Some Notes on the Roy Moore Allegation

The Religion News Service gets a quote from Jerry Falwell Jnr on the allegation that Roy Moore molested a 14-year-old girl in 1979, when he was 32 years old:

“It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser”…

“The same thing happened to President Trump a few weeks before his election last year except it was several women making allegations,” Falwell told RNS in an email. “He denied that any of them were true and the American people believed him and elected him the 45th president of the United States.”

In a follow-up email, Falwell noted Moore’s denial of the allegations, saying: “And I believe the judge is telling the truth.”

The story was broken by the Washington Post a few days ago, although the conservative website Breitbart got wind of it in advance and attempted a preemptive rebuttal. It is claimed that Moore had a relationship with the girl, and that she reluctantly engaged in sexual touching that she wanted “over with” as soon as possible.

General principles

Most of us know at least one or two people whose word we would trust if they either made an allegation or denied an allegation made against them. We accept their testimony because of our personal knowledge of their character, which serves as subjective evidence. Extrapolating from this, we may also be inclined to trust the word of a public figure, if he or she is someone whom we like or respect. However, the key word here is “subjective”  – Falwell is confident that the accuser is either lying or mistaken, but this has no objective value for the rest of us.

Does this mean, then, that we must believe Moore’s accuser? For some, belief in an alleged victim’s testimony is a moral imperative. It takes bravery to disclose a traumatic and perhaps stigmatising experience, especially when the perpetrator is a popular or powerful figure. To express scepticism or agnosticism may further harm someone who has already suffered, and discourage others from talking about similar experiences. Falwell’s assertion that Trump was elected because “the American people” believed his denials to be truthful seems to be deliberately calculated to marginalise and humiliate the women who say that Trump enacted on them his private predatory boasts.

But in cases where there are reasonable doubts, it goes against natural justice to simply pretend that they don’t exist. I’ve received criticisms on social media over blog posts in which I have pointed out the problems with allegations of child sex abuse that have been made against Edward Heath and other public figures in the UK – however, as far as I have seen no-one has disputed the facts I have assembled or identified flaws in my reasoning.

It seems to me that each case should be taken on its own merits, and that we need to bear in mind the limitations to reaching a full understanding when all we have to go on are media reports. In law, someone who is accused is innocent until proven guilty, but we also understand that someone may be a suspect, and that there may be a credible case to answer. That case to answer may in due course be either proven or debunked – but in some cases innocence or guilt will never be comprehensively established.

The case of Roy Moore

In the case of Moore, three other women say that he “pursued” them when they were between 16 and 18 years old and he was in his thirties. Moore appears to have confirmed this by telling Sean Hannity that he did “not generally” date teenagers when he was that age, which implies that it did happen sometimes; as such, criticisms that these particular three women may have had a political motivation to damage Moore through false claims lose their relevance.  A former deputy district attorney named Teresa Jones further claims that it was “common knowledge” that Moore “dated high school girls” at that time.

The New York Post describes the women’s claims as referring to “inappropriate relationships”; certainly, many people would regard with suspicion a grown man who seeks out very young dating partners, as being either an ephebophile or as someone who wants to dominate in a relationship by using their greater worldly experience. This context does not prove that Moore engineered a liaison with a 14-year-old, but it does make the story more plausible.

The Washington Post also has testimony that appears to confirm that Corfman’s claim is not new or opportunistic:

Two of Corfman’s childhood friends say she told them at the time that she was seeing an older man, and one says Corfman identified the man as Moore. [Nancy] Wells says her daughter told her about the encounter more than a decade later, as Moore was becoming more prominent as a local judge.

Since publication, a man named Mike Ortiz has also come forward to say that he dated Corfman “around 2009”, and that she told him the same story at the time.

Moore and his supporters (and there do not appear to be any vocal sceptics who are not supporters) have raised various points in response. Moore has been a public figure for a long time – how could such an allegation not have come to light before now? The suggestion is that this a political hit-job, orchestrated either by the Democrats or by “Establishment” Republicans opposed to Moore. However, one of the reporters on the story, Beth Reinhard, has told CNN that they found the story independently:

We didn’t have any contact with the Democratic Party while we were reporting the story, and this story did not fall into our laps or our inbox. A Washington Post reporter was in Alabama doing some reporting on Roy Moore’s supporters when these rumors were emerging that he had had relationships with teenage girls. Two of us spent weeks in Alabama pursuing these leads that we got, and as we say in the story, none of the women were eager to go public. They were all off the record when we first spoke to them, and it took multiple interviews before they agreed to speak publicly because in the end they felt like they needed to do it. But they did not seek out this attention.

