More specifically, I was thinking about working at a weekly newspaper in St. John’s, The Sunday Express, when the paper was preparing to launch its groundbreaking work on the wholesale sexual abuse of boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage, a facility run by the Irish Christian Brothers.
We worked a lot of stories right up to the last minute deadline, and those were the days before email made it easy to move stories around. And that meant that, on a Saturday afternoon, the newspaper’s lawyer might have to swing by the office to review news stories for their legal implications. (It was the same lawyer who once told me that one of my stories had no obvious legal concerns, but was “terribly badly written.”)
I said nothing at the time, but I was angry for days. Thing is, I now believe she was right.
On the Saturday that he reviewed one of the first of the Mount Cashel stories, he was on his way to somewhere else, and his wife — also a prominent, skilled lawyer — was with him. (Bear in mind, this is how I remember the day; others in the room might remember differently, but I’ve played it over and over in my head for years.)
There was considerable discussion about how detailed the story could be, how far we could go, when the female lawyer said bluntly, “If the victims were girls, this wouldn’t be a story.”
I couldn’t believe she said it. Inside, I boiled righteously with the indignation that young reporters always have plenty of.
Of course it would be a story. Of course we would follow it the same way, girls or boys. Of course the public would be just as horrified.
I said nothing at the time, but I was angry for days.
Thing is, I now believe she was right.
Make no mistake, Mount Cashel was a horrendous story, and the fallout of the abuse has destroyed lives to an extent that few people really appreciate. I wasn’t working on the story directly, but we were all surrounded by it in the newsroom, and I don’t for a moment want to downplay the serious impacts it had on the victims.
But one offshoot of the current discussion of institutionalized sexual harassment of women and girls — in the entertainment industry, in politics, and in the lives, it seems, of women and girls virtually everywhere — is that you don’t only hear stories about the abuse from almost every close female friend you have, but you also hear how cavalierly such behaviour was dismissed when anyone managed to complain.
With Mount Cashel, the general public didn’t consider — nor should they have — that the boys were anything but victims.
Women have not been given the same consideration.
Sexual assault is sexual assault, plain and simple. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, regardless of who was harassed.
But the optics have clearly been different, and sometimes, it takes years to change a point of view. Heck, sometimes it’s impossible to change a point of view.
Enough points of view have changed now to perhaps bring us closer to where I mistakenly and naively thought we already were almost 30 years ago.
We are going to hear a lot more about harassment and abuse from women, because we’ve resolutely spent many years trying hard not to listen.
There’s a lot of pressure pent up behind the dam.
And it’s going to come out.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.