Donald Trump, E. Jean Carroll, CNN, and Saint Anselm College
Why is a Catholic college hosting a candidate found liable for sexual abuse?
On Tuesday afternoon, a jury found Donald Trump guilty of sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll. Carroll had brought a civil case against the former president, claiming that he had assaulted her in the 1990s and lied about it when he was president.
The jury returned a unanimous verdict in just three hours. Trump was found not liable on the rape charge, but he was found liable for sexual abuse (New York defines “sexual abuse” as subjecting a person to sexual contact without consent; whereas “rape” is defined under state law as sexual intercourse without consent which involves any penetration) and defamation of her character. Trump was ordered to pay Carroll $5 million in damages.
As the case has unfolded over recent weeks, a strange story developed on its edges. CNN announced that that it would hold a town hall event with Donald Trump in New Hampshire on the evening of May 10. No one imagined that the town hall would fall on the day following this verdict.
When announced, the move immediately came under fire from a host of critics — most worried that CNN’s action normalized a political candidate who has been indicted of a crime, was in a civil case regarding rape and sexual assault, and who is being investigated for election violations and instigating the January 6 insurrection.
As of the time of this writing, and despite the jury verdict, CNN has not changed its plans nor has it budged under criticism.
But there is another angle to this story — a religion twist. The CNN town hall event is being hosted by Saint Anselm College, a Catholic college in the Benedictine tradition, located in Manchester, NH.
Colleges love hosting these sorts of political events — and they are often seen as boons for both fundraising and public relations.
But face it: Donald Trump comes with unique challenges on both fronts.
Evidently, the criticism that didn’t sway CNN must have bothered the college. On May 2, the college issued a press release defending their decision:
Saint Anselm has a long history of participation in the democratic process, with every major candidate for president since the 1960 election visiting the college. Through the years the college has hosted hundreds of talks, town halls and other political events. . .
“We believe that honest and informed interchange of ideas and perspectives is the bedrock of an informed electorate, which is why we have enthusiastically and impartially hosted political events since the 1950s,” said Saint Anselm College President Joseph A. Favazza, Ph.D. “Democracy depends on an educated citizenry. Here at Saint Anselm, we are proud to play an important and unique role in this regard.”
Although I wouldn’t make the same decision if I were president of a college (and to be completely transparent, I know Saint Anselm’s president and respect him as a scholar and a person), I get why an institution might make this choice. Our civic and political life is frayed — and colleges should be committed to trying to restitch that cloth, especially in the current environment.
A college in the Benedictine tradition would have an additional reason for wanting to do so. The core spiritual practice of Benedictine life is hospitality — the idea that strangers are welcome to community. In addition to general secular reasons for holding such an event, a Benedictine college would have a pretty decent theological argument for having CNN and Trump on their campus.
But, just 24 hours in advance of the town hall, Saint Anselm’s political and theological arguments blew up with the jury verdict. Donald Trump was found liable by a court of law of sexual abuse.
This news is especially difficult for a Catholic institution in New Hampshire. No region in the United States was more shocked by the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal than New England. In 2002, the Boston Globe investigation revealed decades of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by priests in local parishes. Massachusetts and New Hampshire, two of most Catholic states in the nation, were shaken to the core. Eventually, the Globe report resulted in scores of prosecutions, lawsuits, resignations, church closures, loss of members, and an erosion of Catholic adherence, even in the most Catholic of states.
The sex abuse scandal spread from New England and became global crisis, as thousands of survivors of similar abuse came forward, and emerged as a massive problem in numerous countries. Since the initial Boston Globe story, the church has struggled to deal with the problem of clergy abuse — and Catholics have struggled to come to terms with the evil done in the name of their church.
Put plainly, the words “New England,” “sex abuse,” and “Catholic” have come to be identified with nothing but pain on a worldwide scale.
Given all this, it seems inconceivable that a New England Catholic college would host a political candidate found liable for sexual abuse. Trump’s presence will be a palpable reminder of one of the worst episodes in Catholic history, and a nightmare for both good priests and good Catholics who have tried to keep the faith and hold their own church accountable to the crimes committed in their midst.
While there might be some vague civic rationale to give Trump a platform on a major news network to say his piece about the verdict (although he didn’t choose to show up to the trial even when the judge gave him great flexibility to do so), the theological reason is much less compelling in light of these events. Indeed, Christian theology actually points in the opposite direction.
Benedictine hospitality should, indeed, extend to everyone. It is the greatest strength of an ancient Christian tradition. Good hospitality doesn’t necessarily mean that you welcome someone who has hurt — or may hurt — those already in your community.
Benedictines have always reached first toward the poor, those who are victims, the suffering, outsiders, immigrants, vagrants, the dispossessed, and yes, even those who have been convicted as criminals. The practice was forged as a protection of those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” not as a way for the privileged to abuse the goodwill of the church. The point of such hospitality is to extend God’s mercy to all, and not to provide unrepentant sinners a pulpit to forward their lies.
Barring an actual miracle, we all know that Donald Trump is not going to go on CNN and apologize to E. Jean Carroll or any of the other dozens of women who have accused him of similar sexual assaults and rape. He’s already called the trial a disgrace and restated the very lies of which he was just found liable. Trump will bluster his way through it, blasting the “witch hunt,” and bombard the airwaves with more deception and deceit.
That’s not adding to an “informed electorate.” It is violating the moral — and perhaps physical — safety of the community entrusted to your care.
Yes, Jesus invited Judas to the table at the Last Supper. But he surely didn’t mean for that to be a pattern for his followers going forward. Hospitality, acceptance, and grace: yes. Stupidity: no. Indeed, he also instructed the disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
In this case, Saint Anselm College would do well to heed the words of Our Lord.
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A note: The poem below isn’t really inspiration; it serves more as a parable. Trump appropriated it as his rallies to attack immigrants. But the original song was written by a Civil Rights activist and was intended to celebrate African-American culture — and the author’s children tried to stop him from using it. However, in the context of today’s post, it is worth asking: Who is the snake anyway?
On her way to work one morning
Down the path along side the lake
A tender hearted woman saw a poor half frozen snake
His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew
"Oh well," she cried, "I'll take you in and I'll take care of you"
"Take me in oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven's sake
Take me in oh tender woman,” sighed the snake
She wrapped him up all cozy in a curvature of silk
And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk
Now she hurried home from work that night as soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she'd taking in had been revived. . .
Now she clutched him to her bosom, "You're so beautiful," she cried
"But if I hadn't brought you in by now you might have died"
Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight
But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite. . .
"I saved you,” cried that woman
"And you've bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I'm going to die"
"Oh shut up, silly woman", said the reptile with a grin
"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in . . .”
— Al Wilson, “The Snake”
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Oh my, thank you Diana for your well-spoken words. We all carry God’s loving light inside. But some of us choose to ignore it. Instead we bully, prevaricate, and denigrate what is in our midst thinking we are powerful. We become the snake.
I think that tonight's Town Hall pretty much proved my contention that Trump is an unrepentant sinner.
Also, that's about the kindest thing I can think of to say about him. To re-victimize a person you raped, to defend war crimes in Ukraine, to lie over and over and over about the 2020 election, to deceive and deflect and deny. . . it was vile.