Commentary Human Rights

When ‘He Wasn’t Convicted’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Innocent’

Tara Murtha

When it comes to childhood sexual assault, there is a heavy thumb on the scales of justice. To trot out “but he wasn’t convicted” as definitive proof of innocence against the backdrop of this system amounts to willful ignorance.

See all our responses to Dylan Farrow’s open letter here.

After decades of silence, Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of actress and activist Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen, has stepped forward to publicly assert that Allen sexually assaulted her when she was 7 years old. The assault came after what she describes as a number of disturbing behaviors that sound like grooming, a term for the process predators use to initiate an abusive dynamic with victims, to encourage secrecy and test how much abuse they can get away with disguising as love. For instance, Dylan wrote of Allen putting his thumb in her mouth, of resting his head in her naked lap, and making her get under the covers with him while he was in his underwear.

In an open letter published on a New York Times blog, Dylan wrote of a childhood spent frightened and silent and hiding in small, dark spaces, under beds and in closets, trying to avoid her alleged assailant. “He always found me,” she wrote.

It’s a dangerous situation to turn a particular case into a metaphor for a typical case, but as so often happens when recognizable names publicly wrestle with contentious issues, the Farrow-Allen dynamic is now a divisive flashpoint. For many, Dylan has become a symbol—a stand-in speaking the rage of countless victims of childhood sexual abuse who never saw justice, while Allen’s the stand-in for every abuser who ever got away with it.

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There are way too many people represented on both sides of that equation. Imagine any other violent crime where so few survivors saw justice. It’s not an accident, though. It is, in part, by design.

It’s obviously not my place to say if Woody Allen is guilty or not. But when the charge is child sex abuse, “he wasn’t convicted” hardly means “innocent.” Our criminal justice system may be based on the presumption of innocence in the absence of contrary evidence in court, it’s also built with laws designed to stop childhood sexual abuse victims from getting into a courtroom.

Historically, statutes of limitation (SOLs) on childhood sex abuse, the parameters for how long a victim has before criminal prosecution or a civil lawsuit, have been set so short that by the time an abused child becomes an adult, the option is gone.

Under Connecticut law, children assaulted in 1992, the same year that Dylan Farrow says she was abused by Allen, had seven years from the time of the assault, or two years after turning 18, whichever is shorter. (Farrow and Allen were in Connecticut at the time she says she was assaulted.)

A 7-year-old, as Farrow was, had until age 14 to pursue a court case.

How many 14-year-old kids do you know who would be able to not only recognize abuse that has been packaged as love, but be ready for the fallout?

Getting to that point is a psychologically and emotionally difficult process that often takes years—decades, even. In many cases, it’s simply logistically impossible for a survivor to pursue a legal case.

In 2002, Connecticut’s SOL had been extended, reflecting the trend across the country of dragging out, or even abolishing, statutes to reflect what we are learning about how survivors process trauma. (Check your state law here.)

We now know, for example, that childhood victims of sexual abuse often don’t inform authorities, or anyone, about their abuse for years, especially when the abuser is a well-respected authority figure or family member.

We know, too, that children most scared of the consequences of reporting their abuse sometimes deny or recant their story, and that doesn’t mean they’re lying. A study that examined 250 cases of substantiated sexual abuse found that approximately 25 percent of the children recanted at some point, and the kids most likely to waver were the ones abused by a family member.

We also know that many victims don’t disclose childhood abuse at all until adulthood, when they first experience the tentacles of that monster reaching out to destroy relationships because they can’t trust, and destroy their bodies because they self-medicate with alcohol or drugs as they discover that commanding themselves to “get over it” doesn’t work, no matter how hard they try.

Sometimes it “clicks” after a triggering event, such as a friend’s revelation, or a big story like the Jerry Sandusky or Jimmy Savile case. Or, as Dylan wrote, when your assailant is so rich and famous and beloved that the world routinely stands up and claps for him at ceremonies that he doesn’t deign to attend—all after marrying your adopted sister.

Even though SOLs have been extending, they don’t apply retroactively, so they will most benefit future victims. In general, the law that existed during your abuse is the law that applies to your case. Just last August, for example, charges filed against a Connecticut school psychologist accused of sexually assaulting a middle-school boy were abruptly dismissed once the court learned the alleged rapes took place in 2000 and 2001, before the statute granted victims the right to come forward up to age 50.

In that case, as with all survivors who discover they’ve run down a clock they didn’t know was ticking, the boy has suffered because of both his assailant and the special interests that have consistently fought against extending SOLs.

Who would fight against justice in this way? Well, besides Hollywood’s elite, the Roman Catholic Church.

The reasons come with a lot of zeroes at the end: It’s no wonder, for example, that the Catholic Church has been fighting SOL reform in Pennsylvania, given the forthcoming civil suits from the sex abuse crisis and the fact that not one priest identified in the 2005 grand jury reporting investigating the Philadelphia archdiocese was prosecuted, all thanks to SOLs. SOLs helped Sandusky as well.

