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: this one the former Speaker of the House, accusing of paying a fortune to hush up decades-old accusations.
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 generally 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 Court’s Criminal Division. 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,” Judge 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.”
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.”