Sexual harassment is serious and claims made by victims have to be taken seriously. We know that.
But that does not mean they should short-circuit the American presumption of innocence. When Mayor Kenney suggested accused sexual harasser Sheriff Jewell Williams should resign, he was acting from emotion. Innocent until proven guilty is more than a bumper sticker.
Sexual predators are in the spotlight now, and that attention is long overdue. The way the powerful, usually men, treat subordinates, usually women, needs both an airing and a reformation.
Even with that in mind, we cannot forget that false claims of sexual abuse have been made, and more than once, for a variety of motives.
Rolling Stone ruined its reputation with a long report on a University of Virginia rape that was a fraud. Criminal charges were levied against the Duke lacrosse team as the result of a lie. False charges are sometimes made, but they are a small minority.
In the last few days comedian-turned-senator Al Franken found himself in the public dock, with some (although not the victim) demanding he resign his U.S. Senate seat. Unlike Williams, Franken ‘fessed up and turned his case over to the Senate Ethics Committee.
Not only is Williams not admitting anything, he is denying everything.
Objectively, it looks bad for him because there are two accusers and the record contains a $30,000 settlement in 2012 to an earlier alleged victim.
But does it look so bad that Williams, and people in his predicament, should be forced to resign? That’s what I asked law professor emeritus Eleanor Myers of the Beasley School of Law at Temple University.
“No, but there are a lot of qualifications,” says Myers, who for a decade was the ombudsman for sexual harassment issues at the law school.
There could be grounds for someone to be removed from office, but that would come after a full investigation.
“I can’t say every allegation would result in removal,” Myers said. The most important thing, in her view, is that victims have a safe place to come forward, where they will be protected against “recrimination and retaliation.”
That seems to be what’s happening today. The sheer numbers of women coming forward present protection. As in the Bill Cosby case, one or two women could be written off as cranks and screwballs, but not 50.
Before finishing up with Jewell Williams, let’s look back to another Williams – former Philly D.A. Seth, who didn’t resign even when he was indicted and brought to trial.
In that case, Myers says, Seth Williams should have resigned because he was unable to run his office (or properly teach his Temple law class) as he prepared his defense.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with the sheriff. He should be allowed to carry out the duties the people elected him to do. There’s time enough to dump him if he’s found guilty.
In dealing with people who look like gold-plated creeps, I feel I must hold my nose and believe the presumption of innocence must prevail.
But – as Myers reminds me of recent words by Mitt Romney – presumption of innocence is hardly the standard for public office.