Tag Archives: Sexual Assault

Bob Jones University: Another Religious Institutional Failure Where Predators Are Concerned

In 1991, as a senior at UNC Charlotte, I held the position of governor of a statewide student legislature in North Carolina. At some point during my tenure, I had the opportunity to meet and briefly work with my counterpart who was the leader of a similar group in South Carolina. It was a relationship I should have been excited to forge. But I didn’t expect to like him, and for one foolish reason: He attended Bob Jones University.

Bob Jones, in Greeneville, South Carolina, is among the most conservative Christian and strict, biblically-based institutions of higher learning in the country. I had no issue with its basic principles, but BJU had been known for going far beyond most other Bible-based schools. Among a few other things I found distasteful, it did not admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. So I assumed my counterpart would be smug, judgmental, and perhaps even bigoted.

I could not have been more wrong. He was, and remains, deeply religiously conservative. He is also among the warmest, most thoughtful, and most decent people I’ve ever met. He now lives in Maine with his wife and children, loves sailing, works as a medical professional, and continues to live a devout Christian life.

My point is that Bob Jones is hardly a place that produces uniformly bad people. In fact it produces mostly decent and honorable people, regardless of whether I agree with their politics or religious thinking.

But Bob Jones, like all formal institutions featuring strict religious dogma, an authoritarian structure and a generally insular environment, is especially vulnerable to exploitation by predatory people who infiltrate its community. This doesn’t mean BJU and places like it are more infested with predators than more liberal institutions. Predators are everywhere. But they tend to seek out and/or remain in favorable environments. As sad and unfair as it is, strict religious institutions are often excellent ones for predatory people, simply because predators can utilize aspects of them in mockery of what they’re designed for. Dogma, structure, and some distrust of outsiders are not in and of themselves bad things. Constricting things perhaps. The wrong choice for many, perhaps. But not destructive in essence.

What is destructive, however, is when religious dogma is perverted to “blame and shame” victims. When an authoritarian structure allows those in power to abuse relatively helpless adherents. And when a mistrust of outsiders is used to discourage reporting to civil authorities or even seeking professional help. Every institution with these attributes runs the risk of both infiltration by predators and then the unwitting nurturing of them once they’re inside.

It’s not what the institutions want; BJU’s leadership doubtlessly wanted its students harmed no more than the Vatican intended for there to be widespread abuse by a small but prolific percentage of its priests and nuns. Regardless, vulnerability remains because danger is always present, meaning that predatory people (who as far we know tend to appear for reasons we don’t in every imaginable situation) are always looking for places to hunt and hide. The one thing religious institutions can do to mitigate their inherent risks is to value the members of the institution more than the institution itself.

This means being utterly transparent about policies to prevent abuse, and allowing an honest assessment of how much it’s happening. It means making it publicly known that it will cooperate with civil authorities and seek help from professionals outside of its sphere of influence, even if that means risking exposure to a less Godly and sometimes unfair world outside the gates.

But like the Vatican (and many other religious institutions seeking to keep their reputations and authority intact), Bob Jones appears to have failed at this task, with a report released last week outlining widespread discouragement of reporting and in some cases startling victim-blaming by university officials. In many cases this treatment grossly exacerbated the harm done, and drove some victims not only away from BJU but from Christianity itself.

Again, this is the last thing BJU has ever wanted. But it’s what the institution has reaped, at least in some measure, and at least in part because of its brand mattering more than its students.

Rolling Stone: From a Crucial and Embattled Movement, Behold Your Work

I have devoted a career to a growing and viscerally important, but eternally beset and threatened movement to end sexual violence. On college campuses, such violence has revealed itself to be among the worst and most widespread.

I can say with head-shaking sadness and bitter disgust that I’ve never seen this movement- particularly where widespread and largely ignored (or concealed) college rape is concerned- damaged so profoundly and with such speed.

This has happened because of breathtaking incompetence and blind greed, period.

I don’t know exactly where the reporter, Sabrina Erdely, falls on this miserable continuum. Perhaps she was remarkably unprofessional but sincere, paving the road to hell with a genuine belief that she was doing right by a traumatized young woman she sought out for a hyper-sensationalized story. Or, perhaps she’s as guilty as Rolling Stone’s editorial staff seems to have been, green-lighting this substandard piece simply because it was obvious click-bait and a turbo-charged issue seller.

