The ethics of posthumous accusation

I am a huge fan of Slate‘s “Dear Prudence” column.  I think Emily Yoffe’s advice is consistently level-headed, delivered with a nice combination of directness and humor.  I look forward to seeing what she has to say every week, and almost always agree with it.

Several days ago, in the wake of the Sandusky trial,  she penned an essay about victims of sexual assault and why they stay silent for years.  In the piece, she relates three different instances when she was sexually assaulted herself, all before she reached the age of 20.  The first episode was at the hands of an older cousin, who briefly touched her genitals under the guise of a “tickle fight.”  The second was perpetrated by the father of a friend when she was 15, during which he tried to kiss her and groped her breasts.  In neither case is the person named, though she gives enough detail about the cousin that family members will presumably be able to suss out who it was.

Here is her description of the third episode:

The last incident was not child abuse, because I was no longer a minor, though I was still a teenager of 18 or 19. Several years earlier, my family had worked for the election of our congressman, Father Robert Drinan, an anti-Vietnam War, pro-choice priest. He was in town for a fundraiser or town meeting, and I went. Afterward he offered me a ride to the subway. (You’d think I would have learned.) He was in his 50s, and as he drove we chatted about college. We got to where he was letting me off, he turned off the engine, and he began jabbering incoherently about men and women. Then he lunged, shoving his tongue in my mouth while running his hands over my breasts and up and down my torso. It seems like the set-up for a joke, a Jewish woman being molested by a Jesuit. As we tussled, I had probably the most naïve thought of my life: “How could this be happening, he’s a priest!”

As I shoved him off and opened the car door to get out, I saw I had left a smear of my pink lipstick on his clerical collar. Again, I told no one. It was embarrassing, revolting, and I had no desire to make accusations against a congressman, especially one I admired.

Well, the accusation has been made now.  The late Father Drinan’s family has responded thusly:

In response to Emily Yoffe’s DoubleX story “My Molesters,” Father Robert Drinan’s niece Ann Drinan has requested that Slate print this statement on behalf of the family: “We find it odd that anyone would come forward with this allegation decades later when our uncle is dead and in no position to defend himself.”

I do not know Emily Yoffe personally.  But, as I’ve indicated, I’m a regular reader, one who has gotten to “know” her over the years.  Insofar as one can form a sound opinion of someone one has never met, I consider her trustworthy.  I have no reason to doubt what she has said.

I am also not a private investigator, and have no information about the kind of man Drinan was in his private life.  What little I can piece together about him via Google doesn’t seem to yield any evidence that there were any similar accusations during his lifetime.  (Take that for what it’s worth, which is essentially nothing.)  So Yoffe’s accusation stands alone against the memory of a prominent and respected lawmaker, one who was apparently courageous in his opposition to various injustices.  It’s a pretty big bombshell, against which he cannot defend himself.

Suddenly the man’s legacy is in question.  And I honestly don’t know what to think.  So I’m asking everyone what they think.  Did you admire this man?  (His time in office extended before I was born, and I was a young child when he left it.)  How do you weigh what he did as a public servant against this news?

Before I hit “publish” I’m going to stipulate a few things.  I have no reason to doubt Yoffe’s story, and am not saying she was not right to make public what happened.  I also realize that the readership of this blog skews male, though I am very grateful to have as many women who comment frequently as we do.  I am posting this, not in an effort to court controversy (which Blinded Trials seems to have in spades anyway), but merely to raise the question about how to weigh the legacy of an otherwise admirable (by my lights) man when publicly accused, particularly when the man himself has died.

I am asking for your thoughts.

[Photo by Doug Mills of the Associated Press]

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. This meets the definition of sexual assault and I wouldn’t want to domesticate it.

    Subject to that disclaimer, this would hardly be the first case of a politician behaving badly in the arena of sex and it would hardly be the first instance of a RCC priest deviating from the vow of celibacy.Or a man in a position of trust and authority misusing it.

    But from the perspective of a sexually frustrated and romantically inexperienced man in a sexually charged environment this may have been simply him making a pass at Ms. Yoffe and subsequently being rejected.

    • a sexually charged environment

      It doesn’t sound like one, or is this also covered by “from the perspective of “?

          • Oh, come on. I’m sure not all congressman-priests are sex-crazed beasts. Well, maybe not “sure” but certainly relatively confident.

            “Relatively confident” might be overstating it, let’s just say it’s a semi-reasonable assumption that not all congressman-priests are sex-crazed beasts.

    • No need, wasn’t he already written about by the Trancendentalists?

  2. I think it may have been a misstep for her to name him, if only because not naming him would have saved her some grief.

    On the actual ethics of it, I don’t know.

  3. The mistake Ms. Yoffe made, clearly, is being specific in stating who her third “attacker” was, as opposed to the general way she discussed her previous ones — that detail could have been left out, and no one would have raised an eyebrow. She must have weighed the value of including it, and perhaps realized the “bombshell” she would be dropping would get press. Sadly, she made the wrong call here; as he passed away five years ago, and throwing mud on his name doesn’t do anyone any good now– other than to provide ammunition for anti-ecclesiastical types who might say, “Even this supposedly good Catholic priest was abusive.”

