Based on Thursday's UN panel, we were given additional reasons to believe that the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church must not be entrusted to come up with a program that will resolve and redress sexual crimes within its flock.
Thursday, representatives from the Vatican went before a United Nations panel to discuss the way the Catholic Church has handled, and covered up, numerous instances of sexual abuse by priests worldwide.
The public record from this hearing, the first time representatives from the Holy See had been subjected to public questioning of this nature, offers little consolation to those who had been waiting for Pope Francis to offer meaningful reforms that might help him live up to his “Person of the Year” designation. Instead, we were given additional reasons to believe that the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church must not be entrusted to come up with a program that will resolve and redress sexual crimes within its flock. Further, we were given additional reasons to question the Vatican’s role in the international law community.
First, the hearing came a bit overdue. The Vatican ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. After an initial report in 1994, the Holy See did not submit a progress report to the international body until 2012. It’s shocking that those reports and Thursday’s hearing took so long; those 18 years were filled with revelations of sex abuse by priests, associated cover-ups by Vatican officials, and international cries for accountability.
To those who think Pope Francis, the alleged reformer, has it covered, a closer examination of the facts suggests otherwise: It wasn’t until last year that the criminal code was updated to specify sexual violence against children as a crime. Further, a new commission established by the pope to address the crisis of child molestation by priests lacks judicial authority and instead focuses on providing care to victims of abuse—quite a sick idea, given that internal supervision mechanisms from the Vatican have no track record of providing appropriate care, much less justice, for the victims of abuse by Catholic priests.
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These small efforts are window dressing. In the areas of sexual abuse by priests and beyond, the Catholic hierarchy has repeatedly proven itself to have zero moral authority in the areas of sexuality and human rights.
During Thursday’s hearing, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi claimed that the Vatican was separate from the Catholic Church, at least with regards to being held accountable for sexual abuse within the parishes. “Priests are not functionaries of the Vatican,” he said. “Priests are citizens of their own states, and they fall under the jurisdiction of their own country.”
If this is the case, then what, pray tell, is the Vatican doing representing the worldwide membership of its own hierarchy in the United Nations? No other religion gets a formal seat at the table.
The Vatican wants to claim it is a state actor only when it is convenient for its political goals, which include hiding and shirking responsibility for sexual violence and oppression within its own midst, while also continuing an overt campaign for sexual oppression against reproductive health care and the rights of women and LGBTQ people under the aegis of international law.
When it comes to priests who have abused children, the Vatican wants to claim that they (and presumably those who knowingly covered up their crimes for them) are citizens of specific states and shouldn’t have to answer to the United Nations. When it comes to human rights treaties and international progress, the Vatican wants to claim it is a nation-state and use that status to try to water down human rights treaties when they are being drafted, including the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and later to prevent nations from ratifying them, all in the name of being supposedly “pro-life” on top of a pile of alleged moral authority that includes covering up the sexual abuse of children.
If Pope Francis wishes to be a reformer, he must do more to shake up the Vatican hierarchy. He must insist that his men embrace more transparency—and more responsibility—on the issue of child sexual abuse by priests. Catholics around the world deserve better than the same old secrecy, blame-shifting, and strategic double-speak that was on full display Thursday in Geneva.
Ignorance is caused by fear, reporter Joanna Connors writes, and it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped, she begins the process of trying to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.”
She was fine. That’s what she told everyone, including herself. After filing a report with the Cleveland police and getting her rapist locked up, she was fine. Fine, fine, fine. Except she wasn’t.
In I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her, reporter Joanna Connors realizes that she is most assuredly not fine during a college campus visit with her daughter.
Ignorance is caused by fear, Connors writes. And it is with this attitude that, 21 years after she was raped—she immediately reported her rape to the police, and her rapist was caught the next day—she begins the process of breaking through the fear to understand the man who raped her, the man she thought “would be the last human being [she] would see on this earth.” She had thought she was over it, but it wasn’t until breaking down during that college tour that she realized she was still afraid of her rapist and still terrified he would find her.