Corfman’s character has also come under scrutiny, with Newsmax‘s James Hirsen stating that she “has had three divorces, filed for bankruptcy three times, and has been charged with multiple misdemeanors”. These are not, though, things she has sought to hide, nor are they self-evidently relevant. The “misdemeanors” relate to selling beer to a minor and driving a boat without lights, both of which indicate negligence rather than dishonesty or wanton disregard for the law (assuming she simply misjudged the age of the beer-buying minor). Hirsen also states that “Moore’s FB page” indicates that she “has claimed several pastors at various churches made sexual advances at her”. Such a pattern may be grounds for caution – although this claim is so far unsubstantiated.

A bit of cultural context

Those who express scepticism about an allegation are sometimes accused of adopting a bad-faith position to assist a perpetrator. Often, the word “apologist” is bandied about, deliberately conflating scepticism with justification for an offence. In Moore’s case, however, some of his defenders have actually taken the view that Corfman’s claim, even if true, is no reason for censure. Thus an Alabama official named Jim Ziegler has now achieved fame for comments provided to the Washington Examiner:

“Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist,” Ziegler said choosing his words carefully before invoking Christ. “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

“There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here” Ziegler concluded. “Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

This is extraordinary, and I can’t imagine Moore being thankful for such “assistance”. Ziegler has here inadvertently shone a light on a segment of US Evangelicalim in which early marriage is encouraged, particularly for girls. An article in the Los Angeles Times by a home-school policy analyst named Kathryn Brightbill outlines this wider context (links in original):

One popular courtship story that was told and retold in home-school circles during the 1990s was that of Matthew and Maranatha Chapman, who turned their history into a successful career promoting young marriage. Most audiences, however, didn’t realize just how young the Chapmans had in mind until the site Homeschoolers Anonymous and the blogger Libby Anne revealed that Matthew was 27 and Maranatha was 15 when they married.

…As a teenager, I attended a lecture on courtship by a home-school speaker who was popular at the time. He praised the idea of “early courtship” so the girl could be molded into the best possible helpmeet for her future husband. The girl’s father was expected to direct her education after the courtship began so she could help her future husband in his work.

In retrospect, I understand what the speaker was really describing: Adult men selecting and grooming girls who were too young to have life experience. Another word for that is “predation.”

In July, it was reported that there had been “more than 200,000 children married in US over the last 15 years”. Back in February, I noted a source on how child marriage related to age of consent laws in California in the mid-1990s:

Over a two year period, social workers [in Orange County] persuaded fifteen teenage girls (some as young as 13) to marry the men who impregnated them (some as old as 30) in order to escape the legal consequences of their sexual activity. In each case, the marriage was authorized by a juvenile court judge. These girls, deemed too young to choose sex, were nevertheless judged mature enough to choose marriage.

According to the author here (1), this demonstrates that the law was seen primarily as a device to prevent welfare dependency. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any underlying philosophy of child protection and informed consent.

UPDATE: As noted by Axios and then Raw Story, Breitbart has now run stories that attempt to discredit Corfman and the other women featured in the Washington Post article.

As regards Corfman, Breitbart‘s Aaron Klein (this guy) has spoken with her mother Nancy Wells by phone, and found an supposed discrepancy as to whether Corfman had a phone in her bedroom at the time of her alleged association with Moore:

Corfman clearly claimed she spoke to Moore on what she said was “her phone in her bedroom” on at least one of those occasions. The Post did not specify whether the second or third alleged calls purportedly took place on a bedroom phone.

Wells, Corfman’s mother, was asked by Breitbart News: “Back then did she have her own phone in her room or something?”

“No,” she replied matter-of-factly. “But the phone in the house could get through to her easily.”

We don’t know if Corfman specifically said “my phone”, or if the Washington Post simply assumed it was “her” phone from her account of taking calls in her bedroom. Either way, though, the difference between Corfman having a phone in her room or trailing the house phone into her room from somewhere else seems to be very slim grounds on which to build a case.

Wells also told Klein that the Washington Post “worked to convince her daughter to give an interview about the allegations against Moore”. Klein believes this is important because it indicates “activist behavior” by the Washington Post, but it seems to me that all he has done here is to  provide further confirmation of Beth Reinhard’s account of how the story was found.

Footnote

(1) Kate Sutherland (2003), “From Jailbird to Jailbait: Age of Consent Law and the Construction of Teenage Sexualities“, William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law 9 (3): 313-349.

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