Tag Archives: Sexual Assault

Justice and Beauty. A Last, Full Measure

TeresaShe was sharp. She was tough. She was deeply kind.

She was resplendent in red.

She was a loud, happy harmony of Italian-American toughness, soft skin and sweetness, belly laugher and beautiful, dark eyes. She was flirty. She was flinty. She was piercingly honest.

She was uncompromising when it came to the truth. She understood what we generally call evil, but far more than that, she understood that we don’t yet know exactly what evil is. With that blessed and rare knowledge, she knew we had to step lightly.

But still, she knew, we had to step forward.

Teresa Scalzo was the most accomplished and respected legal expert when it came to the prosecution of sexual violence in the U.S. She changed everything; the expertise she developed as a sex crimes prosecutor in her corner of northeastern Pennsylvania became first a national challenge and then a national standard. She came of age in a time when- understandably- some leaders of the anti-sexual violence movement were turning away from prosecution as an answer to sexual violence.

Their objections to what we do were valid, of course. America, as I say increasingly in lectures, and as Teresa knew before me, doesn’t have a criminal justice system. It has a criminal adjudication system. Justice is an ideal, a state of blessed balance in human interaction, a satisfying sense of rightness embedded somehow in our common ancestry. It’s funny, actually; for all of the education and drilling we lawyers put ourselves through, what we end up striving for our entire professional lives is something toddlers grasp as they would a toy key ring. And yet this deeply human, deeply shared sense of simple rightness is also as elusive as a rainbow.

The elusiveness of justice is no more pronounced then where crimes of sexual violence are concerned. The subject itself- sex- is hopelessly tangled in thousands of years of mystery and shame, pleasure and violence, life and death. There has never been a phenomenon so central to human existence and yet so shrouded, so guarded, so punished. The punishers have been- cross culturally- mostly men. For millennia they’ve been simultaneously intoxicated by and terrified of the power of women. It’s been less even about sex than about the female embodiment of it, the women who bled but did not die, who brought forth life from swollen bellies and then fed it from their breasts, these goddesses who could erase the mind of a conqueror with a smile, or a frown. These creatures, the thinking has gone, must be controlled. Demonized. Marginalized. Our desire for them, the thinking has gone, must be projected. Sanitized. Excused.

Teresa understood these dynamics. The ancient ones. The current ones. The fact that they’re all really the same. What she fought for most ardently, though, was the redemption of the only system we have- in the most advanced society in the world- to deal with sexual violence. Teresa fought for the relevance of prosecution to the fight against rape. She did this not because she thought the system was perfect or ever could be; rather, she fought for it because she knew it was all we have. The law, at bottom, is our only living embodiment of the public will. For rape victims, the civilized response is about the system we have: The police, the advocates, the nurses, the prosecutors. Teresa looked at this system, and she knew she could make it better.

She was right.

Our system is far better now then when Teresa Scalzo started to make it better. It has a long way to go, but every step it takes moving forward, it takes with her legacy as its power.

I was in awe of this woman, this goddess, this marvelous mixture of seriousness and red wine hangovers, of wisdom and joy, of scholarship and instinct, of hope and frustration. She taught me everything. She vouched for me as a man in a woman’s world, which was so ironic because we both initially inhabited a man’s world- prosecution- that Teresa nevertheless took over where sexual assault was concerned through will, sincerity and raw skill.

I strove every day to keep in step with her, always behind but always inspired.

And then she died. But not before giving the last, full measure of everything she was- and dear God that was so much- to what we do in the service of the women and men whose lives are torn apart by sexual violence. What we do now, we do largely in her honor, and through her legacy.

I know now in middle age what an elusive ideal justice is, and I am sadder for it. But I also know what beauty is. I know how the shadows of existence are shot through with it, and how it expresses itself to us, as I believe God does.

T, you were beautiful. Thank you.











Dan and Brock Turner, and the Lie of Alcohol, Promiscuity and Victim Blaming

A portion of Dan Turner’s letter to his son Brock’s sentencing judge was released last week after Turner, 20, was sentenced for three felony counts of sexual assault. He received three years probation and only six months in jail, a risibly light punishment. Turner was actually caught in the act of sexually penetrating the victim; two graduate students came upon him while he was top of her, clearly unresponsive. Police officers arriving on the scene found her similarly helpless. Unlike most non-stranger sexual assaults, particularly ones involving young people and alcohol, Turner’s guilt was demonstrated with relative ease. He committed a horrific crime, period. He truncated and permanently altered the life of another human being, period.

A father can be forgiven for begging leniency from a court of law when his son has committed a terrible crime. Dan Turner should not be excoriated simply for the effort of attempting to put his son’s entire life in context, or for bemoaning what he thinks the effects of incarceration might have on him. His message, though, now public, must be exposed for what it is: A dangerous diversion of blame for what his son did.