When Connors was 30, she went to a Case Western Reserve University theater where a rehearsal of a play that she was covering for her newspaper, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, was taking place.
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A man inside the empty theater—the actors had left by the time Connors arrived—beckoned her inside, saying that he was working on the lights. Then, brandishing a sharpened pair of scissors, he threatened to kill her if she didn’t do what he said and spent more than an hour raping her.
The chapter detailing her rape is chilling, as she describes the various acts performed, the way she went along with what her rapist told her to do, coaxing him on, hoping to make the ordeal end more quickly. By describing specifics of her rape, Connors is confronting and stripping away the shame she experienced by showing the reader the cold, hard facts of what a rape can be like.
Her words demonstrate how a person who was raped becomes a survivor. Even in her dissociative state, she didn’t want to die there at the hands of a man she didn’t know. She managed to convince him to stop and leave, and he kissed her goodbye outside, as if what had just happened was completely, utterly normal. Maybe, for him, a man whom she says was smoking menthols and who had a tattoo on his arm with his own name on it—”DAVE”—it was.
Connors found an eerie irony in that she was raped on a college campus before such rapes were more widely discussed. In recent years, there has been a rise in awareness regarding the frequency of rapes at institutions of higher learning. There are now websites dedicated to explaining the statistics as well as documentaries like The Hunting Ground, which explores the sexual violence that happens on U.S. collegecampuses and how students are pushing back against institutional cover-ups and injustices. Since Connors’ experience, society has begun to more broadly understand the terms “rape” and “sexual assault,” and there has been more discussion about the rapes and sexual assaults that happen within existing relationships; eight out of ten rapes occur between people who know one another.
It’s perhaps less common these days to find discussions of the other kind of rape: the kind that we’re warned about when we’re young and told not to take candy from strangers, the kind that makes us automatically cross the street when a group of men we find threatening happens to be walking toward us, the kind that happens when a complete stranger attacks us. This was Connors’ experience.
I Will Find You takes the reader through two distinct processes. The first is Connors’ discovery that her rapist may have been a sexual-violence survivor in his own right. The second, which carries the narrative, is how Connors came to terms with how being raped by David Francis, the “DAVE”-tattooed man, separated her life into a “before” and an “after.”
Before the rape, she was a reporter who lived largely without fear. Connors explains that she went into the theater, where her rapist, a young Black man, was beckoning her, for one reason: “I could not allow myself to be the white woman who fears black men.”
But after, she writes, “this new fear of black men shamed me more than the rape.” Connors explains she didn’t want to be the stereotypical white woman of privilege, who clutches her purse and crosses the street when she sees a Black man walking her way. As a woman aware of her socioeconomic and racial privilege, she didn’t want to participate in oppression.
But it wasn’t just Black men that she feared—it was everything:
I turned my life into performance art. I acted normal, or as normal as I could manage, all the while living on my secret island of fear. As time went on, the list of my fears continued to grow. I was afraid of flying. Afraid of driving. Afraid of riding in a car while someone else drove. Afraid of driving over bridges. Afraid of elevators. Afraid of enclosed spaces. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of going into crowds. Afraid of being alone. Afraid, most of all, to let my children out of my sight.
From the outside, my performance worked. I looked and acted like most other mothers. Only I knew that my entire body vibrated with dread, poised to flee when necessary.
Years after her rape, Connors tells her children about it—both were born after the living nightmare in the theater and are college-aged by then—and begins to confront the fact that she has never “gotten over” it, even though she’s told countless therapists that she has. It is then, despite her husband’s protests and her own fears, that she decides that she must also confront her ignorance regarding her rapist and find him, just as he once threatened that he would find her.
Connors’ investigation is difficult, as she finds out almost at once that her rapist died in a prison hospital some years before. This, however, doesn’t stop her: She begins to investigate his family, trying to find anyone who may have known him and could explain, perhaps, why he did what he did.
