Some double standards are just too blatant to ignore. In 1977, acclaimed film director Roman Polanski was indicted on six felony charges that included statutory rape, sodomy, and introducing a hypnotic sedative drug into the alcoholic beverage he provided to his 13-year-old victim.
Mr. Polanski and the prosecutors entered into a “plea deal.” In exchange for Mr. Polanski’s plea of guilty to one of the charges – thus avoiding a criminal trial – the prosecution agreed to a sentence of 42 days, the amount of time Mr. Polanski served while awaiting trial.
The victim in the case, who stood to gain millions in a civil settlement, also agreed with this sentence. When the judge hearing the case balked at the plea deal, Mr. Polanski fled from the United States to France where he has lived since. France declined to extradite him to the U.S. for sentencing. For 31 years, Roman Polanski hid in plain sight.
Last month, Roman Polanski was arrested in Zurich on an American fugitive warrant issued after he absconded in 1977. Mr. Polanski is now 76 years old, and the victim is in her mid-40’s. She asked for dismissal of the case because she apparently no longer feels like a victim. The amount of her financial settlement is unknown because of a standard non-disclosure agreement between the parties. When Catholic dioceses honored those same types of agreements, they were widely accused of perpetrating a cover-up.
What is most interesting about the Polanski case is not the charges themselves, or Mr. Polanski’s 1977 guilty plea. It is not even the fact that he may face a sentence – if there is even to be one – 31 years after being convicted.
And the Winner Is . . .
No, what is most interesting about this case is the reason Roman Polanski went to Zurich in the first place. He was arrested at the Zurich airport when he arrived to receive one of the highest honors in the film industry – the Zurich Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
This was not the first such award bestowed since Mr. Polanski plead guilty to child sexual abuse. In 2003, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him the Best Director Oscar for the film, “The Pianist.” The Oscar was bestowed to a proxy since the famed director would not risk traveling to Los Angeles.
None of the above is a judgment on whether Roman Polanski deserved such awards. That is not my point. The point is that there has been an outpouring of outrage by media pundits and others over the latest developments, but it is not the sort of outrage we Catholics have become accustomed to in the wake of similar decades-old claims against priests and the bishops’ handling of those claims.
The outrage voiced in the case of Roman Polanski is not that he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting a child but faced no consequences – other than perhaps financial consequences. The outrage is also not about the honors and awards he received. The most vociferous outrage is over the fact that Roman Polanski was arrested at all and could now be sentenced to prison.
That outrage has been most vocal within the media and film industries, including some of the same people who have ridiculed and railed against the Catholic Church for often far less serious claims against priests that are also decades old. Some of the same people who openly vilified Catholic priests now demand leniency for Roman Polanski and minimize the case against him.
Whoopi Weighs In
Typical of this outrage is the example of actress Whoopi Goldberg. As a panelist on the morning talk show, “The View,” she and her co-hosts have relentlessly ridiculed and pummeled Catholic priests and bishops for the sex abuse scandal. Virtually all of the claims against priests that surfaced in or after 2002 were alleged to have occurred decades ago.
The charges against me, for example, were claimed to have occurred sometime between 1978 and 1983. The panelists on “The View” have demanded criminal prosecutions and public exposes of bishops and accused priests regardless of however long ago the claims were alleged to have occurred. They have also ridiculed Catholic moral teaching pointing to what they see as the sheer hypocrisy between what the Church teaches and the claimed behavior of some priests and bishops.
Whoopi Goldberg now ridicules the case against Roman Polanski, inferring that it is unjust to impose a penalty in a case from so long go. Moreover, and most shockingly, she minimized the child’s victimization with the astonishing statement,
“It wasn’t really rape, rape!”
The inference here is that the victim “consented,” despite being drugged, and despite being thirteen years old. If Roman Polanski was a Catholic priest, Whoopi Goldberg would want his head presented to Herod on a platter.
Then there is the issue of the awards themselves – the Zurich Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar – bestowed upon Roman Polanski well after the sexual assault conviction, and while he was a fugitive from justice. Just imagine, for a moment, what would happen in the news media if an accused Catholic priest was publicly nominated to receive an award. The outcry would be thunderous, and the Church would be battered and ridiculed.
The loudest outrage would come from Catholics in protest groups like Voice of the Faithful (V.O.T.F.) and the vocal and vitriolic Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (S.N.A.P.). Both groups have consistently made themselves pawns of the news media’s agenda to discredit their Church.
Vocal members of both V.O.T.F. and S.N.A.P. have assailed the Church and bishops claiming that even the most basic and humane observance of the rights of accused priests – including efforts to grant them even minimal support, due process, and a presumption of innocence – are treacherous betrayals of the victims of sexual abuse.
V.O.T.F. sponsors an annual “Priests of Integrity” award. Can you imagine what would happen if an accused priest was nominated for it? Earlier this year, a woman wrote to me asking if she could nominate me for that award. I had to plead with her not to do so.
Members of V.O.T.F. in my own diocese have repeatedly demanded my dismissal from the priesthood without affording me even the most basic rights of defense under canon or civil law. Most recently, some have called the attempt to bring about a mere review of my trial the work of an insidious right-wing conspiracy.
Before The Wall Street Journal published an analysis of the case against me in 2005, one of the V.O.T.F. leaders used my case to grab headlines. When I wrote to him with the truth in 2003, my letter came back to me unopened and stamped, “Refused by Addressee.” When asked by a friend if V.O.T.F. would hear from me, a local V.O.T.F. leader reportedly replied, “We do not want to hear from him. We do not want to hear about him.”
It seems the denizens of Hollywood feel freer in our culture to practice the tenets of the Gospel of mercy than many in our Church – including many of our bishops who have been highly influenced by their fears over public sentiment and organized vilification.
As the national priesthood scandal unfolded seven years ago – at which point I had already been wrongly imprisoned for eight years – my bishop wrote the following to a Vatican official:
“Whatever the truth is about [Father MacRae’s] guilt or innocence, the Diocese of Manchester was in a difficult situation during his public trial. I do not feel that the Diocese can publicly advocate on his behalf without risking grave public misunderstanding.”
In a neighboring diocese, a bishop under relentless pressure from S.N.A.P. has told the news media that he is considering a website to publish the names, photos, accusations, and current addresses of priests who have been accused and suspended in cases alleged to have occurred 30 to 40 years ago. The priests named have never been convicted of a crime.
The duplicity is broad and blatant. Despite being acquitted in a criminal trial, singer Michael Jackson settled a single claim of sexual abuse for a reported $20 million, and untold millions settled other claims against him. When Michael Jackson died, he was celebrated as a cultural icon of the entertainment industry. In contrast, an American bishop, under pressure from a victims’ group, ordered the remains of a posthumously accused priest exhumed from a diocesan cemetery, and reinterred elsewhere.
I do not cite the above to criticize my bishop, or any bishop. Actually, I agree with my bishop that there would indeed have been a vocal reaction by groups like V.O.T.F. and S.N.A.P. if he fulfilled a 2001 promise to help seek a review of my trial. He had committed to doing just that when the national scandal erupted in 2002 at which point his support transformed into silence. My point is that public outrage is misplaced, and the reactions to the case of Roman Polanski show us just how misplaced and selectively voiced it is.
In the polar opposite of the vilification occurring in our Church, the French government has expressed its own outrage over Roman Polanski’s arrest. The French Cultural Minister, Frederick Mitterrand, was quoted in the news media: “In the same way that there is a generous America that we like, there is also a scary America that has just shown its face.”
Having faced mob justice, I find the double standard of otherwise reasonable Americans – many Catholics among them – to be far scarier.