When it comes to sexual harassers, the list grows like Pinocchio’s nose. Its steady expansion suggests we as a society need a quasi-formal way for harassers to acknowledge their misdeeds, express contrition, make amends, and move forward.
It’s a pertinent matter for discussion in a week when Charlie Rose, the CBS coanchor and “60 Minutes” contributor who also hosted his own independent talk show, has been multiply accused of groping, putting himself on full display, and making lewd phone calls. And when Glenn Thrush of The New York Times has faced allegations of unwanted touching and kissing. And when we’ve learned that Democratic US Representative John Conyers of Michigan reportedly settled a staffer’s sexual harassment complaint in 2015; Conyers acknowledges the settlement, but denies any harassment.
It’s a week when we’ve also learned that Al Franken, like George H.W. Bush, apparently considers butt-squeezing a photo-session privilege. Franken — surprise, surprise — supposedly can’t recall the incident, but said he feels badly that his accuser “came away from our interaction feeling disrespected.” (“Disrespected” has apparently become a synonym for “groped.”)
Rose has been fired by CBS, his show suspended by PBS and Bloomberg. Thrush has been suspended by the Times. Franken had previously gone to ground, pursued by a sortie of tweets from President Donald Trump, who has left others to draw tortured distinctions between his own (pre-White House) piggishness and Franken’s.
Meanwhile, other louche actors are trying to sneak back into the national good graces under cover of late night. Take Cambridge-raised Ben Affleck, who faced a few end-of-the-interview softballs last week from Stephen Colbert on his past behavior.
“You yourself have been accused of a few things, sexual impropriety,” Colbert noted. “You’ve apologized for some of that. Do you feel like there is more that you or that all men, especially in Hollywood, have to do to make sure that this isn’t a passing thing?”
“What I was accused of by a woman was touching her breast while I gave her a hug,” Affleck replied. “I don’t remember it, but I absolutely apologize for it.”
Squeezing her breast would be a more accurate rendering of what Hilarie Burton has accused Affleck of. Her reaction, if not the grope itself, was caught on video. No mention was made of quasi-groping of Canadian TV host Anne-Marie Losique. Or of makeup artist Annamarie Tendler’s assertion that Affleck grabbed her rear end at a Golden Globes party in 2014.
Which leaves one with this conclusion: The I-don’t-remember-the-incident-but-I’ll-apologize-anyway gambit is merely a way to avoid acknowledging swinishness while seeming to man up about the same.
Many more allegations are sure to come, in Hollywood, in media, and in politics, which underscores a question posed by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus: Once revealed as a sexual harasser, but for offenses that stop short of criminality, can someone be societally rehabilitated?
My view is yes, but it should take a candid acknowledgment and an apology that’s not loaded with weasel words. Further, those who have settled sexual harassment suits should have to waive their side of confidentiality agreements, enabling their victims to tell their stories if they choose. Public forgiveness should also require the completion of an anti-harassment course and some psychological counseling.
Lastly, there should be a substantial donation toward helping the anti-harassment quest. In this new era, the prominence of the Hollywood, political, and media harassers gives their victims a powerful news-interest platform to tell their stories. But scores of other women obviously suffer harassment from perpetrators whose outing wouldn’t make headlines.
What if there were a high-profile national nonprofit focused on sexual harassment the way several others are on sexual violence — call it, say, CHAMPION, or Combatting Harassment And Mediating Penance In Our Nation — whose mission would be to provide legal help to those women? Rich celebrity offenders might be asked to pony up several million as penance, while lesser lights would pay a proportionally smaller amount.
Apology, counseling, and contribution completed, the offender could then step tentatively back into the public spotlight, hopefully aware that another offense would render them permanent pariahs.
That way, some good would at least come of their bad behavior.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.