    Yoffe should have heeded the Jewish interdiction against “lashon hara” — sharing negative information about another, even if deceased, which while true can not be improved in the sharing.

    • Yoffe has a right to tell her own story and name whichever names she sees fit. She never had any obligation to keep Drinan’s secret.

      If she’d named names while her assailant was alive, she would be admonished for embarrassing him. If she went public the day it happened, she would be criticized for putting “her issues” ahead of Drinan’s political cause. If she’d gone public 10 years ago, while he was still alive, she would have been criticized for bringing up “old news” and tormenting an old man. There’s no right time for a victim to come forward. Defenders of the assailant will always find some way to criticize the victim’s timing in order to deflect attention from the perpetrator.

      I’m assuming Yoffe’s telling the truth. She’s built up a lot of credibility with her Slate readership and I see no reason to doubt her account.

  4. Mixed thoughts on this. On the one hand, posthumous accusations don’t allow for the accused to respond. On the other hand, if the accusation is true, the death of the accused wouldn’t be sufficient grounds to keep quiet.

    Yoffe’s intent would be ethically relevant.

  5. The big disappointment here, I think, isn’t that she named the Congressman, but that she waited so long. That aside…

    Assuming that she is telling the truth, I have no problem with the post-humous accusation. I have a sense that this assumption of consent among powerful men toward women they percieve as not powerful is more commonplace than we are willing to discuss. I learned later that when my parents had parties there were a few occasions where my sister had similarly aggressive “passes” by male guests. The men in question were all much, much older (basically my fathers age), all married, and all very public, well known, “locally famous” tinpot celebs.

    I remember when Tiger was caught in all of his indiscretions, I heard an interview with a PR guy that specialized in consulting high profile people who had been caught in scandals. He was asked why so many men and women do such stupid things once they are at the top, and he said that was a mistaken perception – the truth, he said, was that it usually isn’t a new thing at all – they had done it all their lives and everyone had let them get away with it. The scandals would hit when they came across someone that was willing to challenge their sense of entitlement, which especially in powerful men/non-powerful women is startlingly infrequent.

    I understand the frustration of the family in this case. But I do not like this tendency we have as a society to tell ourselves that the legacy of a famous and powerful man is somehow very important to preserve, and the legacy of some girl we have never heard of is not.

    So I say big thumbs up.

  6. This happened almost 40 years ago. Given the fragility of human memory, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility that what Ms. Yoffe remembers and what actually took place are significantly different. (Note: I am not accusing Yoffee of anything besides being human.) For that reason alone, it makes sense to be cautious about naming someone who’s not able to respond.

  7. As long as she’s telling the truth, and I assume she is, I see no problem with it. I don’t see that anyone has a “right” to respond to any charges made against them, any more than a person is entitled not to have an honest critical biography written about them.

    I don’t know what her motivations were for exposing his name and not the others. I could see that she wanted to lend credibility to her story. I could see that the other two were private citizens and so she restricted herself to naming the public figure. She might have seen congresspeople and priests as asking for more scrutiny. She might have thought it was important to speak truth to power. She may feel more comfortable because he’s dead and didn’t want to have to deal with denials. Any of those seem legit.

  8. There may be practical reasons to avoid naming names, posthumously and 40 years after the fact, as some people have pointed out.

    Nevertheless, I find the family’s characterization of it as “odd”, and the accompanying implication, frankly insulting, not even so much to Ms. Yoffe as to readers. No, nothing odd about it. There are a great many reasons victims in general and Ms. Yoffe in particular may delay accusations, some of which she points out in the column itself (and not least of which is that they’re so often disbelieved).

    To pretend that, had she come forward 5 years ago, he could “defend” himself some way other than a simple he-said she-said denial, which is what this amounts to, seems dubious. If you want to accuse her of lying, have the guts to say so. And, if you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say anything.

    Even from the perspective of Father Drinan’s memory/legacy, this seems to be a situation where the “when in doubt, shut up” maxim of PR ought to apply. Despite the mention, the original article isn’t really about him. Talking about it not only prolongs the conversation, it makes the conversation about him. In this context, I can’t imagine that’s helpful.

  9. Reading it over a few times I think there is something curious in her choice to afford her family the protections of anonymity and then deny that to the congressman. I don’t know here so perhaps this is select choice to elevate what is otherwise personal commentary and observation to something of a headline grabbing headliner. That article does not say “Congressman accused of molesting teen!”, but the meta-reporting will/ could. And that gets eyes on the page.

    And in the age of the blog the only rubrics that matter are eyes on page.

    I disagree that she should have kept the name to herself out of a desire to “protect” anyone regardless of when it happened. If you are hurt, then you should feel safe and secure in seeking justice for the crime. Is that what happened here? Is the public calling out of him an effort to see justice done and him, perhaps, shamed as part of it? Can justice even be found in this situation? Was she hoping for an apology from his family?

    Were he alive today to engage in a defense, or to come clean for his misdeed, then I think naming him would not be the “odd”. However, given that he is not, justice cannot be found, really, at this point, then it is hard for me see this as anything other than a way to spice up the article and get it talked about just a little bit more. The Kantian in me sees this as an effort to use a person as a means to an end and thus the wrong ethical call.

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