As soon as Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s name surfaced as the next Supreme Court nominee, a slew of right and left opinion writers warned against the political dangers of criticizing or even asking about her religious affiliation. Barrett has been a member and leader in the little-known People of Praise, which is related to Roman Catholicism. The small size of the group alone would justify some explanation, but senators took the pundits at their word, and nary a word was spoken about her faith during the hearings. Now a vote is scheduled for Thursday, October 22, and I have to say that I am left wanting answers to important questions senators did not pose.
While the political elite knowingly clucked about the futility or supposed inappropriateness of asking Barrett to be more forthcoming about her religious affiliation, the #MeToo movement spurred yet another set of victims to tell us about their suffering. These victims say People of Praise has condoned and perpetuated domestic violence against women and children. As recent history proves again and again, ignoring the victims may result in delay, but it won’t avoid an eventual reckoning.
I presume the senators would have been outspoken had she been a member of a white supremacist organization. But God forbid they question religious affiliation. They are so fearful of being falsely called “anti-Catholic”—even when seeking the truth on behalf of victims of domestic violence—that they are publicly perpetuating this culture’s systemic and silent acquiescence in the oppression of women and children in some religious settings.
The loudest, brave voice is that of Coral Theill, who published a memoir of her suffering at the hands of this organization in 2003, Bonshea: Making Light of the Dark. You can also find her story here. The media has been covering her, but you’d never know that she exists if you only watched Barrett’s hearings, where Senator Lindsey Graham sang her praises for being pro-life, but said nothing about the troubling facts that have been emerging about this organization that has been such a significant element of her life.
Thiell has sent letters to senators asking to testify about the truth of her experience in the People of Praise, but has received no answer, which is why I am writing this column. The following are the unanswered questions that I feel the American people have a right to ask and have answered. They are also the issues the senators should understand before they rush to confirm Barrett.
- Am I correct in assuming that you are aware of the #MeToo movement, the movement to end child sex abuse, and the movement against domestic violence that have encouraged victims to come forward to the public to unmask oppressive practices in numerous contexts? How have these movements affected the organizations with which you are affiliated?
- You are a lifelong member and apparently leader of a religious organization, the People of Praise, which is credibly accused of domestic violence by numerous women. What have you done to investigate or end these practices?
- There is an epidemic of domestic violence, and, as a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for it to be inflicted for religiously motivated reasons. Do you agree?
- Would you apply a less strict legal standard to religiously-motivated domestic violence and child abuse than other instances? For example, how will you interpret the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when it is invoked as a defense in federal sex trafficking cases involving religious actors?
- In addition to being a member of the People of Praise, you also describe yourself as a “devout Catholic.” The Catholic Church has experienced a global crisis involving the sexual abuse of children by clergy, a problem that continues to this day. What have you done or written in response to this human rights crisis?
- There are numerous clergy sex abuse lawsuits in the United States, many of them involving the Catholic Church, and issues arising from them are likely to land at the Supreme Court. Will you recuse yourself in those cases, given your tight relationship and avowed allegiance to the Catholic Church?
- You have endorsed an originalist approach to the Constitution. At the time of the framing, women were the property of their husbands. How does that historical fact affect your interpretation of the civil rights of women?
- Children were also property at the time of the framing. How does that historical fact shape your views on children’s rights against abuse and neglect?
It is taboo to publicly criticize religion, because there is a false, public mythology in the United States that religion is always good and pure; and, of course, the religious right has turned its culture war losses into the stigmata of victimization. I would agree with the pundits and political strategists who counseled ignoring Barrett’s religious affiliations if religion were nothing but a good and benevolent God. In fact, here on earth, it’s run by humans, and humans can and do bend religion to oppress and harm others.
For the sake of the vulnerable, let’s stop pretending religious affiliation is irrelevant at the highest court in the United States.