Monday, June 1, 2015

Hastert, Duggar aren't the real scandal


     It stays submerged.
     We glimpse it, then turn away as it disappears again. But it always comes back.
     A popular TV show implodes. We chatter about its fallen star. No sooner does the scandal start to fade, however, when a new one emerges: the former Speaker of the House is accused of paying a fortune to hush it up.
     Dennis Hastert's cash kept it quiet for years. Josh Duggar, reality TV star of "19 Kids and Counting," eked out a dozen.
     Their secret shame becomes fertile ground for public comment and eventual remorse. Hastert admits no wrongdoing, yet. Duggar does. "I acted inexcusably" he says, and TLC, to its credit, doesn't excuse him but yanks the hit show amidst general half indignant, half amused clucking about the frequent hypocrisy of those who flaunt their superior standards.
     Each case is easy to chatter about. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post trenchantly observed how the Duggar crime is "a reminder of how badly the cult of purity lets victims down," portraying them as ruined bikes, cups of spit, chewed gum, as if their entire value lay in their sexuality. As with priests, when there are no sexual outlets, it's sometimes sought in the wrong places."
     "When all sexuality is a sin, when even holding hands is off limits, there isn't a clear line between permissible, healthy forms of exploration and acts that are impermissible to anyone, not just the particularly devout," she writes. "This gospel of shame and purity has the potential to be incredibly harmful because it does away with important lines."
     True enough. But there's much more to this than specific scandal, much more than further evidence of how dysfunctional the devout can be. We analyze individual cases, the life of one politician or one TV star, looking from one tree to the next without ever seeing the forest. Without ever realizing we should start talking about the tremendous toll that sexual and physical abuse takes on our general society right now, today, and into the foreseeable future. The true scandal isn't what Dennis Hastert might have done to boys at Yorkville High School or what Josh Duggar did to five girls. The scandal is how frequently this sort of thing, and far worse, happens.
     "People in law enforcement call it the biggest secret in American society," says Paul Biebel, presiding judge of the Cook County Criminal Court. I recently stopped by his office at the courthouse at 26th and California, a jumble of books and boxes, as he prepares to retire from his nearly half-century legal career. Conversation turns to the defendants found in his courtroom time and time again. They are, with astounding frequency, people who were abused, physically and sexually.
     "With physical abuse, it affects the brain," Biebel says. "What you'll find is a high percentage of street prostitutes were abused as girls."
     He sees it over and over, in perpetrators of heinous crimes and in low-level repeat offenders who just can't get their lives together.
     "What causes these people to screw up their lives so badly?" he asks. "Why is that? They grew up in very abusive households."
     Biebel's observations are anecdotal, but research backs him up.
     "When you do surveys of women in the criminal justice system, huge numbers were sexually abused," says Jody Rafael, a senior research fellow at DePaul University's College of Law. "Research samples in jails and prisons show the number of women in prison who have been victims of rape and sexual assault and domestic abuse are off the charts compared to the general population of women."
     She says that decades of a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach didn't work. "As we built more prisons, it got very expensive" so much so that more economical, more productive and, incidentally, more humane strategies are being tried. "We're moving away from retribution," she says. "We really have turned to seeing many of these people as vulnerable and victims needing a different approach, especially those connected to drug crimes. Treatment alternatives as opposed to locking them up for drugs. We're really viewing the drug possessor as a person with a medical problem that needs to be cured. We're in the midst of a change."
     About time.
     Before I leave Judge Biebel, I ask him: Given the pervasiveness of the problem of sexual abuse, why do we so vigorously ignore it?
     "It's too hard," he says. "It's a hard issue."

22 comments:

  1. A thought provoking article that really makes me pause and think. And perhaps not just the biggest secret in America but other parts of the world, where often those girls/ women or boys have no recourse.

    So true about beware of going just "tree to tree." Wise words from the judge too.

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  2. I think this column kinda goes off the rails. It starts out about the frequency of child molestation. It notes how most child molesters were molested themselves. Then suddenly it jumps to women in prison being the victims of sexual abuse and how they need treatment rather than being locked up, "especially those related to drug crimes." That's a serious topic, but is that what groups trying to reduce child molestation are focused on? As Hastert and Duggar show, child molestation is a problem that crosses socio-economic lines. Yes, I know, these issues often overlap, but my sense was that anti-child molestation activists were more focused on "sunlight" - efforts to encourage people to see warning signs, report suspicions even when painful, etc.

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    1. Why don't you rewrite it, Ana, and show us how you would have put it together? sigh

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    2. No problem - just pay me NS' per column pro-rata salary.

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    3. Apply to the ST then, or other newspapers.

      Just be sure the office has a big enough doorway that your head can fit through.

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    4. the article shows the natural progression for the future of such victims-hardly off the rails

      I hope NS ignores you-you don't just disagree, you cut at the knees

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    5. No, the comment doesn't deserve response. He makes a distinction between "child molestation" and "sex abuse" -- no idea what he's talking about. And the column doesn't "go off the rails," it starts at A--our hand-wringing over specific public cases--and moves it along to B, the general problem. That A-n-A couldn't or wouldn't follow is part of his general problem, and not one I could repair with one comment or a thousand.

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    6. Here's the response he (A-N-A) deserves: This is precisely why I am such a huge fan of Neil Steinberg's writing style. He often juxtaposes seemingly disparate topics & then parses them in such a way to show the connections or logic within.

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  3. I think NS is pointing out that the abuse is not just a problem affecting individuals/families, but one with major implications for society as a whole, so it behooves society to work on (and pay for) ways to prevent it. Some people need to see a wide economic benefit before they'll support funding solutions to a problem that doesn't directly affect therm.

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  4. Neil, that Alexandra Petra column sounds fascinating, but I can't find it anywhere on Google or the WaPo site. Got a link?

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    1. Never mind, I just found it. (The problem is that her last name is actually "Petri.")

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  5. "Incidentally more humane." That says a lot about our priorities these days.

    John

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  6. I do think that you should have mentioned that Duggar was a minor, 14 years old, at the time of the incidents. It doesn't excuse it but it certainly put it in a different context than a teacher like Hastert.

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  7. Duggar started at 14 kept it up till 17 or so, according to one report. He should know better by then, especially in his supposedly so holy family. They worry about holding hands on dates though. Not that Hastert is to be excused. Sure it's different but still abuse. And the fact that his parents did little or not the right things while he did this to 4 of his sisters is just as bad.

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  8. Why is the comment approval up? Was there a problem on here today?

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    1. Nah, it's just the old Chinese water torture. After a while the drio-drip-drip gets to you. I'm moderating the comments now until the time comes when I decide not to.

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  9. thank goodness

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  10. The pattern of negative behavior that results in the victims seeking the same is common in students I've seen from abusive homes.For them, negative attention is better than no attention at all. They've never experienced positive reinforcement. They freak out when this is given outside of the abusive environment, until they're trained to accept it for what it is. It's not surprising they follow the negative trend; it's all they know. Social work is the answer, not imprisonment.

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  11. Perhaps ANA is some secret anti-Semite.

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