In the wake of the Penn State sexual molestation scandal—followed closely by similar charges being leveled against a coach at Syracuse University—we learn of yet another alleged sex offense involving a minor. Congressman Dale Kildee (D-MI) was accused this week of having sexually abused a young boy. According to a story in the Washington Times, the victim was his second-cousin who, at the time of the abuse, was 12-years old. When did this alleged sex crime take place? Fifty years ago. Kildee has vehemently denied the accusation.
If you say someone shoplifted something 50 years ago, or got drunk and unruly 50 years ago, or was arrested for vandalism 50 years, most of us would be able to process that information; we’d write it off as evidence of immaturity or stupidity or bad judgment, and move on. Thankfully, we humans have an inordinate capacity for forgiveness. But when we hear that someone molested a child, even if it happened 50 years ago, it’s a whole other deal.
Even if that person denies the crime and is subsequently acquitted of all charges a dreadful stigma remains attached, one that’s close to impossible to cleanse. When sex is concerned, people tend never to look at that person in quite the same way again. I’m not suggesting that sex crimes (particularly those involving minors) aren’t egregious, only that they have a half-life that far exceeds other offenses. And, of course, there’s an ugly corollary attached: If you want to ruin someone’s reputation, accuse them of a sexual impropriety.
While I was president of a labor union, one of our members (“Susan”) came to me with a horrific story. Her father had been falsely accused of molesting two 15-year old neighborhood girls. The girls’ version of the story was that they’d been lured into this man’s garage with the promise of free Cokes. Once inside, he had talked lewdly to them, fondled their bottoms, and offered to show them pornographic videos.
Susan’s father’s version was decidedly different. He said that the girls approached him while he was working in his garage and asked if he’d buy them a 12-pack of beer. He refused. They pleaded with him, even offered him money to do it. He refused again and ordered them off his property. They cursed at him, gave him the finger and, on their way out, ripped down a tarpaulin that covered some tools. They later went to the police and made the false accusations.
According to Susan the police determined that the girls were “emotionally disturbed” and had made up or wildly exaggerated the entire story. But even though her father wasn’t arrested, and no charges were filed, the neighborhood subsequently treated him like a pariah. Taking the old “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” point of view, they viewed him as some sort of sexual deviate. After all, who can say with any certainty what perverted sexual thoughts lurk inside the minds of men. Susan said her dad was shattered by the experience.
Even though Herman Cain never had a realistic shot at winning the Republican nomination, the sexual harassment charges made against him sent him plummeting in the polls. I’m not suggesting that the women were lying. Indeed, I believed their stories. But while Cain’s stunning ignorance of U.S. foreign policy would have eventually torpedoed him, that ignorance won’t plague him for the rest of life the way those sexual accusations will. People won’t say, “Aren’t you the guy who didn’t know about Libya?” They’ll say, “Aren’t you the guy who groped that woman?”
Sex is its own special category, and sexual accusations are incendiary in politics. Virtually any politician is vulnerable. Arguably, the only current candidate who wouldn’t be damaged by accusations of having groped or uttered indecencies to a woman is Mitt Romney. Given Romney’s programmatic, robot-like blandness, such accusations would only serve to humanize him.