Connors regards what she finds out about her rapist with empathy. Connors doesn’t forgive and forget—rather, she forgives, in a sense, by remembering, by finding others who remember, by dredging up a past that is as unpleasant for her interviewees as it is for her.
She eventually gets support from her newspaper to research and write her own story. At every one of the interviews, she expresses discomfort with what she’s doing and almost backs off. Pushed on by her photographer co-worker—and her own need to know—she continues on what has become a journalistic mission. Connors knows she is intruding into people’s lives and realizes she’s coming from a place of privilege, but ends up relating to so much of their stories that she finds her rage toward her rapist fizzling.
It’s with great care, too, that Connors treats the racial tensions that arise during her investigation. Connors talks to women of color who, in 2007 when she conducted her interviews, had never reported their rapes: “I know about rape,” one of Francis’ relatives says. “I was raped myself. Three times. But I asked for it because I was on drugs and I was prostituting.” Connors tells the woman that she didn’t ask for it or deserve it, but the woman tells her the story of how one of her rapes happened and concludes with: “And besides that […] he was a white guy.” This woman felt that nothing would be done about it, even if she did report it.
Connors also writes that in her case, she served as the “perfect witness”; she explains that her rape “isn’t [hers] at all. It’s the state’s, as in The State of Ohio v. David Francis.” The prosecutor tells her: “You’re the ideal witness,” because she is “a journalist, trained to observe details and remember them.” She adds:
I know what he really means. To him, I’m the perfect victim because I happen to fulfill just about all the requirements of a woman accusing a man of rape, going back before the Civil War. I am white, educated, and middle-class. I resisted, and I have a cut on my neck, bruises still healing on my spine, and a torn and blood-stained blouse to prove it. I immediately ran to report the rape.
Needless to say, David Francis is the perfect defendant: black, poor, and uneducated, with a criminal record.
In fact, as she finds out during her investigation, her assailant was both Black and Native American, and spent his youth in and out of juvenile detention, starting at age 12. Connors looks at the racial disparity in prisons, at the rate of poverty in the areas of Cleveland that she visits, at the way socioeconomic status and race are interwoven, how violence and drug abuse feed into those factors as well, and how sexual assault and abusive environments are so often passed down through generations. Connors discovered fellow survivors in her rapist’s family—his sister Laura, with whom Connors is still in touch, described her mother’s boyfriend raping her in a church. His entire family, she discovers, have been survivors of one kind or another.
Connors believes that her rapist was likely raped himself. During her assault, she had a clear feeling that Francis was re-enacting something done to him. And after learning that rape was common at the juvenile detention center where Francis did many stints, she assumes that he had been abused there and during his time spent locked up as an adult.
What is most striking about Connors’ book is not its bravery—though it is brave—or its shock value, which exists. The book is valuable because Connors recognizes and conveys to readers the cyclical nature of abuse, its pathological nature, and one of its sources: in David Francis’ case, perhaps learning by example.
Last week, the team at the “podcast and web community” Just Not Sports shared a new video project. The video, titled “#MoreThanMean: Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” featured two notable sportswriters, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who sat across from men who read “mean tweets” to them.
The tweets began in an almost comical yet rude manner—”I’d like to start a petition for a ban on all links to Julie DiCaro’s Twitter feed”; “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today”—but they escalated quickly into violent misogyny, including messages of sexual assault. These messages had been sent directly to the women, and they had seen them. The tweet-readers had not. The video shows the men shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they are expected to vocalize these horrific remarks. Meanwhile, DiCaro and Spain remain very dignified and calm.
Within one day, the video had reached upwards of one million views; it now it stands at over three million. The #MoreThanMean project filled social media timelines and headlines, including international outlets. It has ignited discussions on the radio, news shows, and feminist websites. Fellow women sportswriters wrote about their own experiences and how we were affected by this video. I did. Spain wrote about what the experience meant to her, as did DiCaro.