In fact, SOLs on child sex abuse seem to help everyone but the survivors.

All in all, the odds are so stacked against survivors that only 3 percent of rapists ever spend a day in jail. There is a heavy thumb on the scales of justice. It is well-documented. To trot out “but he wasn’t convicted” as definitive proof of innocence of child rape against the backdrop of this system amounts to willful ignorance, a cheap attempt to exploit what should be a sacred tenet of our legal system in an effort to dignify the rape culture myth that says victims are presumed to be lying until proven otherwise in a court of law—and by the way, good luck getting there.

News Politics

Blackburn Calls for State-Level Criminal Investigation Into Fetal Trafficking

Christine Grimaldi

A public university and abortion clinic in New Mexico are the latest targets in a congressional investigation approved by Speaker Paul Ryan and condemned by a House Democrat as "a McCarthy-like witch hunt."

The New Mexico attorney general’s office received nearly 300 pages of documents from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) Thursday allegedly incriminating the University of New Mexico (UNM) and Southwestern Women’s Options, a prominent abortion clinic, in fetal tissue trafficking. Blackburn’s goal: Provoke a state-level criminal investigation into the dubious allegations.

As Blackburn prepared her latest call for outside reinforcements in the U.S. House of Representatives investigation’s thus far unsuccessful search for a market in “baby body parts,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) separately broke his silence on her tactics. Ryan said in a written letter he trusts Blackburn to conduct the so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives “in a way that will focus on the facts and also protect the privacy of those involved.”

The extensive documentation sent to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) appears to replace provider and researcher names in some areas and redact them in others, honoring Blackburn’s pledge to keep such information confidential. Earlier this month, Blackburn failed to redact at least two dozen researchers’ names and contact information in publicly available documents that she sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of a request for a federal abortion inquiry.

“We can confirm the Office of the Attorney General has received a public referral and this matter is under review,” attorney general spokesperson James Hallinan said in an emailed statement to Rewire. “All complaints received by the Office of the Attorney General are fully reviewed and appropriate action is taken.”

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If precedent is any indication, New Mexico is unlikely to find any wrongdoing involving fetal tissue donations. Arizona recently became the 13th state to find no substance to such allegations

Blackburn’s criminal referral appeared to cut other corners, copying state Rep. Steve Pearce, rather than Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who represents Albuquerque—making UNM and Southwestern Women’s Options her constituents, not his.

Grisham’s spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

Blackburn alleged in the documents that the university and abortion clinic violated state and federal law. The university “aggressively engaged in expanding abortion” and in turn, received fetal tissue from the abortion provider, she said. Last year, Rewire reported that the UNM Health Sciences Center ended its decade-long relationship with Southwestern Women’s Options because the clinic didn’t perform an adequate volume of abortions to train residents and fellows, contrary to the victory anti-choice activists claimed at the time.

The university countered that Blackburn misinterpreted the New Mexico law, which does not preclude donating fetuses from elective abortions that occurred at the clinic. “Additionally, UNM has never paid for this tissue—it has been provided free to the University of New Mexico for medical research,” according to a statement from the UNM Health Sciences Center.

Southwestern Women’s Options is listed as a member in good standing with the National Abortion Federation, and follows the federation’s evidence-based clinical policy guidelines.

“For more than 40 years, Southwestern Women’s Options has provided high-quality care for New Mexico women,” said Southwestern Women’s Options spokesperson Heather Brewer in an email to Rewire. “We are committed to continuing to provide compassionate care to women in our community.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) condemned the panel’s course of action.

“This so-called ‘criminal referral’ is further evidence that this investigation is nothing more than a wholly partisan attack on law-abiding doctors and researchers,” she told Rewire in an email.

Republican leadership, to the contrary, indicated that just cause exists for the overall investigation.

Ryan gave his blessing in a written response to Schakowsky, who recently introduced a resolution to disband what she has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.” Rewire obtained Ryan’s letter late Thursday, shortly after Schakowsky’s select panel staff received it.

Ryan repeated several key Blackburn talking points to justify the panel’s continued work. He said documents at the panel’s April hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” indicated that some entities may have violated the federal ban on selling fetal tissue. Many of the documents, however, appear to have been dubiously sourced from the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that released widely discredited videos alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations. Democrats on the select panel have warned that Blackburn is relying on additional information from the anti-choice Protest ABQ, which is run by former Operation Rescue operatives.

For instance, Ryan referenced the panel’s discovery of “a website that allowed a researcher to order any baby part imaginable at a given gestation period and proceed to check out.”

“Such a practice clearly threatens the human dignity,” he said.

