Topic: Media

Lessons from the Hendra Affair
(7/23/2004)

You may not recognize Tony Hendra's name, but you've probably laughed at his jokes. He's a former National Lampoon writer who has contributed material to some of TV's most successful sitcoms, and he has written books as well. His latest, "Father Joe," hit the jackpot when the New York Times gave his personal memoir of moral and spiritual growth (through his relationship with a Benedictine monk) a rave review that sent it climbing on the Best Seller lists. But the new level of notoriety had its dark side for Hendra, to say the least: it prompted his adult daughter Jessica to tell the Times that Hendra's spiritual journey had included sexually molesting her when she was a little girl.

The Times printed a sensational and graphic story about the accusations, which Tony Hendra denies. Now he isn't Tony Hendra, Best Selling Author. He is Tony Hendra, Child Molester.

OK, Class, quiz time! Who, if anybody, behaved ethically here?

As for Tony Hendra himself, we don't know. If Jessica's allegations are true, the answer is obvious, but there is no way to determine that. The Times reporter, based on his research, concluded that Jessica's accusations were "credible," but that only means they might be true. The position of child abuse activists notwithstanding, there must be a presumption of innocence for the alleged abuser absent overwhelming evidence, a confession, or a court verdict. There are none of these here. But it must also be said that if Hendra did commit the horrible acts described in the Times, he has won himself a cosmic prize for gall by penning a book about moral awakenings.

It is this aspect of the story that probably tipped the scales for the Times. Dan Okrent, the Times' embattled ombudsman, wrote a column about the issue in which he professed ethical confusion, and it is hard to blame him. On one hand, the accusation, without being provable, undeniably harms Hendra's reputation. On the other, Times readers inspired by the paper's glowing review of Hendra's book might well feel that they have a right to know that its morally uplifted author is an accused child molester. Okrent is right: it's a close call ethically. Dozens of flawed rationalizations support the Times' decision ("Any other paper would print the story;" "If we don't, someone else will," "We've printed less justifiable stories…"), but it can also be defended on its merits. Sometimes there isn't a clear right answer, and this is one of those times.

Jessica Hendra is the alleged victim here, but she is a victimizer as well. The timing of her revelation follows in the tradition of Naomi Wolf (http://ethicsscoreboard.com/list/wolf.html) and Anita Hill, designed to circumvent fair processes of inquiry and justice to exact retribution and to cause grievous harm to another through public ambush. Her accusations, like those of Pollitt and Hill, should have been made in timely fashion and through the justice system. Her father, like Harold Bloom and Clarence Thomas, deserved notice and the opportunity to defend himself, and though this is hard for some to accept, he deserved this even if he did everything his daughter says. The manner of her accusations was motivated by anger and vengeance, not a desire for justice, and she made the Times her accessory.

Nobody, certainly not the Ethics Scoreboard, is going to condemn Jessica Hendra based on what we know, which is very little. If her story is true, she has suffered horribly, and her abuser, her father, has failed in his obligation to confess and make amends to the extent that is possible. We cannot blame her for acting on her unresolved anger and pain; it might test a saint to do otherwise. But to say it is understandable or even unavoidable is not to say it is fair or right.

Too often, distant ethical kibitzers act as if the agonizing dilemmas faced by others are mere exam questions on a test, with clear answers that only require a little diligent study. The reality is that ethics is hard and life is harder. When some of us choose being human over being ethical, we ought to respond with empathy and understanding, and then hope that we can learn and do better. The Hendra affair, in all its confusion and sadness, at least may do some lasting good if it reminds us of this.

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