Much of the response, however, has also been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be, and how shocked its male viewers have been. Men have said they were horrified to read and hear these tweets, effectively centering their own reactions in the conversation. This, too, is problematic: This video may have highlighted the abuse DiCaro and Spain receive through the internet, but women in sports media have faced this kind of harassment for decades. Disbelief and horror are not enough; it will take real, systemic change from the industry, social media companies, and these “shocked” fans to work against this kind of incessant abuse.
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In 1990, Lisa Olson, a former journalist at the Boston Herald, endured what she called “premeditated mind rape” when she attempted to interview the New England Patriots football team after a game. She settled with the team owner and the players were fined. More than 25 years later, prominent sports journalist Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million in a lawsuit against a hotel that failed to protect her privacy from a man who videotaped her while she was naked in her room. He leaked the video to the internet. Both journalists were unmistakably targeted because they are women.
In the case of online trolls, however, the problem is more complicated: Comments, emails, or tweets can be issued by people who do not use their real names and might not be identified. The waters become murky. One of the only ways to fight them is to block them, mute them, or as often suggested, disengage, phrased as “not feeding the trolls.”
Some women, DiCaro among them, argue against not engaging because they feel it is tantamount to being silenced. Each woman might have different ways of processing and handling the situation; it’s unfair to expect that all women should simply not reply or defend their work. People who attack women constantly are trying to derail our work and conversations—and the voices of women are important for adding nuance and perspective in a field that is already predominantly male.
For that matter, it may not work. As DiCaro explained for Chicago Magazine, “There are these guys who feel you’re a fake, a phony, a fraud, and you’re in a position you don’t deserve to be in, and you’re receiving attention you don’t deserve. Their mission is to take you down. Those are the trolls you can’t ignore. They don’t go away.”
And logging off—leaving Twitter and other forms of social media—is not a plausible course of action. As a sportswriter, I feel it is essential to be on Twitter. Social media is a tool to collect information quickly, and connect with readers and fans about events in the world of sports. In other words, being on social media is an essential part of our jobs.
This is where it becomes crucial for social media companies to step up and enact policies that can prevent this type of abuse from happening. DiCaro thinks social media—Twitter specifically—should wield greater responsibility in order to create a safer space for women online. “I blocked guys, but they would just create new accounts or find other ways to get around being blocked,” she said to me over email. “And Twitter didn’t really do anything about reported tweets unless they were rape or death threats. Anything else seemed to be tolerable to them, and that was really shocking to me.”
Twitter updated its Abuse Policy in December 2015 to crack down on “hateful conduct.” But DiCaro was so frustrated about constant harassment that she created a new handle at the end of March, @ZeroSafety, where she shares screencaps of harassment in order to urge Twitter to take these tweets seriously and further amend their policies to suspend abusive accounts. At one point, ironically, the account itself was suspended for using an avatar that was considered branded.
Female sportswriters will tell you that their work and their social media profiles are real life. It is not always possible to divorce one’s personal life from what they put out on their Twitter feed. A constant deluge of horrific comments can’t be ignored or simply waded through—particularly when the comments might wish for death or sexualized violence on the sportswriter. It is unfair to expect that women will have the mental or emotional bandwidth to fight trolls all the time.
This was especially evident in #MoreThanMean, when the male participants had to use their own emotional strength to get through reading the tweets. The experience was harrowing: One of the tweets directed to DiCaro, who bravely wrote in 2013 of her rape, read, “I hope you get raped again.” On more than one occasion, DiCaro has described the abuse as “soul-sucking.”
As emotionally exhausting as it is, DiCaro and Spain have very courageously pushed this conversation forward. I can’t fathom sitting in a chair and hearing all those awful comments spoken to me in front of the whole world. DiCaro and Spain used this opportunity to educate and share lived experiences.
