How Alex Acosta Got Away With It for So Long

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SLATE NEWS)

 

How Alex Acosta Got Away With It for So Long

The only way the labor secretary could give Jeffrey Epstein that 2008 plea deal is by ignoring victims.

Acosta standing with both hands on a podium, three American flags behind him.
Alexander Acosta at a press conference at the Department of Labor on Wednesday.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Back in 2008, when Alex Acosta was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, his office secretly cut a sweetheart deal for child rapist and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Now Acosta has been watching as increasingly damning evidence piles up, revealing that he was responsible for letting Epstein off the hook the first time around, and filters into the public consciousness. So he took a page from Donald Trump’s sexual assault impunity playbook at a press conference on Wednesday and denied any responsibility for any of his actions, refused to apologize to hundreds of victims who were children at the time, and instead blamed everyone from state prosecutors to the victims themselves. On Friday morning, he resigned as secretary of labor, but it hardly seems like enough.

Thanks to dogged reporting from Julie K. Brown at the Miami Herald, we know that a 53-page indictment drafted by Acosta’s own office was based on the statements of dozens of victims, and yet Acosta still brokered a plea deal allowing Epstein to register as a sex offender and spend just 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail. Epstein was allowed to be picked up by a car on 12 hours of daily work release from the prison, six days a week. A Florida judge ruled earlier this year that the non-prosecution agreement violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because the witnesses were never consulted or informed that it had happened.

Epstein was charged Monday, by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, with running a sex trafficking operation. A search of his home revealed hundreds if not thousands of images of naked women, and, according to federal authorities, “some of the nude or partially-nude photographs appear to be of underage girls.” New York authorities specifically credited the Miami Herald, which has surfaced many other questionable details about the case, with helping lead them to new evidence. On Tuesday another woman came forward with allegations that she had been raped by Epstein as a teenager: Jennifer Araoz told NBC News that she was approached at age 14 in 2001 by a woman who took her to Epstein’s home where she was paid to give him massages in her underwear, and that he raped her when she was 15.

Acosta’s tactic Wednesday consisted of blaming state prosecutors first, and the victims second. His claim is that he’s actually a good guy, because when the state authorities decided to pursue charges that would have failed to result in jail time, his office stepped in to press for a more draconian sanction. “Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was willing to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing,” he said. “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail.” The deal had Epstein plead guilty to two state prostitution charges, resulting in the jail time and sex offender registration, though he also had to pay restitution to the victims.

Acosta’s version of the story has a million problems. Barry Krischer, Palm Beach state attorney at the time, immediately lit into Acosta for trying to “rewrite history” by blaming state authorities. “I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer told the New York Times. “No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. attorney’s office always had the ability to file its own federal charges. If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted.” Conveniently, each office has shifted the blame onto the other, so nobody bears any responsibility. Regardless, who gets to bring charges in such a case is never the sort of zero-sum turf battle either man is making it out to be—as former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade notes: “He could have allowed the state prosecutor to do whatever he wanted with the state case and still pursued his own separate federal charges. Sometimes prosecutors work cooperatively with state prosecutors to work out a global resolution when it is in their clients’ mutual interest, but it is certainly not required.” In other words, Acosta is pretending when he says he was jammed by state prosecutors.

Among Acosta’s most revealing claims were those about the absence of compelling evidence. It bears repeating that Brown, the Herald reporter, points out that Acosta had at his office’s disposal “36 girls who all told the same story, which is amazing.” The New York Times says there were 40 victims at the time the deal was struck. And as the Times further revealed, in a profile of Julie Brown, “Early in the process, she received a heavily redacted police report that was more than 100 pages long and mentioned more than 100 Jane Does.”

More than 100 Jane Does. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, the new claim that Acosta had to agree to the sweetheart deal in order to prevent Epstein getting off for less is simply absurd. “Why did that decision have to be made right then and there?” Blake wrote. “If the evidence wasn’t there yet to be confident in a large-scale federal case, why not investigate further and hopefully uncover what federal prosecutors in New York revealed on Monday?” The new indictment includes ample evidence that had already been collected when the non-prosecution agreement was signed. When asked about this at his press conference, Acosta said other jurisdictions were free to pursue other investigations (and 10 years later New York did! See, the system works!) and that victims were also free to pursue civil remedies. (See, the system works!)