Turner’s obvious gaffe. describing his son’s crimes as “20 minutes of action,” was probably no more than a terrible choice of words. I doubt Turner meant “action” in the now antiquated sense of “getting some action” or anything similar. I’ve seen social media posts that highlight this phrase as evidence of the man’s callousness or worse, but I don’t think that bears out.

What is of greater concern, and what must be debunked to the wider world, is his attempt to shift the blame for this crime from his son to what he describes as “the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.” And beyond this, his belief that Brock should pay society back by educating other college students in an effort to “break the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate consequences.”

This is as patently absurd as it is insulting and dangerous. Brock Turner, whatever else he’s capable of or has achieved, committed a predatory act of sexual violence on January 18, 2015. Not knowing the details of the case, I can’t say for sure if he identified his victim earlier in the evening and took manipulative steps to isolate her, or if he formed his intent upon realizing he had control of her in an unresponsive state. Either way, his actions were predatory. His actions were volitional. He made a choice. That choice has devastated the life of a young woman who- with effort and support- will recover fully, but who will never, ever look at her life the same way again.

So let’s be crystal clear: It is both incorrect and dangerously misleading to claim that the very separate issues of “alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity” somehow combine to draw otherwise non-sexually violent men into a vortex of rape they cannot be held completely responsible for. Both excessive alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity can be objectively unhealthy.

But neither of these things have anything to do with sexual violence, other than to provide the attacker with three weapons:

  1. A pathway to rape through the weakening of the reflexes, protective judgment and instincts of the victim and others who might protect her (or him).
  1. A brilliant cover for the tracks of the attacker’s actions, due to the compromised memory, credibility and even moral stature of the victim and the relevant witnesses.
  1. A perfect excuse in allowing alcohol, a substance that unleashes desire rather than creating it, to nevertheless take the blame for the attacker’s choices, and to provide a convenient way to blame the victim as well, complicit for having “gotten herself raped” because of drinking.

I don’t know what Brock Turner plans on doing when he’s completed his tiny stint behind bars. I certainly hope it does not entail speaking to a single college student anywhere about “breaking the cycle of binge drinking and its unfortunate consequences.”

Brock Turner has no right to lecture anyone on anything, let alone something as specious as some sort of cautionary tale to young men about becoming “victims” of alcohol, as if it somehow conspired from a bottle to compel him to disrobe and penetrate a young woman on the cold ground outside of a frat house.

Turner is guilty. Turner and no one and nothing else- certainly not the woman he attacked. Until that fully sinks in, the best anyone can hope for it that Turner keeps quiet.


What’s to Blame for Josh Duggar? Institutionalism, not Christianity

What we know: Josh Duggar’s admission is great fodder against Duggar Family Values, which include anti-gay stances as well as assertions that “non-traditional” values endanger children.

What we don’t know: What created the awful urges in Josh to begin with. Those opposed to what this powerful family both believes and attempts to influence politically are triumphantly declaring things like home-schooling and hyper-religiosity to be petri dishes for the kind of sexual deviance Josh displayed as a teenager.

They’re probably wrong.

As deliciously tempting as it is for some on my side of the political spectrum to demonize the Duggars and their way of life as some sort of catalyst for awful behavior, there’s little psychological evidence to support that. In fact, Josh’s deviance was most likely not (in and of itself) the product of home schooling or any other religious dogma or tradition the Duggars took part in. Sexual deviance, as far we know at this point, does not generate that way. More likely, Josh was (or is) deviant for reasons we don’t understand, but that are probably innate (“nature”) and/or the product of his environment (“nurture”), but in a different way than we normally observe.

I am no soothsayer, but what I’ve come to understand after a career of dealing with this pathology is that it is simply everywhere. The conservative numbers (1 in 3 girls and about 1 in 6 boys) remain replicable, reliable and constant. Sexual abuse happens everywhere: Among the religious and non-religious. Among the rich, the poor, the city dweller, the farmer, etc., etc., etc. The sexual abuse of children, whether by teenagers like Josh Duggar or by more mature adults, happens continuously and universally.

Therefore, the question better asked is not “what made this happen?” but “what allowed it to flourish and continue in that particular situation?” In the case of the world of “19 and Counting,” we should look, as always, to an institution.

