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Can Penitent Sexual Predators Ever Be Granted Redemption?

Any community that believes in rehabilitating criminal offenders needs to take the question seriously…

Flannery O’Connor wasn’t wrong: a good man really is hard to find. And, as the fall-out of #MeToo has clearly demonstrated, so is a good apology.

The use of #MeToo to call out sexual violence originally arose out of activist Tarana Burke’s decade of work on combating rape culture. But #MeToo went viral after a dizzying number of women accused cinema mogul Harvey Weinstein of committing varying degrees of sexual harassment and violence. In response to this news cycle, thousands of people—overwhelmingly women—began sharing their own experiences on social media. The sheer number of accounts illustrates the prevalence of sexual predators and harassers like Weinstein outside of Hollywood. Lewd comments hurled on busy streets. Invasive touches at the hands of colleagues dismissed as jokes. Unwelcome grabbing and squeezing at the hands of strangers and dates. With some hesitation over the amount of detail I ought to give, I joined the #MeToo chorus with a memory of an encounter with a creepy acquaintance and a later betrayal from a family friend: another drop in a sea of harassment and assault at the hands of men—because although there are certainly exception, almost every one of these stories is about a male predator—who wield their authority, their power, their titles, their money to exact fear, shame, and silence.

Then came the slew of apologies. Well, probably not for you or me, if your harassers or abusers were obscure or anonymous. The nobodies who don’t have audiences seldom have to face highly public mass confessionals, which is what it usually takes to trigger even a modicum of self-reflection from a famous offender. Since most harassers and abusers aren’t famous, their sins go largely unadmitted and unapologized for. I, for one, gave up on any acknowledgement of past offensive behavior from my monsters, let alone anything resembling an apology. But if your offender is famous—like a Harvey Weinstein, or a former President George H. W. Bush, or a Kevin Spacey, or a Louis CK—then you might receive an ounce of admission.

Unfortunately, that ounce of admission is usually not only cursory, but also evasive and implicitly self-exculpatory. It turns out that people who enjoy exercising their power to subject others to their sexual whims—and the PR machines that represent them—tend to suck at taking responsibility. That’s the only way I can explain why there’s always a sprinkling of flimsy excuses mixed in with their admissions of guilt and their supposedly unequivocal apologies. We’re told all the things we have to understand: they were raised in a different time; they were elderly and confined to a wheelchair at eye-level with buttocks all day; they were unaware that vocal requests to not have one’s breasts touched were, in fact, requests to not have one’s breasts touched; they were gay. Meanwhile, their lawyers continued to deny any and all allegations made against their clients as completely unfounded. Apologies be damned—“all the interactions between the accuser and their client were consensual.”

It would take a clairvoyance I do not possess to ascertain what the authors of these disappointing “apologies” were actually seeking to accomplish. A cynic might say that our half-hearted penitents were merely trying to protect their economic interests—their lucrative seat on the Board of Whatever, the ratings of their show, the attendance numbers at their art exhibitions, the value of their name in their social milieu. Maybe they were simply sorry they got caught, and hoped that if they could present enough mitigating factors, the whole affair would soon be swept under the rug—at least as soon as public accusations against a technically “worse” predator came along (as they so often do) to eclipse their own predicament. But what if perhaps, just perhaps, there were a sexual predator who genuinely regretted the harm that their actions caused to their victims, and wanted to seek forgiveness on non-disingenuous terms? Are any circumstances under which such a person could be granted the redemption they seek?

There are many reasons why victims of sexual harassment or assault often come forward late in life, if ever. There’s the fear of having to face a person who’s already put you in a frightening situation at least one time before, by hurting you or threatening to hurt you. There’s embarrassment. There’s anxiety about not being believed or, worse, of being blamed for what was done to you. There are economic reasons: having to earn a wage to survive may mean keeping quiet to avoid jeopardizing a primary stream of income. Sometimes, too, a victim may feel a lingering, twisted sympathy for the perpetrator, leading them to decide that they don’t want to cause their abusers “unnecessary” harm—to their reputations, their family life, or whatever else they have at stake—however little the abuser deserves that kind of mercy from them. It may be this latter concern that’s prevented me from denouncing my own abusers by name for so long.