Among Blackburn’s evidence from the pricing hearing, Exhibit C3 purportedly shows such an order form—and it’s nearly identical to what was shown in the CMP videos. Blackburn again displayed the CMP-sourced order form as she delivered a conservative call to action against “baby body parts” in June at the faith-based Road to Majority conference.

Ryan also countered Schakowsky’s claim that the investigation is hurting the research community, despite what researchers, fearing for their safety, privacy, and job security, told Rewire in recent interviews.

Ryan said he lacked the power to disband the panel, though he would refuse to do so regardless of the circumstances. Among the reasons he won’t act: Under the informal “Hastert rule,” named for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), currently imprisoned after pleading guilty to charges related to sexually abusing minors, a majority of the majority must agree to vote on a bill. Ryan’s pledge to abide by the Hastert rule helped him win over the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, which would certainly stymie any attempt to end the investigation, along with more moderate House Republicans who almost unilaterally oppose abortion as well.

Schakowsky criticized Ryan’s response.

“I am disappointed that the Speaker has chosen to parrot Republican talking points on the investigation instead of addressing our concerns in a meaningful way,” Schakowsky said in an email to Rewire. “While there is no evidence of wrongdoing by researchers or doctors, we have concrete proof of the chilling effect on life-saving research. This McCarthy-like witch hunt is putting lives and livelihoods at risk. The Speaker has the ability to shut down this dangerous Panel and he should do so at once.”

News Human Rights

Advocates Petition Court to Defend Privacy Rights of Undocumented Immigrants

Tina Vasquez

The action is about protecting the basic constitutional privacy rights of those who received three-year work authorization permits, according to the ACLU of Texas.

The National Immigration Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the ACLU of Texas filed on Friday a petition for writ of mandamus before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of four people affected by a court order requiring the Department of Justice (DOJ) to turn over the personal information of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants by June 10.

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, expressed concern in a press release that this information would be “used against them” because the court order would place the personal information of thousands of undocumented young people directly in the hands of the state officials who oppose protections for undocumented immigrants.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who issued the court order, led the charge on obstructing the implementation of DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), announced in 2014. In February of 2015, Hanen issued a temporary injunction to the 26 states challenging President Obama’s executive action on immigration in 2014, and in a later ruling denied the DOJ’s request for a stay of the preliminary injunction. Later, the DOJ petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed with Hanen’s ruling. An opinion in that case, United States v. Texas, is expected this month.

Like DACA—which enables undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 and who meet other requirements, to receive a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation for two yearsDAPA offers similar benefits to undocumented parents with U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children. However, neither DACA nor DAPA offers a pathway to citizenship.

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The four DACA recipients who are the subject of the petition were able to remain in the country for two years when DACA was implemented in 2012. When their permissions were set to run out in the fall of 2014, they sought extensions at the same time the Obama administration announced its DACA expansion, which lengthened work authorization permits from two to three years. While DACA in its original form, as announced in 2012, is still in place, it is this expansion that is being contested in the Supreme Court case.

The four DACA recipients in the petition reapplied and received three-year extensions. They are just four of the estimated 108,000 young, undocumented immigrants who benefited nationwide from the DACA expansion between November 2014 and February 2015, before Hanen issued a preliminary injunction on both DAPA and the DACA expansion, ordering the government to rescind the three-year permits.

On May 19, Hanen ordered the Justice Department to disclose the names, addresses, and other identifiers of the estimated 50,000 DACA recipients residing in the 26 states involved in United States v. Texas and who benefited from the short-lived DACA expansion. The SCOTUSblog reports that the judge handed down this order last month “to punish the government for what [Hanen] found to be intentional ethical misconduct in his court by two Justice Department lawyers when the immigration case was before him earlier,” though the lawyers contend “the ethics dispute arose mainly from misunderstandings between the judge and the lawyers about just what was at stake, and not from a ploy by government lawyers to mislead the court.”

The judge said the list would remain sealed until the Supreme Court issues a decision, but afterwards states could request information on the list be given to authorities if they could prove the information “would minimize or prevent harm in that state.”

The writ of mandamus petition filed by the three civil rights organizations enables the DACA recipients affected by the order to request for a stay of the order. And as SCOTUSblog reported, “Since that data is supposed to be filed by next Friday, the four individuals asked that the Circuit Court decide on their challenges by Wednesday so that they ‘may seek further review if necessary’—apparently, an indication that they would go on to the Supreme Court if the Circuit Court were to turn them down.”

This action is about protecting the basic constitutional privacy rights of those who received three-year work authorization permits, according to the ACLU of Texas.

“The rights embodied in our Constitution were designed to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, including young immigrants who only know this country as their own,” Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said in a press release. “If their fundamental privacy protections can be nullified by the stroke of a judge’s pen in a case to which they are not parties, then everyone’s privacy rights are threatened.”