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  • Reverend James Squire

Governor Cuomo and Harrassment

I have been a big fan of Governor Cuomo’s decisive decision making and press conferences for full transparency regarding the Covid Crisis. I also am familiar with the Italian culture because I grew up in it, and have been made an honorary Italian by an Italian family in our school who refer to me as Cousin Jim. I have extended an Italian family as well. I also am a hugger as many Italians are. Given this, when I heard that Governor Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment initially by a staffer, and he denied any inappropriate touching, I believed him and had very strong feelings about his innocence. I would have bet the ranch that he didn’t do it. Then there were interim reports of people coming forward so that the Attorney General of New York had to do an investigation. I still believed him although I surprised myself because I am usually on the side of the women accusers particularly those women calling out the likes of Trump, Weinstein, Epstein, and Prince Andrew.

Then I listened to a New York Times Podcast regarding the charges that eleven women made against Cuomo. Real Italians honor women. They don’t take advantage of them. That is part of the Italian culture as well. Why did I believe the Governor right up to hearing the Podcast describing what he actually did? He was still strident about his innocence. Before hearing the Podcast, I thought that this was a cultural misunderstanding when it was really a description of a serial harasser who created a culture of fear and a culture in which women did not feel safe because of him.

It also helped me to get more in the shoes of the supporters of Trump in the face of the terrible acts that he has done including the sexual harassment of women. It is a kind of grief process where you hate to give up a preconceived notion of someone you have really admired and saw as heroic. Greek legends are full of this dynamic. But in addition, we have to deal with that feeling of how could I be so wrong in my judgement? How could I have made such a big mistake which is the hardest thing for invested people in another person to admit?

I have written, with school legal counsel and other members of the management team, sexual harassment policies. There are some key issues that are always included. The eye of the beholder or how the actions of another are perceived by the victim is the most important. The intent of the harasser matters to a much smaller degree.

The school policies that I wrote had a step in them where the victim could go to the harasser with a friend or another trusted person and confront the person directly to see if it could be resolved in that manner. There could be no retribution to the person making the accusation. Sometimes the situation could be cleared up at that level. If it couldn’t be resolved, then it would come to me or another administrator for further action.

Sexual harassment comes in two basic forms. It can be creating a hostile environment for others by having conversations that are inappropriate in front of women to pictures being put up on an office wall. They could be subtle but offensive examples. The other form of sexual harassment is targeted behavior where the women is harassed directly by the harasser with various forms of sexual inappropriate language or touching. Cuomo is charged with breaking the law at both levels. He continues to deny the accusations.

We often assume that it is heterosexual behavior such as between teenagers and an adult. This action can occur in the world of different sexual orientations as well. If it is between an older person and a child, it is not harassment. It is abuse which is meant to communicate a more egregious act. Harassment can also be against a teacher by a student. There are all sorts of variations on this theme.

It often occurs between a person in power such as a teacher, a boss, or therapist and a student or someone who has come to be helped by a counselor. It can also occur between a boss and a worker. Because by definition, those people have power over others, whether it is a student being dependent on a grade, a boss who evaluates the work of another, or being with therapist who has a client who has come for assistance with an issue.

People think that the parents of a girl are the most emotional in the handling of sexual harassment. I can tell you from experience that the parents of boys are just as emotional.

You may recall the uproar at Notre Dame University last year when a mother of a male student complained about the tights that the women students were wearing. The mother thought that the women students were provoking sexual feelings in their son. The women students’ response to that comment was for all of them to put on the tights to make a statement. Parents are giving their sons the “talk.” as they go through their adolescence just as they are giving their daughters the “talk.”

The people in the work place who did not come forward when they witnessed harassment of Cuomo are to blame as well. There is no safe place in ethics that is neutral ground. Not to act is to act. The Governor will, in all likelihood, be charged with civil and criminal crimes. His attorney said today that his side of the story has not been told. More to come from all sides I am sure, and emotions will run high.

Remember the comments from my former student who is an African American recent college graduate? “We have a legal system, not a justice system.” A black woman sits in prison in Texas on a charge that she voted in the wrong district. It has gotten her five years in jail. Trump, his cronies who are felons, and most of the Insurrectionists are walking around free. The difference is they are white with money and backing. It isn’t the America that we strive to be, but as one of the police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6 indicated, “it just may be who we are.” It’s long past due for Merrick Garland to start getting legal traction that Americans can see. Waiting makes the matter worse. That includes waiting for the case of Governor Cuomo to move quickly forward.

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