Given how much emotional and material risk it often takes for survivors to come forward, even contemplating the possibility of redemption for sexual predators feels somewhat perverse. Who cares if they rot on an isolated island of unforgiveness, right? Perhaps no one. Yet, the fact that sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent means that, at some point in our lives, our social circles—or, at the very least, our economic or civic communities—will inevitably include some confessed offenders. In light of this reality, it seems that we ought to think seriously about the extent to which we will tolerate these offenders in our midst. Can we ever forgive the perpetrators their wrongdoing, re-grant them a degree of trust, and re-integrate them into whatever aspects of community life they may have been barred from in response to the harms they committed? In other words: if we are willing to believe that redemption could be possible, what would a past offender need to do to show the community that they deserved that chance?

First, I should clarify who exactly I mean by “we.” Here, I am not referring to any of the specific victims of a specific offender whose potential for redemption is being contemplated. It is important for victims to process their experience, their trauma, in a manner that best suits their individual needs. For some, this may mean never forgiving the perpetrator for as long as the victim lives. It may mean choosing to avoid any and all interactions with that person. For others, it may mean accepting an apology and taking the “forgive and forget” route, because that is what feels right to them. This is not a choice anyone else can make for a victim. Nor is this “we” necessarily a reference to the group of individuals who previously had interpersonal relationships with an offender. It is perfectly rational to decide that you never want to have a personal friendship with a past sexual offender, no matter how much they claim or appear to have atoned. Rather, “we” refers to us as members of civic communities that engage with the perpetrator. We may have social “relationships” with such people that exist outside the interpersonal level. We may (like it or not) support them by reading or publishing their works, enjoying and sharing their art, or even organizing politically alongside them. After the many accusations sparked by #MeToo, we may wonder whether we ever could engage in such activities with a known offender again, without somehow making ourselves complicit in their bad actions. In effect, what we are asking when we wonder this is whether a confessed offender could ever be redeemed.

Like the lawyer that I am, I think the answer is that it depends. Specifically, it depends on the extent to which four separate elements have been fulfilled. While we’re on the topic of confession, I’ll admit that my background is not in philosophy. Nonetheless I believe our most judgmental institutions can be of guidance here—by which I mean, of course, the courts and the church, both of which have long been in the obnoxious business of declaring who can be redeemed. Acknowledging that there certainly no lack of criticism against either of these institution, including in this magazine, we can still use them to draw some conclusions about what our society thinks is crucial before for offenders and sinners to be atoned.

The first element of redemption is loss: the perpetrator needs to give something up. What this loss looks like largely depends on a society’s theory of punishment. In our current criminal justice system, which leans heavily towards retributive justice, this typically refers to a deprivation of liberty (like jail or other confinement), and civic or economic privileges (like voting or the right to public housing). But the carceral approach favored by the federal and state justice systems in this country—which includes lengthy periods of banishment and, in too many instances, death sentences—is not the only method of inflicting loss on an offender. Societies that consider deterrence (rather than retribution) to be a primary purpose of punishment would likely advocate for imposing a different type of loss, one that’s geared towards setting an example that will discourage others who may be disposed to commit the same offense. In societies where punishment is primarily intended to rehabilitate the offender, a loss of privileges may be necessary only if it could help transform the offender into a person who is able to participate in society without re-committing the offending behavior. Thus, loss in a rehabilitative context may look more temporary or less severe. Instead of confinement to a cell in a traumatizing and unsafe prison environment, punishment might look like a loss of autonomy, such as mandatory reporting to a parole officer or a therapist, the imposition of a curfew or restriction of movement (for instance, not being allowed within a distance of a victim), or even the wearing of a tracking device.

In the real world, of course, theories of punishment are all very well, but the manner in which actual punishments are issued will always be influenced by the perceived gravity of the offense. This usually involves an implicit assessment of the vulnerability and innocence of the victim, based on the victim’s personal characteristics. This concept of victimization, as explained in greater detail by law professor Joshua Kleinfeld, plays into the severity of any punishment (and by extension loss of liberty and privileges). In the worst iteration of our society, this idea of victimization leads adjudicators, and the general public, to use characteristics like race as proxies for the vulnerability and innocence of a victim. In societies pervaded by racist attitudes, a non-white person may not fit into an adjudicator’s mental paradigm for “vulnerability” or “innocence,” and that adjudicator may consequently decide that the harm suffered by the non-white victim can’t have been all that bad.

