Reporter Peter Aldous, who was part of the team that exposed Lawrence Krauss, notes that the firing happened after the AA board learned of “written allegations of sexual assault and undisclosed conflicts of interest.”
It appears they only learned of these things because BuzzFeed had been contacted by the women involved and was investigating the story itself.
Those women sent their written testimonies to American Atheists this week, hence the group’s seemingly sudden decision to fire Silverman.
Let’s start with the “conflicts of interest,” the reason for Silverman’s suspension earlier this week:
[AA investigated a] complaint from staff concerned that he had not disclosed financial and personal conflicts of interest relating to the promotion of his book, Fighting God, and the appointment to a senior position of a woman with whom Silverman was allegedly having a sexual relationship. (That appointment has been rescinded.)
An outside investigator had been hired by American Atheists to look into both matters but no resolution had been offered just yet.
As that was happening, American Atheists’ board learned of other serious problems involving assault.
The allegations are damning.
In one case, BuzzFeed reports, Silverman forced himself upon a woman (going by her first initial “R“) whom he had known for years and with whom he’d been flirting with one night during American Atheists’ 2015 convention in Memphis. R says she didn’t pursue anything more, but he did after a party room in the hotel cleared out for the night.
“He physically pressed me to the wall and began to kiss me forcefully, grabbed my breasts, and put his hand into my leggings where there was actual penetration of my vagina,” she wrote.
R. believed Silverman knew she was interested in BDSM, and wrote that he began using insulting language, calling her a “dirty little whore.” He then pushed her to her knees, “where his penis briefly made contact with my mouth,” she wrote.
R. got her feet and said “no,” she wrote. Silverman then lightly slapped her face and said, “You don’t get to say no to me.”
She said a known safe word. He stopped. She left. The next day, however, she took pictures of bruises he left on her body and told close friends what had happened. She didn’t say anything to AA’s board at the time out of fear that it would affect her reputation, but she informed them of the incident this week.
The other allegation isn’t anonymous.
She notes that during a 2012 Secular Student Alliance convention, at a bar with other speakers one evening, Silverman came onto her. She was intoxicated and not in a position to give consent, but they went back to his hotel room where, despite not even having condoms, he “pressured her into having anal sex.” He later told her not to apply for an internship with American Atheists because it “could be seen as preferential treatment.”
The third allegation reviewed by the American Atheists board involves a student, Rose St. Clair, who alleged that Silverman used his position of power to pressure her into having sex with him. “At several points during this encounter, I hesitated to continue,” she wrote. “I believed that if I did anything to upset him, my chances at being involved in the secular community, especially with American Atheists, would be ruined.”
She, too, told friends about the situation at the time — they corroborated her story to BuzzFeed — but didn’t want to go public with it. She only did so now after learning she wasn’t the only person this happened to.
Silverman, through a lawyer, denied all the allegations. Bizarrely, the lawyer said Silverman was “in an open marriage” at the time of these incidents… as if that has any bearing on assault allegations. Silverman said everything he did was consensual, but that only applies if both sides agree to it. That clearly wasn’t the case.
I’m still wrapping my mind around all this, so forgive me if I’m not saying everything I need to be saying here. I’m typing and thinking at the same time. But I do want to give credit to the board of American Atheists for believing these stories and taking quick action. (I’m assuming, of course, that they didn’t know about them before last week.)
If this was the first time they learned all the details, then they handled it as you would hope an organization would: They suspended Silverman upon learning of the internal conflicts of interest and hired a third party to look into the details. They fired him upon learning there were more serious charges that went far beyond anything internal. (They didn’t hire an investigator for those sexual assault stories. They believed the women.)
While I understand not wanting to share details of the “conflicts of interest” problem with the public before an investigation was complete, I think it’s fair to say they should’ve been up front about the nature of the assault allegations, at least in a broader sense. (It’s irrelevant that they knew BuzzFeed’s story would come out about an hour later.) Didn’t members have a right to know why Silverman was fired if the board was convinced the claims were legitimate? We shouldn’t have to rely on a media outlet to tell us what they already knew.
That said, when the Krauss story broke, one of the common criticisms was that the reporting came from BuzzFeed, as if that made it unworthy of being taken seriously. I hope this story, along with American Atheists’ actions, makes clear that the reporters and the outlet aren’t the problem.
The women who came forward deserve credit for telling their stories publicly. Because of that, the most famous atheist organization in the country terminated the employment of one of the most famous atheists in the country, a constant presence in the world of atheist activism.
And they did so, coincidentally, on the birthday of American Atheists’ founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
(Correction: I initially said R used “their” safe word. It was not. It was a common safe word.)