In point of fact, the system did work perfectly. To protect a child predator, that is. What you are witnessing here is Acosta seeking refuge in a country that allows jurisdictions to both point fingers at one another and reverse-engineer their own fact-finding to highlight only the smallest quantum of evidence. As was the case with the federal “investigations” into claims about White House chief of staff Rob Porter’s brutal and persistent battery of his partners, and Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct toward women, investigations are only as effective as the investigator’s willingness to lookAlex Acosta did not look very hard. Instead, Alex Acosta chose to sign a non-prosecution agreement around what he opted to see, which is what he wanted to see, which was close to nothing.

As important as Acosta’s willingness to blame state prosecutors is his willingness to avert his own eyes. Because the only way to have 100 Jane Doe interviews and a 53-page draft indictment and to still see so very, very little misconduct is to blame the victims themselves. And so, on Wednesday, Alex Acosta went on to do just that, as David Graham observed. In the single most grotesque moment in a wholly grotesque public event, Acosta, when asked what he’d tell Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, said this: “The message is you need to come forward. I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations, allegations that should never happen to any woman, much less a young girl. And as victims come forward, these cases can be brought and they can be brought by the federal government, they can be brought by state attorneys, and they will be brought.”

Acosta, who worked for a president who routinely claims that all sexual assault victims are solely in it for the money, went on to quote prosecutors in his office who described girls too terrified to come forward because they were scared of being shamed and trashed by defense counsel. As he said of a female prosecutor in his office, “She talks about the challenges faced, she talks about the victims being scared and traumatized, refusing to testify, and how some victims actually exonerated Epstein. Most had significant concerns about their identities being revealed. The acts that they had faced were horrible and they didn’t want people to know about them.” He added that the victims worried they would be disparaged for seeking monetary reparations—“and it became clear that they were going to receive money if he was convicted, how that would impeach their credibility”—buying into the Trumpist narrative that any accuser who ever accepts compensation could legitimately have their credibility questioned.

Taken in sum, Acosta seems to be saying that the real impediment to a just resolution is the unreliable and fickle victims, who are afraid the system won’t take them seriously (as he didn’t) and who are afraid of being talked about derisively (in precisely the ways he now does). As Adam Horowitz, a lawyer for seven of the victims, told the New York Times on Wednesday, the young women were indeed scared to testify—because the prosecutors themselves had terrified them. “The prosecutors were saying, ‘These defense lawyers are going to go through your whole personal life, dig up your bad acts and your sex life,’ ” Horowitz said. “When they heard that from prosecutors, sure they were intimidated. They kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ”

Finally, Acosta posited that he is off the hook because life is significantly better for accusers in 2019. “We live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world does not allow some of the victim shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago,” he urged. Apparently, Acosta has never heard of E. Jean Carroll, Christine Blasey Ford, or Summer Zervos, each of whom has been called a cash-seeking liar by the president of the United States, Acosta’s boss. He also falsely implied that the federal rules of evidence and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act either didn’t exist or didn’t preclude lawyers from “victim shaming” back in 2007, which is not true.

Anyway, to recap: Acosta arrived at the laughable 2008 agreement because he chose to ignore everything that could have been something. He did that by allowing the victims to be terrified and then blaming them for it, by creating an imaginary deadline by which he would have to close his investigation and finalize a deal, and by diffusing responsibility for bringing Epstein to justice among state authorities, civil litigation, other federal jurisdictions, and the victims themselves. Acosta’s entire mission is to push the blame outward, but in doing so, he has instead offered up a case study in institutional cowardice and complicity.

Just because we can blame Acosta does not mean it’s his fault alone. It’s a mistake to leave out the many, many other men who determined that they too had not seen enough evidence to act decisively, which includes Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, who believed reporter Vicky Ward had amassed insufficient evidence of Epstein’s sexual depravity to keep it in a reported story in 2003, telling Politico, “In the end, we didn’t have confidence in Ward’s reporting. We were not in the habit of running away from a fight. But she simply didn’t have the goods.” It includes Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who allowed a prosecutor at a 2011 hearing to seek to reduce Epstein’s sex offender status to the lowest possible classification. It includes a system that, as the New York Post reports, ensured Epstein was permitted by the NYPD to skip every one of his court-mandated check-ins. It appears everyone evaluated all the evidence through their money-colored glasses.

And, as in any story about wealth and privilege and access, it also seems to come down to a trio of lawyers—all from Kirkland & Ellis, as Joe Conason notes—Kenneth Starr, Alex Acosta, and Jay Lefkowitz, who worked together to grease the skids for Epstein. As Lefkowitz, representing Epstein, memorialized in a 2007 letter, Acosta would not inform “any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses or potential civil claimants” against Epstein about the terms or existence of the sweetheart deal. That too, says Acosta, was done to protect … the victims.