But while race is a completely illegitimate proxy for severity of harm, there do exist characteristics that actually go to the vulnerability and innocence of a victim. These characteristics include things like the victim’s age and their mental faculties. For example, sexual harassment is undeniably always awful. But most of us would agree that it is objectively worse when an adult man harasses a nine-year-old girl walking to school along a deserted alley, than when he harasses a twenty-nine-year-old woman on a crowded street. Though both cases are inexcusable, we can see how, all other factors being equal, the harassment of the nine-year-old victim is at least a degree worse.

Thus, how much loss would satisfy this element of redemption for a confessed sexual harasser or abuser largely depends on our perspective on the social purpose of punishment, and the context of the offense, with respect to factors that may make the harm to individual victims more severe. Those of us who support prison abolition tend to prioritize deterrence and rehabilitation, and thus would be less likely to require actual prison for this element to be satisfied. The theory of punishment one favors also says a lot about the extent to which we believe people can change over time—a belief that, importantly, must be balanced against the importance of safeguarding other members of the community from physical and emotional harm. Inevitably, this case-by-case call will be impacted by many other factors, including whether the other three elements of redemption are met.

The second factor we’d look to, in assessing someone’s redemptive potential, is whether the perpetrator has made any restitution to the victim and the community that supported the confessed offender. The notion of making a victim “whole,” although present in our ideas of criminal justice, plays a much larger role in the our system of civil justice. Making a victim “whole” means giving back to them, as far as possible, the equivalent of what was taken away from them. On occasion, this restitution may come as the performance of service. More frequently, though, it consists of giving the victim something material, like money outright. The concept is simple enough, but this is actually tough in practice. We’ll leave aside, for the moment, what metric would be appropriate for assessing how much compensation a victim should be given. Indeed, the physical and emotional violation of a sexual offense is not easily translatable into a hard monetary figure; some people are so badly harmed that achieving anything resembling “wholeness” will be a protracted and complex process, if it is possible at all.

An additional glaring problem is that of the conditions that come with the compensation once it’s been given. After all, offenders who have the power and money are known to placate their victims with settlements for thousands of dollars, and sometimes millions. Overwhelmingly, however, these settlements not only allow the perpetrator to pay up without any guilt, but also include nondisclosure clauses that indefinitely prohibit the victims from ever speaking out about their harrowing experience in any real detail. How whole can a victim and community be made, if the imposition on the offender’s wallet also grants the offender the power to continue exerting control over the victim, and even prevents them from arming other potential victims with knowledge? Moreover, a payout may offer a community very little guidance, as it wrestles with the risks it took by embracing the offender, or the responsibilities or rewards it gave them before knowing the harm this person was capable of inflicting.

Another problem is that monetary compensation—even without conditions—simply isn’t an option that is available in all cases. The compensation a victim can expect will be limited by their abuser’s finances as much as the actual severity of their crime. Not all offenders are rich. But even if there was always plenty of money to throw at the problem, those of us whose offenders have no such means may wonder how far money could realistically redress the harm anyway. I would wager that no price can be put on recurring nightmares, intermittent panic attacks, or the inability to experience intimacy as freely again. This isn’t to say that there is absolutely nothing a confessed offender could do to make their victim and community whole. Models of restorative justice often point to the performance of services as an alternative to paying back a victim or the community. Though this option usually advocated for offenders of limited means, wealthy people should not be above serving others to make up for the damage they cause, perhaps in addition to a monetary settlement. If we really care about redemption and believe that it is only possible when adequate restitution has been made, then we will have to think creatively, and look beyond mere monetary gestures.