But I wondered: Why did this particular video affect so many people? Was it the way we were able to see Spain and DiCaro as people, not just as faceless personalities on social media? Or were the men so sincere in their discomfort that the public was mortified?
DiCaro thinks it is the latter. “Honestly, I think it’s because society in general believes men more than they believe women. Sarah and I could scream from the rafters about being harassed, but if it was just us in the video, I wonder if it would have had the same impact,” she said.
DiCaro believes #MoreThanMean is a great start toward addressing this pervasive reluctance to acknowledge women speaking about abuse. In addition to urging social media companies to take action, she also tasked those horrified individuals to make change themselves, by including women in conversations, helping to promote them in industries where women are outnumbered, and by recommending women for panels and conferences. “Don’t speak for us; scoot over and give us a place at the table where we can speak for ourselves,” she wrote.
To men, DiCaro emphasized, “And if you see a buddy or family member beating up on women online, SAY SOMETHING. It’s not okay for people to treat others this way, and it’s not okay to stand by silently, either.”
It is my experience as a visible woman of color that there are no limits to the abuses that can be showered upon a woman for speaking up about a game, a team, or advocating for a victim of sexual assault by a player. I write about misogyny and race in sports; I also write about Muslim women. So, the abuse I receive is not only sexist, but coupled with Islamophobic and racist opinions. Charming, I know. This occurs only because I am doing what I am supposed to. Essentially, women sportswriters are abused for doing their jobs. For thousands of women in this industry and others, we don’t accept it but are are forced to tolerate it.
This is probably another reason #MoreThanMean struck a chord with so many. DiCaro said she was approached by women who admitted they never felt like they could talk about it before they saw the video. She suspects a lot of women keep it quiet or constantly self-edit to make sure they say nothing anyone could possibly object to. Both approaches silence women and suggest complacency is a way to combat abuse.
One way to also move away from a toxic, and in my opinion dangerous, acceptance of abuse is to support women’s work in the industry. In a column about #MoreThanMean project, DiCaro wrote, “Support women’s sports. Read and share women sportswriters. Question why more women, and especially women of color, aren’t actively promoted by their employers. Call out panels at events that don’t include women. Teach your sons and daughters that women have a place in sports equal to men.”
I feel this is essential if we want to move forward at all.
As far as handling the abuse, DiCaro told me about her self-care routines and how she should make them more of a priority. “We’re all working so hard to get ahead in this industry, [self-care] tends to fall by the wayside. But lately I’ve been giving myself permission to not charge so hard after everything. To set longer deadlines for myself, to have nights where I do nothing but watch a River Monsters marathon. And I’m a huge proponent of having pets. No matter how bad your day is, they always make you smile,” she said.
Her comments resonate with me too. As much as I rely on Twitter to stay connected and be “in the know,” I also love my time away from social media. It might involve watching Bend It like Beckham and eating popcorn. Or it might mean working out and just enjoying my family.
But self-care also means that when I log back on, I know I need help from other individuals to get through the day. After a few years on Twitter, I also became part of an informal support group of women who write about sports and its intersections with misogyny, sexual assault, politics, and various important social issues. We encourage and help each other every day, offering advice about projects, sharing contacts, and venting about our mentions. In response, we send each other photos of baby sloths or elephants and positive notes. This type of safe space is critical, particularly when we are trying to work while simultaneously swatting away trolls and defending ourselves against unfathomable rudeness.
Women are moving forward in sports writing and presenting, as game correspondents and as match analysts. As this happens, it is important to highlight toxicity in sports media and make sure that male colleagues, readers, and fans are aware of the abuse that happens and how they can eradicate it. It will not go away on its own. Consistently promoting the voices of women, and not excluding them from discussions of violence, is crucial. Equally important is addressing the layers of misogyny, racism, and homophobia present in all facets of the industry, including online.
Women need to lead discussions on what are the best strategies to combat online harassment and abuse. But it cannot be done without support.