In Josh Duggar’s world, the institution of dogmatic, insular Christianity provided him two things: First, It made it easier for him not only to offend, but to get away with offending. Second, it did so in a manner that leaves him today free of legal consequences, still married, and still employable. Here’s how:

Whatever Josh was (or is), he grew up in a male-dominated world where “the father is the head of the family as Christ is the head of the Church.” Firstly, his was an environment that exalted a Christian-based order that, among other things, clamped down on any opposition or suggestion of “rebellion.” This very likely discouraged his victims from reporting his actions to other family members or anyone who might have made a difference. Rebellion, after all, can be perceived as anything that upsets the proverbial apple cart. This was a fact probably not lost on Josh himself as he chose his victims.

Secondly, this same Christian-based worldview necessitated, as it does with any religiously based orthodoxy, an “in-house” solution to conflict or deviant behavior within the environment. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that the religion itself has within it the answer to every problem- there is never a need to consult outside sources which are doubtlessly less pure and enlightened.

But even more dangerous is the insistence on handling matters of “conflict” within the religious environment so that the outside world will not perceive flaws or weaknesses within its structure. The Duggars likely perceive themselves, as many do in their circumstances, as holdouts against a world moving in a direction they neither trust nor respect. The last thing they want that outside world to perceive is a weakness within their structure.

It’s important to understand how these things explain (but do not excuse) the Duggar’s response to a heartbreaking and haunting problem, and why offenders like Josh Duggar can flourish in environments otherwise mortally opposed to behavior like his. But it’s equally important to understand what they don’t explain.

They don’t explain Josh’s deviance to begin with. That’s a question we dare not breezily discard with the easy answer of demonizing religion. Or culture. Or anything else. Because as far as we know, deviance poisons all of these equally.

Far More than “He-said, She-said” in Latest NFL Rape Case

The rape charges filed earlier this month in Indianapolis against Colts special teams player Joshua McNary are, sadly, only the latest accusations of violence against women- sexual violence, in this case- against members of the National Football League.

McNary appeared in court for an initial hearing last week and pleaded not guilty, his attorney emphatically denying the charges. This is, of course, appropriate and generally a good defense attorney’s job when the case appears to be one that will likely 1) attract media and public speculation and 2) go to the mats in a jury trial.

Like most, I know only what’s been reported and would take no firm stance about McNary’s guilt or how the case will likely play out. I do know, as I’ve stated repeatedly in this space and many others, that very few rape allegations are false at their core, and that rape is grossly underreported, not something tossed around for vengeance, vanity or money, despite the endless droning of the paranoid and/or finger-wagging set. Regardless, that’s as far as I’d go with any factual speculation.

At least one quoted expert though, former prosecutor and current defense attorney Jack Crawford, grossly oversimplified, by all accounts so far at least, what’s likely to be seen in evidence.

In short, he referred to it as a “he-said, she- said” case, a term I’ve come to despise at the same time I’ve simply gotten used to it. It implies, of course, that the criminal charges rest only on the word of the complainant, the word of whom will be challenged by the defendant, leaving the jury in a position of deciding which one to believe. Although a popular characterization of many sexual assault cases, “he-said, she-said” is literally never accurate. I was taught many things by my mentor and former boss Victor Vieth, and among the most important was that corroboration, in some form, is always possible to find and then translate into evidence if the investigators and prosecution team are diligent and creative enough.

Rarely does corroborating evidence constitute a smoking gun, of course; far more often it’s just a simple fact that can be independently proven, and then offered as evidence when it’s shown to support the prosecution’s theory of the case. In tandem with many others, though, it can help a justice-minded but aggressive prosecutor build and then prove a case that a lesser attorney would probably just avoid. Indeed, prosecutors in my experience are often more likely to falsely tag cases as “he-said, she-said” (and thus un-triable) than many on the defense side.

What’s particularly silly about Crawford’s characterization, though, is how inapposite it appears to be in this particular case. The victim here reported within hours of being assaulted. This allowed physical evidence to be taken and an acute examination to be done, both of which will likely favor the prosecution. The quick report also allowed detectives to find McNary and preserve evidence from both the crime scene and his body before either could be disturbed; this evidence also looks promising for the prosecution. Interestingly, McNary appears to have preserved bedding himself for the responders, telling them when they arrived that he expected them. It’s hard to say how that will be used by either side, but it arguably shows consciousness of guilt on McNary’s part.

Crawford certainly isn’t all wrong. He’s correct that the case will not be an easy one for the prosecution to prove. He’s right that intoxication on the part of both parties will complicate matters and likely cut against the credibility of the complainant. He’s probably also right that consent, ultimately, is what the jury will have to decide, since sexual intercourse between the two will be easily established if not outright admitted by the defense.

But he’s wrong to suggest that this case comes down to nothing but the testimony and credibility of the two people at the center of it. A creative, diligent prosecution team, backed with a good investigation, has a better shot at proving this case than Crawford suggests. I’m willing to bet that’s the case, in Marion County, Indiana.








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.