What’s left for this particular story is hard to say. Clearly, there are both discrepancies in “Jackie’s” account and now additional emerging circumstances that must create doubt in any reasonable mind as to the full truth of what was apparently related to Erdely. But does that justify a leap to the assumption that Jackie just made it all up? Hardly.

The idea that she completely fabricated a gang-rape, and then punctuated this vicious, elaborate hoax with a two-year long journey toward healing (including thoroughly corroborated Immense distress, withdrawal, depression, and then involvement in UVA’s anti-sexual assault movement) is frankly absurd absent some profoundly delusional condition. It’s even more absurd when one remembers that Jackie never attempted to “go public.” Instead, Erdely and her editors took her there after seeking out the most shocking example of campus sexual violence available.

And now they’ve left her exposed and alone, regardless of their “apology” (revised after a backlash) that initially blamed her completely.

What’s left for the movement against rape, though, is as clear as it is damning: Legions of so-called “men’s rights advocates” and others who enjoy perpetrating myths and misogyny, are declaring victory. Jackie, they’re insisting, is emblematic of women everywhere. To the paranoid male, she’s a shining example of how college hook-up culture combined with alcohol has elicited reckless false reports from foolish, immoral women who then become desperate to claw back their virtue by “crying rape,” thus filling the prisons of the world with decent, if naturally red-blooded men.

Countless finger-wagging moralists and scolds with ready-made prescriptions to end a plague they really know nothing about are joining them, insisting that, at very least, Jackie is another “mistaken” victim, not of rape, but of the same reckless culture combined with new, politically liberal incentives to mistakenly cry rape when the real issue is “crossed signals” with a truly non-offending male.

For these two groups and so many more, Jackie is the rightfully exposed antagonist of their morality play, either because she’s a soulless liar or just another lost soul in need of everything from religion to hard-nosed advice on “how not to get raped.”

This is the deplorable handiwork of a publication literally as old as I am, and one that’s been culturally relevant and important far beyond its original focus on music (see Matt Taibbi, as an example), but that has miserably failed not just its readers but a theretofore unknown and healing, apparently contributing young woman as well.

Make no mistake; this was done for money and nothing more. I recall my father, when I was a kid, scoffing at the idea of a “liberal media” or a conservative one, for that matter. “What the media cares about,” he would say in an expression that’s now quaint, “is selling papers.”

Indeed. The almighty dollar is what matters. It’s what mattered to Rolling Stone when it came to pushing prematurely a damaged and traumatized young woman into the meat grinder of the 24 hour news-cycle and the twitterverse.  Journalistic ethics didn’t matter much. A still struggling movement they’ve set back a good 10 years didn’t matter much.

Jackie certainly didn’t matter much.

 

An Inconvenient Truth About Pedophilia: It’s a Curse, Not a Choice

6028playground_swingA friend sent me this link to a New York Times op-ed on pedophilia, the technical term for the DSM-Vparaphilic mental health diagnosis that describes a person (usually a male), sexually interested only in pre-pubescent children.

Apparently, the DSM itself (the “bible” of mental health professionals) will not describe pedophilia as a sexual orientation, but rather a paraphilic disorder. This is basically a sexual predilection detrimental to the object of the interest, and which causes the sufferer significant distress or difficulty dealing with it. Since pedophiles are solely, sexually focused on prepubescent children, any manifestation of the disorder will be- in essence- harmful and unacceptable. Rightfully, we punish such manifestations, including consumption of child pornography as well as “hands-on” offending.

Regardless, I know of no reputable mental health expert who would call pedophilia a “choice.” When it comes to the persistent, chronic sexual attraction to prepubescent children, what we’re dealing with is more of a burden.

Or more bluntly, a curse.

What’s chosen is behavior.  Sexual behavior involving prepubescent children should remain 1) anathema to what is societally acceptable, and 2) severely punished. I’ve spent a career seeking to do these things.

But the author of the op-ed makes valid points when she discusses the need to understand pedophilia instead of just aiming vitriol and anger toward those saddled with this miserable circumstance. There are, as she notes, people with pedophilia who do not act out in response to deep-seated urges. They understand the concrete wrongness of sexually acting out against children, so they painfully but dutifully deny themselves a sexual life.

