Dr. Hager's Family Values
Historically, the legal system has long been indifferent to the crime of marital sexual assault; as recently as twelve years ago in some states, it was legal for a man to force his wife physically into sex, or commence having sex without her consent--actions that could land a stranger in jail. Until 2000 the Kentucky Penal Code still contained archaic procedural obstacles for prosecuting marital rape, including a requirement that it be reported within one year of the offense. (No other felony--including "stranger rape"--contains a statute of limitations.) Even today, marital sexual assault is a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute. Women like Davis often have strong financial incentives to stay with their spouses; those who speak out frequently face an uphill battle to convince people that their husbands, who may be well liked and respected, are capable of something this ugly at home. Also, because marriages play out over many years, some sex is consensual, while other sex is not--a fact that may complicate matters for a jury in a criminal proceeding.
Linda Davis chose not to bring allegations of marital rape into her divorce proceedings; her foremost desires at the time were a fair settlement and minimal disruption for her sons. Nonetheless, she informed her lawyer of the abuse. Natalie Wilson, a divorce attorney in Lexington, asked Linda to draw up a working chronology of her marriage to Hager. "[It] included references to what I would call the sexual abuse," Wilson explained. "I had no reason not to believe her.... It was an explanation for some of the things that went on in the marriage, and it explained her reluctance to share that information with her sons--which had resulted in her sons' being very angry about the fact that she was insisting on the divorce."
As it turned out, when the dust settled after their divorce, nearly everyone in the Hagers' Christian and medical circles in Lexington had sided with Hager, who told people that his wife was mentally unstable and had moved in with another man (she moved in with friends).
Davis had only told a handful of people about the abuse throughout her marriage, but several of her longtime confidantes confirmed for this article that she had told them of the abuse at the time it was occurring. Wilson, the attorney, spoke to me on the record, as did Brenda Bartella Peterson, Davis's close friend of twenty-five years. Several others close to Davis spoke to me off the record. Two refused to speak to me and denounced Davis for going public, but they did not contest her claims. Many attempts to interview nearly a dozen of Hager's friends and supporters in Lexington and around the country were unsuccessful.
As for David Hager, after repeated attempts to interview him for this story, we finally spoke for nearly half an hour in early April. That conversation was off the record. "My official comment is that I decline to comment," he said.
As disturbing as they are on their own, Linda Davis's allegations take on even more gravity in light of Hager's public role as a custodian of women's health. Some may argue that this is just a personal matter between a man and his former wife--a simple case of "he said, she said" with no public implications. That might be so--if there were no allegations of criminal conduct, if the alleged conduct did not bear any relevance to the public responsibilities of the person in question, and if the allegations themselves were not credible and independently corroborated. But given that this case fails all of those tests, the public has a right to call on Dr. David Hager to answer Linda Davis's charges before he is entrusted with another term. After all, few women would knowingly choose a sexual abuser as their gynecologist, and fewer still would likely be comfortable with the idea of letting one serve as a federal adviser on women's health issues.
(Lest inappropriate analogies be drawn between the Hager accusations and the politics of personal destruction that nearly brought down the presidency of Bill Clinton, it ought to be remembered that President Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky was never alleged to be criminal and did not affect his ability to fulfill his obligations to the nation. This, of course, did not stop the religious right from calling for his head. "The topic of private vs. public behavior has emerged as perhaps the central moral issue raised by Bill Clinton's 'improper relationship,'" wrote evangelist and Hager ally Franklin Graham at the time. "But the God of the Bible says that what one does in private does matter. There needs to be no clash between personal conduct and public appearance.")