Assaults, Allegations and Justice For All

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It was an open and shut case. A young woman reported that she had been drug into a stairwell at school and raped. The young man, seventeen, enters a guilty plea and is sentenced as an adult. He will serve five years behind bars, then five years of strict probation, and will need to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life.

Justice served, right?

That’s the story of Brian Banks, a high school football star, accused of rape by his classmate, Wanetta Gibson, and threatened with forty years to life on the basis of her allegation. His legal counsel, despite Brian maintaining that he was innocent, feared a conviction and advised he go the route of a plea bargain—so that’s what the young man did.

He served his time. He had asked the California Innocence Project to take up his case, but they declined because there was a lack of evidence to prove his innocence. It seemed Brian would spend his entire life, denied opportunities, treated like a sexual predator, and unable to clear his name—all on the basis of her words. I mean who, besides his close friends and family, would believe him, that he had been falsely accused? Doesn’t every rapist claim to be innocent?

But then something extraordinary happened. His accuser, Wanetta, recanted her story (privately) and confessed that she had fabricated everything. Finally, Brian’s name was cleared. His accuser, who had won a 1.5 million dollar settlement against the school, was sued to recoup the money paided to her and has since failed to show for her court dates. Brian had a brief NFL career after this and is now an activist for those wrongly convinced.

The “only” who are falsely accused…

“The ruthless will vanish, the mockers will disappear, and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down— those who with a word make someone out to be guilty, who ensnare the defender in court and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Isaiah 29:20‭-‬21 NIV)

There is an oft-repeated claim about the frequency of false accusations being “only” 2-10%. It is a number often used by those trying to downplay the possibility that a man is innocent.

But what is the basis for this number?

The number itself is an estimate. It is based on various studies, studies like one published in the Journal of Forensic Psychology from 2017, that compare numbers of claims deemed false or baseless after an investigation. They found that between the years 2006–2010, out of 87,000–90,000 accusations of rape a year, that around 4,400–5,100 of the reports were deemed false or baseless—that works out to roughly 5.55% of allegations being determined to be false.

However, what a study like that does not take into account is that some accusations of rape are entirely baseless despite an investigation that leads to a conviction. Brian’s case is a prime example, he was found guilty despite his innocence and only exonerated because the woman who accused him later recanted her tale. There could be many more men, convicted on the basis of a false accusation, who are never exonerated because their accuser never recants.

Brian’s story is extraordinary in that his accuser was caught in her lie. However, that’s not always the case. (Not to mention, he had already served five years.) There is really no way of knowing how many, convicted on the word of an accuser, may actually be innocent despite their entering a guilty plea and being convicted. So we really do not know how many accusations are false accusations based on convictions

But, more glaring than the possibility that the number of false accusations could be far higher, is the very reality that thousands of accusations per year are false.

That is, put another way, 4,400–5,100 lives (and potentially more) with their lives turned completely upside down by a false accusation. This could be your own father, brother, nephew or son. Thousands are accused, even imprisoned, and are actually completely innocent—that is an “only” that should slow us from rushing to judgment in the case of an allegation.

That said, not near all rapes and sexual assaults are reported.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8‭-‬9 NIV)

It is important, at this point, to note that there are many who are victims of crimes that were never reported. I personally know multiple cases of men and women who were sexually molested and/or raped and never reported the assault to authorities. They were abused by family members, grabbed in the groin by a coworker, raped by their boyfriend and there was no police report of the incidents. That too is a sad reality, a traumatic experience that many live with, that should not be ignored.

According to the Department of Justice, in a 2014 report, an estimated 34.8% incidents of sexual assaults are reported to authorities. That is to say that only 3 or 4 out of ten sexual assaults are ever properly investigated and adjudicated.

Now, that this is NOT to say that there is an equal number of rapists to those unreported incidents.

According to a report about repeat rape among “undetected” offenders, repeat rapists “average 5.8 rapes each” and thus the number of undetected rapists is only a fraction of the number of victims. In other words, only a small number of men account for the majority of the incidents and this is precisely why people should report criminal incidents—reporting in a timely manner will protect other people from repeat offenders.

It should come as no surprise, then, that someone who was raped would not report it at the time it happened. Likewise, it should not be a surprise that many rapists continue their life free of consequence for their actions. This is an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, it is the reason why we should always take allegations seriously even if they come out years and years after the assault is said to have happened. There are many unreported assaults, people come forward at different times for different reasons, and this is something to always be aware of in our analysis of reports.

