The high-profile Steubenville, Ohio, rape case ended last weekend with guilty verdicts for both defendants—leading to one of the more embarrassing segments in the history of CNN. Both, as well as other stories in the news, are symptomatic of a tendency I’ve noticed a whole lot the last couple of years: In cases of high-profile sex crimes, way too many people have way too much sympathy for the perpetrators, and not enough for the victims.
The Steubenville case, which has been in the national news for months, concerned two members of that town’s vaunted high school football team, in August of 2012, sexually assaulting a girl who had passed out. The case kicked off a widespread firestorm that included appearances by the hacker collective Anonymous, and a whole other debate about whether another case of an untouchable football program led to the covering up of horrible crimes. if you’re not familiar with the case, this New York Times piece is a good primer.
The two defendants, Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays, were both convicted, and while both must register permanently as sex offenders, because they were tried as juveniles neither is likely to serve more than two or three years of time in detention.
Which brings us to this, six of the more shameful minutes in CNN history:
Broadcast in the minutes following the verdict, the segment features reporter Poppy Harlow describing “these two young men that had such promising futures—star football players—very good students, literally watched as they believed their life fell apart.” As if they’d been struck by a drunk driver, as opposed to being convicted of rape. Harlow even tried to turn the long-estranged father of one of the defendants telling him he loved him into some sort of heartwarming human interest story.
Anchor Candy Crowley lamented “this 16-year-old now, sobbing in court—regardless of what big football players they are,” before asking what the “lasting effect” would be on the men sentenced to jail.
There were no questions about the effect on the victim.
CNN has been rightly pilloried for the segment, with a petition demanding an apology drawing more than 185,000 signatures in just a few days. I can understand having to go on live TV and cover an event as it unfolds without a script. But come on.
It wasn’t just CNN, either. Twitter was full of idiots siding with the rapists, with some of the more egregious tweets collected by the blog Public Shaming.
Perhaps the biggest problem was that the outrage is in the wrong direction. These two “promising young men” raped a girl who was passed out, and they’re going to serve a brief stretch totally insufficient for the severity of their crime. Let’s not pretend they’re the West Memphis Three.
But Steubenville and CNN isn’t the only case in the news of powerful people siding with abusers over victims. And I’m not even speaking of the National Rifle Association, which has continued its banner year by pushing for abusive spouses with protective orders against them to retain their rights to own a gun.
Now we have controversial comments by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a top Talmudic scholar and Rosh Yeshiva at New York’s Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Schachter, in a speech made at a London conference in February and reported by Paul Berger in the Jewish newspaper The Forward last week, suggested that Jewish communities should set up independent panels, comprised of Torah scholars, to weigh claims of child sexual abuse, to determine their veracity before the decision is made to proceed to the police.
Why? Because apparently Schachter is worried about Jewish convicted offenders going to prison, where they could end up “in a cell with a shvartze, in a cell with a Muslim, a black Muslim who wants to kill all the Jews.” Schachter went on to admit that a student confided in him years ago about being abused, after which he referred the student to a psychologist, and did not contact authorities.
His status as a “Talmudic giant” notwithstanding, Schachter’s statement is utterly vile, from his implicitly siding with accused abusers over victims, to the use of the racial slur to the invoking of a fictional, violent black man, to his casual admission that he, essentially, enabled sexual abuse.
The Forward and Berger, of course, have caught hell for daring to question the rabbi’s authority. Some have defended Schachter by arguing that “shvartze” isn’t actually a racial slur, but 1) it is, and 2) if he’d said instead that Jews accused of sexual abuse shouldn’t be sent to prison because they might have a cellmate who’s “African-American” or “a black guy,” the statement wouldn’t be any more defensible.
On top of that, it’s ridiculous to suggest the problem of child abuse would be in any way alleviated by adding another layer of bureaucracy, another check on justice, and another hurdle for victims to have to jump through, by putting the victim on trial. There’s already a panel in place to examine the veracity of a criminal complaint before it proceeds to public charges and an indictment: It’s called a grand jury.
And besides, haven’t the last few years taught us that maybe men in their 70s aren’t always the greatest judges of how to best handle sex abuse allegations?
I don’t care how much of a “giant” Schachter is. At best, he’s wrong, and at worst, he’s a monster. Joe Paterno was a giant, too, and so were a whole bunch of top officials who covered up sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, here in Philadelphia and elsewhere. We need to start challenging these poisonous attitudes, no matter what honorific the people holding them have, and whether they are “giants” or not.
I argue a lot with people about issues and policies and controversies. Most of the time, though, I can at the very least see where they’re coming from, even if I disagree. Perhaps fatherhood has radicalized me when it comes to this sort of thing. But I simply fail to see how anyone can look at a rape, or at a pattern of child abuse, and decide to side with the abuser. Whether in Steubenville or Yeshiva University, that’s beyond simply being wrong—it’s sickening.