So please. Just please. Stop saying victims don’t come forward. Stop saying you wish more of them would come forward. If you have not only not made it easier for them to do so, but have used your professional status and authority to make it far harder, you are lying when you say that. This is not just about Alex Acosta, or Bill Clinton, or Alan Dershowitz, or Donald Trump, or any one man. It’s not about Senate Republicans, who were evidently capable of feeling shame three years ago, but are wholly dead to it today. It is about entire hierarchies of wealth and invulnerability that first avoid looking at abused women and then insist it is their own fault they are invisible. As Rebecca Solnit aptly put it yesterday, “These men could not do what they did without a culture—lawyers, journalists, judges, friends—that protected them, valued them, devalued their victims and survivors. They do not act alone, and their might is nothing more or less than the way a system rewards and protects them, which is another definition of rape culture. That is, their impunity is not inherent; it’s something the society grants them and can take away.”

Decreasing that impunity would require making a choice, a rare choice, a choice that nobody seems to be making, to privilege abused women over powerful predators. Even as we swim in this sea of revealed abuse, consider the individual actors who, again and again, fail to make that choice. When you do, you don’t just see the results of their actions, you witness how they defend their inaction. It’s almost an art form now, and Alex Acosta is just the latest example of a man accused of wrongdoing who insists that everyone but himself is wrong. The Herald excoriated Acosta for failing to show “an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited.” That’s perhaps because Acosta now lives in a world where all that matters is what the president thinks. This is where enablers of sexual predators end up when they enable new sexual predators.

If you can manage nothing else, pay attention only to this: Reports surfaced Wednesday via the Guardian that as labor secretary, Acosta proposed an 80 percent funding cut to a section of his own department known as the International Labor Affairs Bureau. That is the department that combats child sex trafficking. This administration is not just covering up for those who rape children and those who get away with raping children. They are making the rape of children invisible. They are ensuring that we can’t see it and we can’t investigate it, and before you know it, it will be as if it never even happened at all. And America’s child rape problem will have been “solved.”

Update, July 12, 2018: This piece has been updated to reflect Alex Acosta’s Friday resignation as secretary of labor.

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Children Don’t Matter, But Dollars Do?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘DAILY BEAST’)

 

Rape and molest trusting young boys for half a century, but do not touch the Catholic Church’s money.

Therein lies the lesson offered in Pennsylvania by Father Francis Rogers and Monsignor William Dombrow.

Rogers’ decades of depredations were detailed in a grand jury report on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia made public in 2005, and which was finally followed this week by a similar grand jury report on six other dioceses in Pennsylvania.

“The Grand Jury will never be able to determine how many boys Father Francis P. Rogers raped and sexually abused in his more than 50 years as a priest,” noted the earlier report on sexual assault committed by an unholy host of priests. “Nor, probably, will we or anyone else be able to calculate the number of boys the Archdiocese could have saved from sexual abuse had it investigated potential victims rather than protecting itself from scandal and shielding this sexually abusive priest. We have learned of at least three victims who we believe would not have been abused had the Archdiocese taken decisive action when it learned of Fr. Rogers’ “familiarity” with boys. We find that the Archdiocese received a litany of verifiable reports beginning shortly after Fr. Rogers’ 1946 ordination and continuing for decades about his serious misconduct with, and abuse of, boys. ‘

The report went on,” One of his victims described waking up intoxicated in the priest’s bed, opening his eyes to see Fr. Rogers, three other priests, and a seminarian surrounding him. Two of the priests ejaculated on him while Fr. Rogers masturbated himself. Then Fr. Rogers sucked on the victim’s penis, pinched his nipples, kissed him, and rubbed his stubbly beard all over him. The former altar boy, whom Fr. Rogers began abusing when he was about 12 years old, remains haunted by memories of the abuse more than 35 years later. “

The report concluded, “Father Rogers’ file demonstrates that the Archdiocese responded to reports of his crimes with a shameful half-century of transfers, excuses, and finger-wagging threats that did nothing to deter the priest from indulging his self-acknowledged ‘weakness’ and that exposed every boy in his path to the very real and horrible possibility of sexual abuse.”

At no point did a church official notify law enforcement about crimes that should have put Rogers behind bars for years. He instead remained at liberty and spent this final days in the comfort of Villa Saint Joseph, a diocesan residence for priests who are sidelined or retired as sexual predators.

“Father Rogers was never punished or held to account for his unchecked sexual predations or the devastation they caused,” the 2005 grand jury report notes. “He was permitted to retire in 1995, his ‘good name’ intact. The message clearly communicated by the Archdiocese’s actions—to victims and abusers alike—was that it would protect the reputation of its priests at all costs.”

