EDITORIAL: Don’t let spectacles be a distraction to the problem of sexual harassment and assault

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pictured at a news conference in Washington in May 2020.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pictured at a news conference in Washington in May 2020.

A lot of people are getting a lot of pleasure out of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pain.

Some secretly, and some not so discreetly, had long clamored for him to get his comeuppance.

That comeuppance came in August when the angry, arrogant vengeful son of a better man was forced out office by an avalanche of sexual harassment allegations and a damning report authored by his political rival in the Attorney General’s Office. The one-time king of COVID — he of the Emmy-winning news conferences, brotherly love and braggy autobiography — was finally getting what he deserved.

But his resignation and fall from power was just Act I.

On Thursday, news leaked that the former governor was being charged criminally with a misdemeanor sex charge in connection with an incident in which a former aide claimed Cuomo forcibly groped her at the Executive Mansion in December. On Friday, the Albany County sheriff confirmed the charge and fumbled through an explanation as to why the potential charge leaked to the media before the District Attorney’s Office or Cuomo’s lawyers were even made aware of it.

As he was describing how police had “overwhelming evidence” of a crime against Cuomo, the ex-governor’s defenders and detractors were typing feverishly on social media and issuing press releases.

Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi, retained by Cuomo after his resignation, spent all Friday afternoon peppering news organizations with emails criticizing the criminal investigation, denying the allegations, mocking the objectivity and competence of Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple and taking jabs at state Attorney General Letitia James, accusing her of opportunism, abuse of power and political dirty tricks for her damning report that opened the door to her candidacy for governor, which she coincidentally announced on Friday.

All of this is really just high political theater, the kind for which New York is famous.

But it shouldn’t distract the public’s attention from the real issue — that of sexual harassment and sexual assault perpetuated by individuals in power against weaker or more vulnerable victims, and the need to hold these perpetrators accountable.

If people view Cuomo’s situation exclusively through the lens of the former governor and his political and legal demise, then the attention it creates will do no one any good.

But if citizens and elected officials can put aside the noise, and focus on the allegations themselves, it could help shine the spotlight on the perpetrators and those around them who seek to dismiss and cover for them.

It could empower victims to no longer live in fear or to keep their victimization to themselves.

It could and should inspire stronger workplace protections for employees, in and out of state government.

It could and should spur employers to reexamine their policies regarding sexual harassment and violence.

It could and should prompt lawmakers to pass stricter laws, enact more workplace protections and increase punishment for abusers.

It could and should compel law enforcement and prosecutors to more aggressively pursue such cases.

While this is all going on, the sports world is dealing with its own dark hour of sexual assault and with its own day of reckoning.

It, too, could either be a distraction or part of the solution.

Earlier this week, former National Hockey League prospect Kyle Beach, a member of the Chicago Blackhawks organization, came forward with his previously anonymous allegations that he was sexually assaulted by team video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010 and compelled not to speak out because of the power the individual had over his career.

Beach has alleged in an earlier lawsuit that Blackhawks team management, coaches and teammates were aware of the assault and did nothing in order to protect the reputation of the team, which won the Stanley Cup championship that same year.

For a decade, the perpetrator and the people who excused and covered up the behavior got away with it. Aldrich left the team and took other assignments with other organizations, potentially exposing other victims to his abuses.

But since Beach came forward, the team’s president/general manager at the time of the incident resigned, as did the team’s vice president. And Beach’s former coach was forced to resign Thursday from his position as coach of another NHL team, the Florida Panthers.

Fellow players and others in the organization are now being identified and chastised for their secrecy and willful ignorance.

Many times when victims come forward, they are doubted, chastised and sometimes punished.

In addition to being victimized sexually, workplace victims have been fired, denied promotions, doubted and denied justice. In Beach’s case, the assault and cover-up derailed his NHL career.

It shouldn’t take a national spectacle like Cuomo’s demise or the Blackhawks scandal to bring attention to the problem, to bring action from lawmakers and to bring justice for victims.

If all this attention helps move society along, so be it.

But don’t let it be a distraction. Let it be a wake-up call to action.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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