We can (and should) take a clear stand against all forms of abuse.

There is a false choice out there. There are some who deny allegations on the basis of false reports. There are others who dismiss claims of innocence and downplay false allegations as insignificant on the basis of under-reporting statistics.

But we should not choose one or the other. It does the real victims of sexual assault no good to presume the guilt of a man simply on the basis of accusations. It also is wrong to side against an accuser because there are false accusations or they haven’t reported the event immediately after it happened.

We should never disregard an allegation off hand. We should never decide someone’s guilt or innocence by a mere claim or statistics. We can both take sexual abuse allegations seriously and also be reasonably skeptical of the accusations. When pressured to take the side of an accuser or the accused we should take neither side and take the side of justice instead. Every case is different. Every court is different. We must be wise.

Know your own bias and adjust your judgment accordingly!

Still, we all tend to see things from a biased perspective. In the case of Brian Banks, the prosecutor and other authorities believed he was guilty on the basis of the testimony of the young woman. These were well-educated people, people aware of bias, and yet they failed him. In many other cases, there is undo skepticism of those coming forward with allegations and denial of justice to victims of abuse. Both of these things must be guarded against. A person making an allegation should be heard and their story believed. An accused person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not be denied due process.

Ultimately, if an allegation falls within the statute of limitations, it is the responsibility of the police to investigate and the job of the courts to decide based on the evidence that they have. I prefer that we side with the evidence, that a charge must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and that defendants not be tried in the court of public opinion, perp-walked or treated as if guilty unless there is evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (Sir William Blackstone)

Two wrongs never make a right. As much as we want justice for the victims of sexual abuse we should not neglect justice for those accused. It does the true victims no good to create another victim by locking up those falsely accused and truly innocent. We should not punish anyone for a crime that they did not commit and especially not as a result of our prejudice against their race, gender, religion or other a defining characteristic.

We need to be a voice for justice.

False accusations, from the Salem Witch Trials to Emmett Till and everything before or after, come because there is power in making them. An accusation can bring a confirmation hearing to a grinding halt, it can cause questions about a political rival’s character that didn’t exist before and mere words can destroy lives—therefore we must always stand for the rights of the accused.

That said, we must never deny the oppressed, we should have compassion for those abused and especially for abused who have remained silent for fear of not being believed or other reasons—therefore we must always be a voice for the abused.

May God give us wisdom!

Good Men Do Not Blame Women

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The claim ‘based in actual events’ is used to give credibility to a dramatization of a story.  One might take the phrase to mean that the portrayal of an event is basically accurate or true.

But to me the claim is a warning to do my own research.

In some cases great liberties have been taken in the storytelling—and sometimes to the point that there is little resemblance to the actual events it is supposedly ‘based’ on.

Likewise, authentic Christian faith and a Bible ‘based’ tradition are two distinct things and sometimes entirely different things. 

Bible ‘based’ is not always Christ centered

There are many organizations that advertise their promotion of ‘Biblical’ principles, they give the impression of having real spiritual authority, and yet very little of what they offer seems based in real Christian love or the actual example of Jesus Christ. 

Christian leadership is to emulate the example of Jesus.  Christian leadership is supposed to be about serving others with a heart of humility.  A good leader is one who takes responsibility (in love) for things not even their own fault and will take punishment upon themselves rather than delegate the blame.

Unfortunately many twist the Scripture turning it on its head and copying the very example of those whom Jesus condemned. They clamor for power and position over others, yet when time comes for accountability they find everyone but themselves to blame.

Good leadership takes responsibility.

According to the book of Genesis there was a man.  This man was given a garden with two trees, one the “tree of life” and the other the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” with instructions by God not to eat the fruit of the latter tree. 

In the familiar account both man and woman disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit.  But, when confronted for his own sin, the man responds:

“The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12 NIV) 

Sounds pretty true to life, huh? 

Instead of taking responsibility for their own actions many men will look for someone else to blame.  I know of one man who blamed his own obesity on the meals his wife cooked.  I know many other men who blame women for their own sexual sins and lust.  This, coupled with a few (misused) Biblical proof texts, has become a justification for all types ‘modesty’ requirements for women.

A shameful example of an immodest man.

I was talking to a friend recently, a woman raised in a conservative Mennonite community, who recalls a three hour meeting over the issue of a couple buttons being closed on her sweater. 