Thanks to a life insurance policy and perhaps some modest savings, Rogers left $14,410 to the church. The money should have gone into an Archdiocese and Catholic Human Services account. Unbeknownst to the church, it was instead diverted along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and bequests into an account at the Sharon Savings Bank controlled by the rector at Villa Saint Joseph, Monsignor William Dombrow.

When the folks at Sharon Savings noticed a number of payments from what was supposedly a church account to Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack, they alerted the archdiocese.

The same archdiocese that never held Rogers and an unholy host of other monsters to account for “unchecked sexual predations,” was not about to let these bank checks go unchecked. A spokesman for the archdiocese described a response to stolen money such as had never been elicited by reports of raped children, including an assault in a confessional and forced oral sex followed by holy water as a mouth rinse.

“Last summer, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was alerted to irregularities concerning a bank account connected to Villa Saint Joseph in Darby, Pennsylvania,” the spokesman said. “At that time, the matter was referred to law enforcement by the Archdiocese and Monsignor William Dombrow’s faculties as well as his administrative responsibilities were restricted.”

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The spokesman added, “Throughout the investigation, the Archdiocese has cooperated fully with law enforcement.”

Compare that to what the 2005 grand jury report says the archdiocese did upon receiving complaints about priests sexually assaulting youngsters:

“Not only did Church officials not report the crimes, they went even further, by persuading parents not to involve law enforcement.”

The church files contained allegations that had been lodged against 169 priests. Not all of the hundreds of victims were boys. A priest had arranged for an abortion for an 11-year-old girl he had repeatedly raped. Another girl had been sexually assaulted while in traction in the hospital.

But those were just kids. Money was money.

In April of 2017, Dombrow was charged in federal court with multiple counts of wire fraud. The criminal complaint described the sin that had prompted the church to action:

“Defendant William A. Dombrow used these funds for his own personal use, knowing that the monies were owned by the Archdiocese and were intended for use by the Archdiocese. Dombrow did so without notifying the Archdiocese of any of his purchases or withdrawals, and without advising the Archdiocese that the Sharon Savings Bank account existed or that the funds had been deposited for the benefit of the Archdiocese as the intended recipient.”

In May, Dombrow pleaded guilty. The sentencing was initially set for August 15, but that was the Feast of the Assumption. It was put off until January 3 of this year.

Various supporters wrote to the court attesting to Dombrow’s good works and suggesting that even as he helped others with addiction, he himself had fallen victim to a gambling habit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Rotella noted during the sentencing hearing that not all the diverted funds had gone to wagering. The money had also been spoken on travel—Aruba and Italy—and fine dining and tickets to the theater and concerts.

“He ate whatever he wanted,” Rotella said. “He spent whatever he wanted.”

Dombrow placed himself at the mercy of the court.

“What I’ve done, I know, is a serious crime, and I am guilty of that,” Dombrow said. “All I can do is accept what your decision is today and move on with my life. I truly trust God with all of this.”

Judge Gerald Pappert described the moral dimensions of the theft.

“What happened here,” Pappert said, “is that someone with a weakness took great advantage of the generosity of countless people and saw an opportunity to fund a lifestyle—and to a certain extent an addiction—with other people’s money.”

Imagine what the judge might have said had he been sentencing the likes of Rogers for raping dozens of children. Imagine the sentence a predatory priest might have received considering that the judge gave a 78-year-old embezzling priest eight months in prison.

On February 20, Dombrow surrendered as ordered to begin serving his sentence. He remained Inmate 76001-066 at Ashland Federal Correctional Institution in Kentucky this week, as the state of Pennsylvania released a grand jury report on predatory priests in six other dioceses. The new report significantly differed from the 2005 one on Philadelphia only in the larger number of perps and victims.

“We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse,” the new report says. “We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number—of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward—is in the thousands. “

One priest had taken it upon himself to resign in 1990 after three allegations of sexual abuse were filed against him. Church officials in Allentown wrote him a recommendation for a job at Disney World, where he worked for 18 years.

Otherwise, the response of the church officials as described in the 2015 report had been the same as was described in the 2005 report.

“Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing: they hid it all,” the new report says. “For decades.”

The 2015 reports notes that the higher-ups have never been held accountable for their inaction.

“Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted,” the grand jury found, “Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”

In the meantime, church officials in Pennsylvania have been lobbying to dissuade the state from lifting the statute of limitations on sex crimes, as victim groups and both grand jury reports recommend. Church officials in other states, including New York, have also fought new state laws to lift or extend the statute of limitations.