In my opinion, with a career of seeking to protect children from child molesters behind me, I believe these successfully restrained people should be commended for this, particularly when their concern is more for the children they might harm as it is for the legal or societal consequences they might face. Certainly, they should not be further marginalized, ostracized, or hated. But regardless of how balanced any appeal to common sense or baseline compassion might be, hatred and viciousness are usually what pedophiles encounter.

And so they remain in the shadows, untreated and more deeply misunderstood.

We still have almost no idea what causes pedophilia; correlations between childhood experiences (abusive or non-abusive) have been at best inconclusive. If it’s genetic, we’ve yet to discover a traceable etiology. We know that the vast majority of victims of childhood sexual abuse do not turn around themselves and abuse later in life or “become” pedophiles. Rather, it seems more ingrained, but we don’t know why or how.  We also know that, while most confirmed abusers will claim past sexual abuse, even the threat of a polygraph exam during treatment will bring those claims far down.

So we’re dealing with a very dangerous mystery. But largely as a society, we’re interested in nothing but punishing pedophiles, regardless of their actual status as offenders. If they have this desire, too many of us seem to believe that they’re worthy of the worst we can legally (or otherwise) dish out to them.

The comments to Dr. Margo Kaplan’s piece in the NYT are enlightening in this regard. While some applaud her for her courage in being a voice of reason, many more seem to fall into a couple of categories that, while understandable to some degree, are irrelevant. First, there are commenters who simply make legally and psychologically incorrect assertions, and lump pedophiles into the far larger subset of child molesters, most of whom are not pedophiles. Second, there are woefully unfocused comments that address the harm done to the victims of pedophiles (or people they assume are pedophiles) with no further thought.

Focusing on victims and prevention of harm is more than understandable; it’s completely appropriate and it needs to continue to be our highest priority. But we must also understand what drives offending- particularly when the drive is so despised that passion chokes that understanding.

Again- most predatory, sexual offenders are not pedophiles. The word is grossly overused and misused. Regardless, there are harmful pedophiles in our midst. We need to stop them, but in order to do so, we need to understand them.

Blind hatred won’t help. Blind hatred never helps anything.

 

 

 

Honored Beyond Words: Being a Part of “Lived Through This”

LTTIt has to have been 8 years or more since I first heard of the Voices and Faces Project, although it seems like much longer. Its mission is so beautifully simple that it tends to transcend its also beautifully simple name: Voices and Faces.

But that’s the point.

The best prosecutors, investigators and advocates I ever worked with in this business knew that the word “case,” and the dozens of other words we use to categorize, triage, sanitize and process human misery as a result of crime, was a reprehensible substitute for the person we came to know at the center of it.

Yes, it was a case, and it had to be dealt with as such. But the thing that haunted us wasn’t the case. It was the she or he, the unique, mysterious, and sometimes broken, sometimes remarkably unbowed, person before us. To the extent we were responsible to her or him- at least for what we could control in the almost comically blunt and fractured, imperfect system we worked in- we struggled to keep that person’s face foremost in our minds. We struggled to hear her or his voice as we strategized, made decisions, and dealt out “justice” as we’d been conditioned to accept and define it.

But even that voice- the one we heard- was truncated. I was good at what I did, and I listened well. But what I needed to hear professionally, and what I could spare the time and emotional energy for, was always far less than what could have been fully related to me. When I parted ways with a survivor, whether she was 5 or 75, I often wondered what I’d missed, and was missing then and forever. But it wasn’t something I could dwell on. There were more “cases” coming in. Pretty much every day.

The pinnacle of what I did wasn’t winning those cases (and yes, I accept how self-serving that sounds, having lost my share). Regardless, the pinnacle was responding to the voices and acknowledging the faces in a way that gave them- and not us- the measure of dignity and recognition they deserved.

That is the day to day challenge that simply must be met in the Anglo-American criminal justice response to sexual violence, or all else is lost, and our critics are right to say we serve no one but ourselves.

But even at our best, we could only see so much, and absorb so much. There was- and always will be- an ocean of human experience going woefully unnoticed by those of us tasked with responding professionally to the harm done. We’re simply not equipped to know it all, whether because it’s not legally relevant, not immediately discernible, or not emotionally digestible given the spectrum we work on.