So far we’ve focused mostly on the courts. The church, meanwhile, suggests two different elements of redemption: remorse and penance. These may, on their face, simply look like “easier” versions of loss and restitution. And for people who privately seek religious or emotional absolution for their sins while also actively avoiding the legal, social, and material fallout of their actions, these definitely are a lot easier. Despite their potential for abuse by offenders seeking to bypass the consequences that follow the admission of wrongdoing, I would argue that the expression of remorse and the performance of penance remain important factors in assessing somebody’s potential to be reintegrated into a community. It becomes even more important as we grapple with the possibility that some of the other elements of redemption may, realistically, never be met. “Loss,” for example, is typically imposed by the justice system. But there will be cases the legal system may never impose a loss truly proportionate to that harm. Similarly, loss imposed by the community outside of the justice system—for example, a demotion of the offender or the retraction of a prestigious award—may feel deeply unsatisfactory. So while we should continue to strive for a system of laws and adjudicators that brings harm and loss into a sensible relationship with each other, it’s crucial for us to also have other tools to weigh a person’s ability to atone for their wrongs.

Let’s start with remorse. To express remorse, an offender must apologize to those they have hurt, and also—which is a slightly different thing—verbalize regret for the particular actions they committed. The most effective expressions of remorse will address both the victim and the community to which the offender belongs, however broadly this community may be defined. The offender takes responsibility for what they’ve done, without blaming factors that are inevitably also present in the lives of thousands of others who are somehow able to avoid committing acts of harassment and violence.

Where there’s a likely to be legally-imposed “loss” associated with the wrongs committed, the apology is an important way for the perpetrator to inform their victims, and their community, that they understand that what they did was wrong, that they are sorry for having done it, and that they are ready to accept tangible consequences for their actions. Where the specific situation seems less likely to result in direct criminal or civil consequences for the perpetrator, the expression of remorse is even more critical. It is a way for the perpetrator to demonstrate that, regardless of what the state may say, they personally take responsibility for their actions. It demonstrates that, absent legal punishments that are not necessarily forthcoming, the offenders are nonetheless willing to incur the social or economic costs of their public admission of wrongdoing. If someone can’t bring themselves to make a clear, unequivocal apology in either of these scenarios, that seems to pretty clearly foreclose the possibility of the community choosing to trust them again in the future.

The fourth factor, penance, is the labor of proving through works that one has changed into a person other than the version of themselves that was capable of harming others. As distinct from restitution (which focuses on what the perpetrator can do to recompense the harm done to their victims and their communities) and loss (which is imposed by a legal system with or without the perpetrator’s consent), penance is about the perpetrator’s path to self-improvement. As with restitution, assessing what penance is appropriate is a tricky calculation. It requires us to ask ourselves some serious questions about what kind of effort it would take to convince us that an offender had truly changed. I think this would entail an examination of both the offender’s personality (what kind of penance would be truly difficult for them, as opposed to merely performative?) and the severity of the past harm they are attempting to atone for. We know that there is a difference between someone who committed an offense one time, thirty years ago and never again since, and someone who committed the same offense regularly and repeatedly for the last thirty years. To be sure, the former person is not excused for their behavior automatically by virtue of the time that passed. But the degree of re-occurrence would affect the extent to which we can believe an offender’s claim that they are now a reformed person, or even that they truly want to be a reformed person in the future.

In the case of Harvey Weinstein, it’s clear that a weeklong stay in a cushy rehabilitation facility will never come close to redeeming him for multiple rapes over two or three decades: the level of penance he would need to perform would necessarily be very, very high, and realistically speaking, it’s a purely academic question what that transformation would look like, since there’s almost no prospect of him even attempting it. But there may be more ambiguous cases, where we’re not sure whether the community is setting the bar too low or too high, which will require careful and nuanced assessments.

So is it enough for a seemingly-remorseful offender to point to a decade or two in which they’ve made sincere efforts to change the way they interact with women, or to point to a lack of accusations against them in this period? What if they’ve accepted a certain amount of loss, made efforts to make the victim whole, and provided an apology that feels sincere? I cannot definitively say. Some offenses may be so predatory and so sustained over time that we may decide that no amount of effort could ever justify forgiving the perpetrator, ever trusting them on any level, and ever reintegrating them in our communities. But my feeling is that granting redemption could feel like a legitimate decision for us, as a community, in those rare unicorn cases when these magical four elements are present. Until then, however, the next apology will probably ring hollow.

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