Survivors of child
sexual assault internationally may feel unsettled by the treatment of
Roman Polanski, who was released from house arrest in Switzerland last
week. It is the attitudes of celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic,
more so than the decision of the Swiss authorities, which have sent
messages that are out of step with both modern perspectives of sexual
crimes and jurisprudence.
For instance, apparently some months
ago Woody Allen publicly advocated for lenience towards Polanski on the
bases that “It happened many years ago. He has suffered. He’s an artist,
he’s a nice person.” Many others, including Allen, Terry Gilliam,
Martin Scorcese and Pedro Almodovar, signed a petition containing a
different complaint, which related to the circumstances surrounding
Polanski’s apprehension last year as he travelled to a film festival.
Among other things, the petition argued that there was a “tradition” for
filmmakers to travel “freely and safely” to what amounts to an
“international cultural event”.
None of these considerations are
relevant in the context of the drug-facilitated sexual assault of a
13-year-old which Polanski admitted to. Neither the passage of time, nor
Polanski’s character, nor his talent has any bearing on the gravitas of
the crime. And surely his “suffering”, which presumably encompasses
things like anxiety over apprehension, hardly represents a proportionate
sentence for his act. It is worth remembering the potential
degenerative effects of child sexual assault, ranging from severe
psychological illness, to reduced capacity to form or maintain
relationships, to self-harming behaviour. Through reducing self-esteem
and exacerbating a sense of powerlessness, sexual assault may increase
victims’ vulnerability to subsequent sexual predation as well as other
forms of abuse.
Regarding the nature of his apprehension,
there’s no argument that filmmakers contribute to international culture.
But it seems odd to suggest that film festivals have somehow acquired a
capacity to offer immunity from criminal law extending to paedophilia.
It is not surprising that some commentators have suggested that some
members of the Hollywood/Cannes milieu may have developed a view that
they are beyond the norms of their respective societies.
It is hard to
imagine celebrities defending a paedophile priest on the grounds that
his crime was a long time ago, he’s been otherwise good, and he delivers
engaging homilies. Neither would anyone seriously complain if his
arrest occurred en route to an international cultural event, religious
or otherwise. On the contrary, if he had Polanski’s profile there is a
sporting chance Richard Dawkins would be investigating methods by which
the priest could be arrested if he visited the UK.
But on another
note, should the case against Polanski be dropped because the girl he
once abused, Samantha Geimer, publicly forgave him in 1997? Certainly
public prosecutors frequently consider the wishes of victims of crime in
deciding whether to lay charges against an individual. A critical
factor concerns the impact that a trial might have upon a victim of
crime. Indeed strong evidence indicates that trials can be highly
traumatic for sexual assault victims of all ages.
available information suggests that since Polanski pleaded guilty to the
charge of Unlawful Sexual Intercourse, there may be no need for
Samantha Geimer to be involved in the proceedings. And although the
crime was one that was first and foremost perpetrated against her, it
was also a crime against the community in which it occurred and a crime
against the US State. Allowing the law to take its course against
Polanski would address an injustice against these entities.
We need good
consistent messages on child sexual assault: prosecution is never too
late; and no exemption for prosecution is provided because of
personality, talent, fame or membership of a subcultural group.
Prichard is a lecturer in law at the University of Tasmania.