What will it take for female victims of sexual abuse to be believed? Sexual abuse and the court of public opinion
By Temima G. Shulman
March 22, 2016
The Center for Integrity Wisdom held its annual board meeting this week, by invitation only. It is a good bet that leading some of the sessions was the Center’s master spiritual teacher, Marc Gafni.
Gafni, 55, has created a following in post-modern spirituality, called the Unique Self, where he offers the wisdom of many faiths and philosophies in order for each person to access their unique self.
But he has also created a following of a different sort: Alleged sexual abuse victims by the tens, over three decades’ worth, from different ends of the globe, who want to see justice done. Gafni, also known as Mordechai Gafni, help found the California-based CIW, and continues to garner support for himself and the organization from the likes of John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, and media personality Arianna Huffington.
The alleged victims, who live in the US and Israel, seem to have two common denominators: They are female and have spoken up after the statute of limitations expired on their individual cases against Gafni. Some allege abuse when they were as young as 13. Their story reappears in the media every few years, usually following a story about a new enterprise of Gafni’s or a new alleged victim speaking out. Some stories seem to attest to his brilliance and charisma, and others to his ability to defy justice and continue life with a new alibi. And just as quickly as the stories appear, and garner an endless stream of responses, they die fast.
When Gafni’s story resurfaced most recently last Christmas in the New York Times, it was unclear if it was for the former or latter reasons. Though the article did demonstrate that— well into the new millennium and despite the advances Western culture has made on the subject of sexual abuse—there still exists a great imbalance as the word of alleged victims of sexual abuse continues to be challenged, and the alleged perpetrators continue living their lives with impunity.
The question that arises when covering an allegedly persistent sexual abuse crime like this one is: Do continued stories- where it appears as one man’s or woman’s word against the other- then take the advancements of the sexual abuse movement back to the Bronze Age, some twenty five years ago in the early 1990s, when former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur‘s incest story was first broken by the media to the American public?
When Van Derbur Atler, known today as the Mother Theresa to sexual abuse survivors, was the first celebrity figure to go public with her story of incest in Colorado in 1991, most of the local and national media was compassionate toward her story. She was 53 years old and told of her childhood of being pried open many nights by her powerful father. But there was one famous Rocky Mountain News columnist Gene Amole-who doubted her story.
“Assassination,” Amole wrote of Marilyn’s revelation of her father, the socialite, philanthropist, and millionaire. “What this really boils down to is one person’s word against another’s-her word, against her father, who is dead and cannot respond.”
What the Time’s article demonstrates- years after Amole’s skepticism- is that even though today we have hundreds of survivors networks, endless literature and studies on the subject, camps and schools with sexual abuse protocols, guidelines for teachers and students, guidelines for male obstetricians and gynecologists, and many laws protecting victims, the social doubt toward an alleged predator still persists.
Whereas in the past, support for a sexual abuse victim who had no legal recourse was virtually non existent, today the public is often split between supporters and detractors of the alleged predator. Though for this story, the rage seemed to fill endless social mediums with statements such as those from Gafni’s third ex-wife’s anonymous article in The Times of Israel, “How can it be that there is zero condemnation in this spineless article,” she writes. “Just quotes of excuse from his high-powered supporters. ..the last word given to the abuser.”
The media response continued so ferociously against Gafni, that, in fact, the New York Times‘ author himself responded to his own story in Tablet, where he felt compelled to explain why he initially wrote the piece. The resurgence of the Gafni story highlights the question: what do we do about believing victims if the predators remain alleged forever? How far do we take alleged victims’ pleas for action against an alleged predator where a legal option no longer exists?
At the heart of the question is still another question: If we cannot believe an adult who names her predator years later when she has no legal recourse, then how will we ever believe the child who speaks up, who could potentially prosecute within the limited time frame?
(I use female victims as the example based on data from the White House’s 2014 report The White House Council on Women and Girls, which found that the majority of victims are girls and women.)
I write about the court of public opinion not because I do not believe in the court of law or think that sexual crimes should not be prosecuted in a court of law, but because of the unique, traumatic nature of sexual abuse, where the court of public opinion often matters more than the legal courts. Sexual abuse victims- more often than not-still do not disclose of their crime because of shame and fear.
Sara Kabakov, the woman who alleges she was molested repeatedly in her childhood home by Gafni when she was 13, corroborates the impossible situation a sexual abuse victim often faces in the Forward: “these children will grow up, and it may take years before they figure out how to speak the unspeakable, until they have the strength and courage to overcome the pressure to be silent. And by then, their ability to seek legal recourse may have expired.”
Is it then one person’s word against the other, just as Amole had assessed it three decades ago? Or is it possible to find a way to honor alleged victims and our legal system?
This ethical dilemma goes to the fundamental issues of government and justice that the founding fathers attempted to ameliorate when setting up the U.S. government: Every American is protected by the law. Nonetheless even with a legal and political system in place, the public’s impulse can still be reduced to that Puritanical, social ethos of Plymouth: guilty until proven innocent.
In fact, Gafni uses this logic for himself, stating in the article how he remains a victim of “pseudo feminist witch-hunt,” a term coined by attorney Alan Dershowitz, who is fighting his own sexual allegations made against him by his client’s accuser.
Which then, in this case, is the truth that the court of public opinion is left to believe: Gafni, or any alleged predator, as victim of public media witch hunts or Gafni as predator, enjoying the powerful and protective position of a male-dominated society, and in effect manipulating the long-standing misogynistic narrative to his benefit? In the past it was always the female victim who was guilty until proven innocent, stripped of her virginity and integrity. Three hundred some years after the Puritans settled the East Coast, is that still the case? Are we just swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction?
If there is no trial by which to verify the truth can the court of public opinion, through our free press, become the space where we treat the social scourge of sexual abuse? Or are we behaving irresponsibly and unethically, reducing ourselves to a lynching mob in our attempt to uphold safety and democracy? And if the latter is the case, then how do we as a society address the fact that there is a grave crime that continues to plague almost 25 % of women that is not being resolved. (One in five women and 1 in 71 men are raped annually in the US. One in four girls and one in six boys are assaulted annually, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports.)
Additionally, if the public is the judge and does believe the female victim/s, then does that same public ever leave room for the perpetrator-if his record creates a consensus to deem him so-to come clean, to return to society? Does the all-powerful public jury allow a perpetrator to return to society on a social level, to be accepted, to be forgiven?