Recently Bill Cosby has become the face of alleged assault by a person of power. Despite the predictable shaming and attempts to discredit each individual woman’s story, it has become increasingly difficult to quickly discredit such allegations with over 55 reports of assault.
I recently read a piece speculating that the widespread coverage of the numerous charges against Bill Cosby may have contributed to a significant spike in women reporting sexual assault in New York City. New York Police Commissioner described 2015 as the “safest year” in New York City’s history. We might wonder why, if the number of assaults reported has significantly increased. The reason is that approximately 68% of assaults are never reported. In 2015, one-fifth of rapes reported in New York City were past crimes women finally had the courage to bring forward possibly due to seeing a public figure called to face justice. The paradoxical truth is that higher rates of reported sexual crimes indicate a more safe and just community. A community where women believe their stories will be heard, taken seriously, and responded to in kind is a safer community for everyone; a community where persons capable of such horrendous crimes are brought to justice.
There are striking parallels between the allegations against Cosby and abuse by clergy and spiritual authorities. Bill Cosby was a cherished public figure who made important contributions, both cultural and spiritual, to his community. Is it conceivable that such a person could commit terrible crimes? Carron Phillips writes, “Black people have always known the allegations against Cosby were true; we just didn't want to accept it. How could that man do those things? So we remained quiet and kept it to ourselves. We lived in denial, while our "hero" continued to prey.” While we cannot determine guilt or innocence in Cosby's case until trial, the typical attempts to deny the mounting evidence parallel the tendency for many churches to immediately surround their accused spiritual leaders with support instead of taking the evidence of abuse seriously. As natural a human reaction as this might be, it is also misguided, dangerous, and contributes to an unsafe community. As in New York City, low rates of reported abuse in a church could indicate a less safe church rather than safe one – a church where abuse survivors don’t trust their leaders to take their suffering and the imperative of justice seriously. The “Cosby effect” is a sober reminder to churches to do whatever possible in their power to make it very clear to their congregations that they desire abuse to be reported, and that, when abuse is reported, such allegations will be taken seriously and appropriate actions taken to keep others safe. As more voices are heard and believed, trust may be regained and the journey towards a safe worship community can begin.