent men. “With the #MeToo movement, it makes it even harder for him,” Danforth said in the Times’ report. “It was bad enough for Clarence, but this is really going to be difficult.”

Danforth also discussed Kavanaugh’s nomination Sept. 19 in an interview with CNN, calling the confirmation process “totally out of control.”

After talking with Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith about Danforth’s comments, Danieley drafted a letter in response, and a group of female Episcopal clergy offered feedback and helped edit the letter.

Danieley said she shared the text of the letter Sept. 22 to two Facebook groups with primarily Episcopal women as members and invited those who agreed with the sentiments to add their names to the letter through a Google Form. She learned later that the letter had been re-shared on a diocesan clergy email list, generating additional support.

By the time Danieley submitted the letter to the Times, 328 names were attached.

The Rev. Susan Russell, associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, was among the women who endorsed the letter. “For me it was a no-brainer opportunity,” Russell told ENS by email, “to hold a brother priest accountable for behavior that runs counter to our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being by categorically dismissing the lived experience of survivors of abuse.”

Danforth and Bishops

Former Sen. John Danforth (R-Missouri), an Episcopal priest, center, talks with Chicago Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee, left, and Missouri Bishop Wayne Smith before Danforth’s September 2016 presentation to the House of Bishops. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Danforth, a lawyer who is identified as a partner in the Missouri law firm Dowd Bennett, received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School and has written several books about the intersection of faith and politics. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1994.

Although Danforth’s quotes in the Times don’t directly reference Kavanaugh’s accuser, Danieley said the comments struck her as one-sided.

“To me this isn’t an attack on Danforth – I mean, he did make public comments, so it’s legitimate to respond to public comments – but rather reiterates that [clergy] are supposed to be responsive when people come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct,” she said.

Curry and Jennings called on Episcopalians to spend Ash Wednesday 2018 “meditating on the ways in which we in the church have failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment” and, during Lent, to consider “how we can redouble our work to be communities of safety that stand against the spiritual and physical violence of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

Taking up that call, the House of Bishops held a “Liturgy of Listening” in Austin, Texas, on July 4 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.

“People who courageously step forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault deserve to be heard and respected,” the Episcopal clergywomen say in their letter to the Times. “We can and must demand better from our clergy, even if we cannot expect better from secular authorities.”

Danieley, a former parish priest who now works for the nonprofit Missouri Jobs With Justice, said it was important to speak out now and make this a “teachable moment” – “that what we say matters and how we respond to women who make accusations matter.”

Danforth, in his email to ENS, called Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings “perhaps the worst experience of my life.” Helping his “dear friend” get through that period is why he now feels “terribly sorry” for Kavanaugh.

He said the problem is in how the Senate confirms Supreme Court nominees. “Something is very wrong,” he said, without elaborating on what is broken.

“With the writers of the letter,” he said, “I embrace ‘the baptismal promise to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.’  However, the circumstances surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation are the antithesis of that baptismal promise.”

Senate Republicans have scheduled a hearing for Sept. 27 at which Kavanaugh and his accuser, Ford, are scheduled to testify. A committee vote to move the nomination forward could come as soon as the next day, potentially sending Kavanaugh to a full vote in the Senate, where Republicans have a slim two-vote majority.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

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