You don't need to blindly believe women to see Roy Moore must go

You don't need to blindly believe women to see Roy Moore must go
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Republicans are scrambling to abandon Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate in Alabama and former state Supreme Court Justice, under the weight of mounting allegations of sexual assaults on underage girls in the 1970s and of inappropriate relationships with older teens.

Perhaps the most striking moment in this unfolding scandal has been the statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments Warren promises gradual move toward 'Medicare for All' in first 100 days MORE, who told reporters on Monday, “I believe the women.” It’s a rebuke to Moore partisans who insist that the charges against Moore are cooked up by his political enemies. But it also sounds like an embrace by conservative Republicans of a tenet long championed by feminists with regard to accusations of sexual assault: “Believe the women.”

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Others, from Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban Senate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges MORE of Texas to television talk show host Sean Hannity, have noted that while the allegations are grave, “a presumption of innocence until proven guilty” remains important. Even before the current wave of sexual abuse scandals, a number of social critics, including feminist dissenters such as attorney Wendy Kaminer, have warned that the call to “Believe the victim” in sexual assault cases undercuts the principle of “presumed innocent.” Is this a rightful cause for concern?

One thing should be clear: Moore is not the victim of an unjust presumption of guilt. First of all, while everyone has a fundamental right not to be deprived of liberty or property without due process, there is no right to serve in the Senate. Of course, the destruction of a person’s career or reputation by an unfounded accusation is still an unfairness we should strive to avoid. But in Moore’s case, there are good reasons to think the accusations are well-founded without taking his accuser’s words on faith.

Slate writer William Saletan lays out what he calls a “mountain of evidence” against Moore. Leigh Corfman, who says he molested her in 1979 when she was 14 and he was a 32-year-old district attorney, previously told the same story not only her mother but to several friends and an ex-boyfriend. Do Moore supporters think that all these people are conspiring to lie now, or that Corfman carefully planted the seeds of her false allegation against Moore over decades waiting for the right moment? What’s more, while Moore denies ever meeting Corfman or her mother, legal records confirm they were at the custody hearing where they say they first saw him, down the hall from his office.

The new accuser, Beverly Young Nelson, who says Moore sexually assaulted her in 1977 when she was 16 — and whom Moore also denies having met — has what appears to be an authentic inscription from him in her high school yearbook (though Moore's lawyers reject the veracity of the signature and want a handwriting expert to examine it). Like Corfman, she has family members willing to corroborate that she told them about the assault years ago.

Numerous other witnesses confirm Moore’s unusual interest in teenage girls at the time. And Moore has not only failed to refute the allegations, but has made statements that turned out to be false — for instance, that his county was “dry” and thus he could not have ordered wine for a girl on a date).

There are only two possible scenarios here: (1) Moore is lying, and is guilty not only of child molestation but of horrific abuse of power; (2) Moore is the victim of an extremely elaborate conspiracy to frame him involving multiple people who don’t know each other. The probability of (1) seems quite compelling.

It should certainly be sufficient to end his political life — just as multiple accusations of sexual assault and coercion have ended Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood career. In both cases, the charges have been carefully researched and vetted.

What we should not do, however, is turn “Believe the women” into a general principle.

Bannon sticking by his support of Moore https://t.co/j36B5Hfosz pic.twitter.com/0JDIMREYyc

Some commentators speaking out against Moore have come close to suggesting that women don’t lie about sexual assault. Appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, conservative writer Bethany Mandel, a contributor to The Federalist, said that there is “no upside” for women to coming forward and having their name connected to a sex crime.

Mandel speaks from experience: Three years ago, she helped expose a sexually abusive rabbi who surreptitiously videotaped her and other women in the ritual bath. She is a courageous and admirable woman; but, like many reasonable people, she makes the mistake of underestimating human irrationality.

Yes, for most victims of sexual violence, coming forward is a painful process. Yet there are also people who fake victimhood for a variety of reasons, just as some fake cancer (even though most of us cannot imagine an upside to being a cancer patient). Some crave attention; some use false allegations as a way to deal with other issues. 

We all remember the story of a horrific fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia published by Rolling Stone magazine in 2014, and later retracted when the account given by the self-proclaimed victim, Jackie, was thoroughly discredited. (Many feminists declared their choice to “believe Jackie” even when it was clear that key elements in her story were false.) It was hardly the first such situation. At Princeton in 1991, a student swept up in the emotion of a rally at which survivors shared stories of sexual violence made up a violent rape that never happened — and later began to name an innocent male student as the perpetrator, retracting her claim only after he filed a complaint.

A supportive environment for people who bring accusations of sexual assault is to be applauded. But is essential to find a way to treat these women and men with respect, and take their reports seriously, without assuming that accusation equals guilt.

Some conservative commentators have invoked the Rolling Stone rape hoax and the decade-old false rape accusations against several Duke University lacrosse players to try to cast doubt on the charges against Moore. That’s not only a shoddy argument, given the vast difference between these stories, but an unsavory one.

However, it would also be wrong to use the Moore scandal to boost the idea that wrongful accusations virtually never happen. There are no reliable estimates of how often they happen; but, just like accusations of sexual assault, protestations of innocence must be taken seriously. Even multiple accusers are not always telling the truth.

We should not, as New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg suggests, “err on the side of believing women.” The only side we should be on, as journalists and citizens, is the side of examining the facts and coming to a reasonable conclusion.

Presumably, when Sen. McConnell said that he believes the women accusing Moore, he was not saying that he believes them blindly but that their allegations are credible and backed by evidence. Unless Moore can challenge that evidence, his candidacy should be over.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor for Reason magazine and a columnist for Newsday. Follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63