When allegations surfaced that Roy Moore sexually molested a teenaged girl years ago, and made a habit of dating high school girls while he was in his thirties, conservatives rushed to his defense, even using the story of Joseph and Mary—who was much younger than he was—to justify their continued support of the right wing firebrand.
Jerry Falwell Jr., who inherited the presidency of Liberty University in Virginia from his father, said, “It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser.” “The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year,” Falwell wrote to Religious News Service in an email, “except it was several women making allegations. He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States.”
What would it be like if powerful religious leaders fostered an atmosphere in which women felt safe, were believed when they alleged wrongdoing by powerful men? What would it be like if they actually tried to end rape culture? We know what it is like when they do not.
On October 7, 2016, a tape of Presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women leaked. Jerry Falwell Jr. redoubled his support for the sexual predator, and turned blame onto anti-Trump Republicans, whom he believed, without evidence, leaked the tape.
“I think it backfired on them,” Falwell said, “and I’m glad to see that.”
In November of 2016, Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw left the Baptist school amid controversy over his handling of, what a lawsuit now alleges were “52 — fifty-two — acts of rape… between 2011 and 2014.” An independent investigation reported of his tenure over their athletics programs, “a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence.” When Waco police offered to hush up an assault case, McCaw’s response was, “That would be great if they kept it quiet!”
With dreams of Baylor-like football success, and apparently unconcerned about McCaw’s ignominious departure from the school, Jerry Falwell Jr. snapped him up for Liberty University’s program.
In February of 2017, Falwell Jr. was appointed by Trump to a higher education task force. One of his goals is “to cut university regulations, including rules on dealing with campus sexual assault…”
You could imagine a university president wanting to tighten the rules in order to ensure the safety of young women in his care. Especially if he knew of at least one case, in which a man who eluded justice at his school went on to even greater sexual violence.
In 2002, a young woman attending Liberty University came forward accusing football player Jesse Matthew of rape. It became a question of consent—he said she had wanted it; she said she had not. There were no witnesses. The woman faced the almost impossible ordeal of proving he had raped her and, as so often happens, she gave up. “Liberty would not say if Matthew was expelled. Non-marital sexual relations that would ‘undermine the Christian identity or faith mission of the University,’ are considered a violation of the personal code of honor.” Matthew did leave LU however. The young woman’s allegations faded to silence.
From Liberty, Matthew went to Christopher Newport University, where, in 2003, another young woman accused him of sexual assault. It is not clear how CNU handled the case. Matthew quit the football team and dropped out of school the following week. That accusation faded to silence as well.
In March of 2016, Jesse Matthew pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of abduction with intent to defile—there are still multiple unsolved cases thought to be his doing. The young women he raped and murdered, Hannah Graham and Morgan Harrington? They are smiling, silent photographs on their parents’ walls. Silence too from Jerry Falwell Jr., who felt no need to speak on the horrific crimes that could have been averted had Matthew been held accountable in 2002. His were extreme acts of sexual violence, true, but the culture of excusing men and discounting women is ubiquitous. It is also coming under intense scrutiny recently.
In the wake of the “me too” movement, Donald Trump’s admitted penchant for sexual assault is back in the news. The White House’s response is to call all sixteen of Trump’s accusers liars. If his supporters believe him instead of them, it does not matter if the allegations are true. Jerry Jr.’s conduct is reprehensible for anyone, much more for a supposed Christian leader, but it is not an aberration. Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, and Patrick Henry College, in recent years have been embroiled in sexual assault and rape scandals; men in power went into cover-up mode and blamed the women for what men did to them.
You could imagine a world where it is different, could you not?
A world where a Christian university president would be shocked and horrified by the rape and murder of two young women—possibly more—by a man who slipped through his university’s justice system—so shocked and horrified that he used his platform to call for real change. A world in which he publicly declared part of the “identity and faith mission” of his school the safety of women and accountability of men, regardless of who holds the money and the power. We do not live in that world.
In denouncing the religious leaders of his day, Jesus said, “Woe to you…hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean… on the outside, you appear to people as righteous but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
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