I had to ask twice about the buttons being closed, because it didn’t make sense (even to a person like me raised around this type of mindset) that closed buttons would be a problem. 

I’m still perplexed… 

I would guess the particular group had a standard of a loose outer garment for women and buttons made it too tight? 

Who knows?

Whatever the case, this is an all too common scenario in traditional ‘Bible based’ communities and amounts to spiritual abuse. 

In the story I told the man huffing and puffing was an elderly ‘bishop’ (I use the apostrophes because I don’t think the title of respect is deserved) and the one he was calling rebellious and a “whore” was a teenager. 

The man should be rebuked, once for being a creep who was ogling teenage girls and again for being completely antithetical to the example of Jesus Christ.

A modest mistake and a big problem of interpretation.

Modesty is an obsession in conservative churches.  I’ve heard more sermons on the topic than I care to mention and almost always focused disproportionately on matters of women’s clothing. 

These constant reminders may make one think that the Bible must be similarly preoccupied.  Interestingly the word “modesty” is found only once in the entire Bible.

However, while the word “modesty” is found only once in English translations, the Greek word translated as modesty is actually used twice.  It is used once speaking about women and later in reference to men.  The first usage is in 1 Timothy 2:9 quoted below in King James Version English:

“In like manner also, that women adorn (kosmein) themselves in modest (kosmio) apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array…”

This is the Greek it was translated from:

ωσαυτως και τας γυναικας εν καταστολη κοσμιω μετα αιδους και σωφροσυνης κοσμειν εαυτας μη εν πλεγμασιν η χρυσω η μαργαριταις η ιματισμω πολυτελει

I am not an expert on Greek (so I do encourage everyone to study the language themselves) but I do know that there is an interesting repetition that is not carried over as clearly in the English translation.  I’ve been told it could translate better as “women should get themselves in order in ordered apparel.” 

Apparently it is an idea that describes soldiers arranged in their ranks. It also has similarity to “cosmos” or the idea of the order in the universe. That is what makes “orderly” a good alternative translation. 

I asked a Russian speaking friend to translate the word from her Russian language Bible and she translated it as neatness. So the writer is conveying an idea of neat and orderly attire, perhaps like a professional or dignified person.

The same Greek word is used later in 1 Timothy 3:2 as quality of leadership.  It is translated as “respectable” in the New International Version and translated as follows in the King James Version English:

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour (kosmion), given to hospitality, apt to teach…”

The whole idea of modesty (in a Biblical usage) meaning more coverage to prevent lust is wrong and is a glaring example of reading a presupposition back into a text.  The idea is actually more to the effect of neatness, orderliness or respectability and not of concealment of body for sake of protection from the lusts of men.

(More good thoughts on the Biblical idea of modesty from a female perspective…)

Unfortunately there are many teachers out there who use a few words from the Bible to build their own rigid prescriptions. Literature from Bill Gothard, for example, encourages victims of sexual abuse to blame themselves and is basically rationalizing abuse as a product of female immodesty or rebellion from parents and God’s will.

It is never the responsibility of women to control male impulses.

Jesus spoke directly to matters of lust—he gave no excuse to irresponsible and leering men:

“…I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  (Matthew 5:28-29)

Even Bible literalists may dismiss that as hyperbolic.  But even as that could be the case, the message is pretty clear about where responsibility for sin of lust lies and Jesus offers the solution. There is no excuse given for men, no blame he puts on women and no uncertainty of terms: Men are responsible for their own thought life, not women. 

Men who point a finger of blame at women are doubling their sin. 

A man who blames a woman is both guilty of the lust and also guilty of false accusation. They are like king Saul who blamed his disobedience against God on the will of the people. (1 Samuel 15) They are opposite of a man after God’s heart (Acts 13:22) like David who did not make excuses when confronted for his sin. Men who blame women are failures of Christian leadership and may need to be cut off until they repent of their false testimony.

Jesus did not give an example of a patriarchal tyrant who could not be questioned and then always blames others when things go wrong. No, Jesus led by self-sacrifice, he took responsibility for sins that were not even his own—the sins of the world—and brought grace to every situation. That is the example of real Christian leadership.

The Bible might be a basis for some to excuse their own failures and justify their own abuses, but good Christian men do not ever blame others for their own sin. Beware of those who claim to be based in the Bible and yet lack the evidence of the attitude of Jesus Christ.