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From Thomas to Kavanaugh, what hasn’t changed about sexual misconduct charges

Clarence Thomas being sworn in by Byron White, as wife Virginia Lamp Thomas looks on.

(RNS) — When President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court 27 years ago, I was working as an editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In those days, the AJC had two editorial boards, a liberal one for the morning Constitution and a conservative one for the afternoon Journal. It will come as no surprise to readers of this column that I worked for the former.

Our politics notwithstanding, we had decided to support Thomas, whose up-from-poverty-in-rural-Georgia story appealed to us; and it fell to me to write the endorsement editorial. Then, on the Sunday before the Senate’s confirmation vote, came the Anita Hill story. Broken simultaneously by NPR’s Nina Totenberg and Newsday, it confronted our Monday editorial board meeting with the question of whether to call on the Senate to delay the vote.

We decided not to. The story had come to light so late in the proceedings it seemed just a last-ditch effort to scuttle the nomination. And so I spent the morning writing an editorial urging the senators to vote on Thomas without delay.

Mid-afternoon, Tom Teepen, the editorial page editor, summoned me to his office and said he’d been talking with the editor of the paper, Ron Martin. Martin had seen Hill on CNN, which had broadcast her noon news conference live. “She seemed pretty credible,” Martin said. “Maybe you want to reconsider your editorial.”

So I wrote a new one saying that there must be no rush to judgment, that Hill’s story had to be investigated. The Senate Judiciary Committee proceeded to hold new hearings, during which Republicans gave Hill the third degree. In the end, as I recall, we decided to withdraw our endorsement of Thomas.

So it’s déja vu all over again for me. Once again, at the 11th hour, a charge of sexual misbehavior has been leveled against a Supreme Court nominee. Once again, a nomination hangs in the balance.

Should Brett Kavanaugh be kept off the Court because of something he may have done as a drunk 17-year-old? The Judeo-Christian tradition is big on forgiveness, perhaps to a fault. “Father, forgive them,” said Jesus on the cross. “For they know not what they do.”

But to get off the hook for sinning against your fellow human beings, the tradition is pretty clear that you’ve got to acknowledge what you did and repent of it. In preparation for the Day of Atonement, which begins Tuesday evening, Jews are saying to each other, “If  I have done anything to offend you, I ask your forgiveness.”

Kavanaugh’s problem may be that he has chosen a different route. “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation,” he declared in a statement to the New Yorker. “I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”

If he’s believed to be telling the truth, he will, like Thomas, gain his lifetime tenure on the country’s highest court. But if, in the #MeToo era, his alleged victim is found to be credible, he’s likely to discover, as Bill (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) Clinton did, that it’s not the misbehavior that gets you into trouble, it’s the lying.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service