And the saddest fact, of course, is that the incalculable amount of suffering, resilience, inspiration and courage that results from sexual violence in our world could be at any time multiplied exponentially from what I missed, and that all of us in the entire system miss. This is because we only see what enters the system we created in the first place. The vast, vast majority of sexual violence that occurs the world over, day in and day out, is never revealed to any sort of system of authority or adjudication. It simply goes unmet, unaided, unanswered. Unheard.

Voices and Faces changes that, and with no more than the courage of the survivors and the ability to memorialize their accounts. Of course, the project stands apart from the criminal justice response and well it should. I simply came across it as a practitioner with no other perspective.

Except for one. I am a victim, myself of child sexual abuse, a fact known now to most who know me in any capacity, but unknown to most during my tenure as a special victims prosecutor. A few years ago, the author of “Lived Through This,” herself a survivor of a brutal home invasion rape and a dear friend, approached me about being a part of the compilation she envisioned. She knew my story. She wanted to tell it for me. The proudest thing I’ve ever done is to allow her to do so.

Thank you, Anne, for doing it so very beautifully.

Proposed Changes to Military Preliminary Hearings: Reasonable, Easily Implemented, and Sorely Needed

While I believe Congress should pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, there’s a far more easily implemented change being urged on the President that should meet little resistance. But even it is considered “radical” in some military circles. Recently, a Navy Times article focused on proposed changes to Article 32 hearings, which under the Uniform Code of Military Justice operate like preliminary hearings in civilian systems. The “32,” as JAGs typically refer to it, is a less formal hearing where evidence is presented to a neutral investigating officer. That officer then makes a recommendation about the case to the Convening Authority, that is, a commander (usually a general officer) who then makes the final decision as to whether the case is “referred” for court martial.

The changes- implementable by the President- are being proposed specifically for the enhanced protection of complainants in sexual assault cases; the need for them became apparent to reformers particularly after the exhausting, multi-day examination of a Naval Academy midshipman involved in a rape case against three classmates late this summer. The changes are sorely needed, in least in terms of how Article 32 hearings often play out in sexual violence cases, and they are eminently reasonable. 

Yet the language used in the article is perhaps a measure of how concerning any change to the military justice system is to insiders. The reporter describes the proposal as a “major reform” and a “radical overhaul” of the process. It is neither.

The officer who presides over the Article 32 hearing listens to evidence, prepares a summary of the testimony, and gives recommendations for disposition to the Convening Authority. At present, there is no requirement that the investigating officer in an Article 32 hearing be a military judge. Or a JAG. Or someone with any legal training at all. The I.O. can be simply another officer uninvolved with the case, meaning a company commander in an artillery brigade, a signal corps officer, or one of any other specialty.

For many UCMJ offenses,  this is not a matter of concern. The idea of the Article 32 hearing is to allow for a neutral party in the officer corps to consider the matter before a commander at a much higher level considers whether to convene a court martial around it. That officer doesn’t have to be legally trained, in many cases, to competently consider facts and listen to witnesses.

But sexual assault cases are unique and difficult to adjudicate fairly. This is particularly true when they involve (as they almost always do) circumstances like parties known to each other, alcohol consumption, or counter-intuitive behavior like delayed reporting or post-assault communication. Aggressive defense attorneys, bound by ethics to defend their clients zealously, can and do sometimes take advantage of both the relative informal setting and legal inexperience of the I.O. to ask questions of complainants that would not be permissible in a court martial.

In the extreme, this can amount to a strategy of harassment in hopes of improperly discouraging a victim from continuing with a prosecution. Certainly not all defense attorneys plan this kind of legal attack, but without an adjudicator that is familiar with the limits of the law, aggressive and improper questioning can go unchecked even when prosecutors object. I.O.s can seek legal assistance during an investigation, but they don’t have to. Further, defense attorneys may actually outrank both the prosecutor and the I.O, adding a further complicating dynamic. Senator Boxer and co-sponsors (Senator Blumenthal and Congresswoman Speier) are asking the President to formalize the Article 32 process so it mirrors more closely preliminary hearings in Federal courts. This is not too much to ask.

I’ve been told by JAG friends in other services that military judges are regularly utilized to oversee Article 32 hearings. My observation of the Army process though, was much different. I personally never saw a military judge assigned to an Article 32 hearing, and knew of only one or two cases when a JAG presided over one.

Military-wide, the process should be tightened to guarantee that justice for both parties is best approached, and in exactly the way that American criminal procedure provides: By guaranteeing that legally trained professionals who know the rules will also enforce them.