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John Robson: Patrick Brown can’t clear his name by running for leader


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Patrick Brown must go away if he wants to come back. It’s easy for me to say. But he can’t clear his name by running for Ontario PC leader. So the awkward question is: what should we do about him?

It’s not awkward if the allegations against him prove substantially true. Even if they don’t rise to the level of criminality, they make him unpalatable as a leader even in these “liberated” times. But what if they’re false?

A surprising number of people have a simple answer whose awful implications we should understand thoroughly before endorsing or acquiescing in it: that if Brown is innocent, tough bananas. Hence the letter-writer in the Feb. 2 National Post who said “Quite frankly, ‘J’accuse, you’re done’ is much better than the ‘put up and shut up’ culture that preceded it” before shaming all men with “Welcome to the club, boys. You made this bed and now you get to sleep in it.” But by what debased logic must we accept a dismal choice between excusing the guilty or punishing the innocent?

Well, according to an extraordinary statement by the lawyer for the ooops-I-wasn’t-in-high-school accuser, Brown shouldn’t have challenged her, including defying her to go to the police, because “No one with a contemporary understanding of the dynamics of sexual victimization and its aftermath would be so insensitive and patriarchal as to try to dictate to a survivor what her healing path should be, much less goad her.”

This sociological gooblahoy takes some parsing. Remember, the exhaustive list of possibilities are (a) Brown assaulted her exactly as she initially claimed; (b) Brown assaulted her but not exactly as she initially claimed; (c) someone else assaulted her; or (d) no one did.

If it’s (d) she’s not a “survivor” and has no claim to a “healing path” of any sort. If it’s (c) I question the therapeutic benefits, and justice, of ruining an innocent person. If it’s (a) this touchy-feely blither about dictating healing paths has no relevance because she told the truth. So the lawyer must be saying it’s (b) but she has the right to imagine or invent singularly unsavory details if it makes her feel better. (Remember, what really sealed Brown’s initial fate was supposedly plying an underage high-schooler with booze to bed her, the one thing we now know he did not do.)

Which takes us directly to “J’accuse, you’re done,” because the way you clear your name in any criminal matter is to point to inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case. Can anyone seriously believe we can build a good society by forbidding people to answer accusations in public or in court, that doing so would bear any relationship to fundamental justice, or that we can achieve the former by scorning the latter?

I also think it does victims a severe disservice to suggest that sexual assault leaves them too permanently damaged to adhere to normal standards of honesty or resilience. The true “healing path” is to realize this horror was neither the end of their life nor its defining feature.

Of course it is also true that if Patrick Brown’s name is cleared without his political career reviving he can still lead a satisfying, useful, honourable life. But just as such considerations do not mean we should not prosecute rapists, they do not mean we should excuse devastating, untrue accusations.

So we’re back to my original question. Since Brown cannot usefully run for the PC leadership unless and until his name is cleared, what if accusations that prevent him from becoming Ontario premier turn out to have been false?

To be sure Brown, who I didn’t approve as Tory leader, might have lost the election anyway, died in a bus crash during it or otherwise failed to become premier. And he might later rebound politically. But the stars might well never align again. So just as someone who spends 20 years in jail before being cleared, or whose marriage disintegrates during a pseudo-scandal, cannot ever get those decades or that family back, what do we do when we discover a permanently damaging injustice?

My solution, precisely because we cannot reset the clock, is that false accusations must bring severe consequences. Not, again, because sexual assault isn’t serious but because it is. You cannot wrongly accuse people of major wrongdoing then saunter off leaving them a smouldering wreck.

If Brown is guilty he should be shunned. But if he sues CTV successfully, network heads should roll, individuals who made false accusations should also be sued, and those who bayed for innocent blood should be scorned. All precisely because we cannot reset the clock once we know the facts.

So the question isn’t awkward after all. We must simply comfort the innocent and punish the guilty. Whoever they turn out to be.

National Post