The senior clerics may be seeking to protect not just the predator priests, but also themselves, for they could be held criminally responsible for failing to report child abuse.

If the Pope is as much on the side of the victims as the Vatican insisted in a belated statement condemning the assaults detailed in the latest grand jury report as “criminal and morally reprehensible,” he could order church officials in Pennsylvania to cease supporting the statute of limitations.

In the meantime, the monsignor who prompted the church to immediate action when he stole money remains behind bars as Inmate 76001-066.

In the face of horror, the Catholic Church is worried about PR

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK POST)

 

In the face of horror, the Catholic Church is worried about PR

They read like scenes from a Marquis de Sade novel. A teenager forced to pose naked like Christ crucified while sadistic priests laughed at him. A priest who abused five sisters in one family and collected samples of their urine and menstrual blood for his own sick pleasure. Another who groomed underage students for oral sex by telling them that the Virgin Mary had to “lick” the just-born Jesus. Whips and leather straps. Bondage and forcible sodomy.

Yet the blockbuster grand-jury report on abuse in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania is credible, deeply researched and all too real. The findings — that 300 predatory priests victimized 1,000 children over seven decades — mark a crisis of still-unfathomable scale in the American church. It involves clerical fathers who gravely sinned against their children and against the Father in heaven, and others who averted their eyes or made excuses or covered up the sins.The most painful aspect of all this is the blasé response of many American hierarchs and especially those, like Washington Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who are implicated in the report. Wuerl and his colleagues have treated the report as a PR headache rather than a moral and spiritual wake-up call. They have acted like corporate reputation managers rather than successors to the Apostles. Instead of venting prophetic anger, they’ve taken refuge behind flacks.

Catholics believe that Jesus founded the church when he charged the Apostles to make disciples of all nations and handed them the power to forgive sins.

Those who regularly go to confession know by heart the steps for expiating sin: contrition, disclosure and a commitment to do penance and never to sin again.

Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find these quintessentially Catholic themes in the heavily lawyered blabber that has issued forth from the US episcopacy.

Those with the most authority here seem to be the most unrepentant. Even before the grand-jury report was made public, Wuerl gave a cringe-inducing interview on the topic of his predecessor in Washington, the disgraced Archbishop Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick, who recently resigned from the College of Cardinals as abuse allegations against him multiplied.

“I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis,” Wuerl said. “It was a terrible disappointment.” Yes, McCarrick’s fondling of a boy he’d baptized — disappointing, indeed.

Wuerl even published a website, theWuerlRecord.com, that portrayed him as an anti-abuse hero during his time as the bishop of Pittsburgh, from 1988 to 2006 — a period covered by the grand jury investigation. After an outcry, he took the site down.

“The sexual abuse of children by some members of the Catholic Church has been a terrible tragedy” is typically mealy-mouthed verbiage from the expensive-looking site.

The cardinal goes on: “While I served as Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and as our understanding of child sexual abuse increased, the Diocese worked to strengthen our response and repeatedly amended the Diocese’s safeguards and policies.”

That bit about “our understanding” of abuse “increasing” over time is particularly rich, as if the Catholic Church hadn’t prohibited sexual immorality of all kinds for two millennia.

Whatever “amending” took place during Wuerl’s time in Pittsburgh wasn’t enough. On his watch, the diocese allowed a predator priest, Ernest Paone, to interact with kids in other states, though cases against him had piled up at the Pittsburgh chancery.

In 1994, a diocesan staffer wrote a detailed memo about Paone’s past to then-Bishop Wuerl. But Wuerl withheld much of the information from officials in California and Nevada, where Paone had been transferred.

“The Diocese did not recall Paone,” the grand jurors note. “Nor did it suspend his faculties as a priest. To the contrary, Paone continued to have the support of the Diocese.”

The most revolting facts surrounding Wuerl involve a priest named George Zirwas, a member of a pedophile ring that manufactured child pornography on diocesan ground.

He whipped his victims and forced himself on them. And when he was done, he would hand them gold crosses, which “were a signal to other predators that the children had been desensitized to sexual abuse and were optimal targets for further victimization,” per the grand jury.

Zirwas had been removed from the ministry under a scandalous cloud when his strangled body turned up in Havana in 2001. Wuerl celebrated a funeral Mass for this monster, and he told the local press in Pittsburgh: “A priest is a priest. Once he is ordained, he is a priest forever.”

Zirwas, Wuerl said of the departed, had responded to God’s call by joining the priesthood.

These days there is a lot of talk of “mercy” and “accompaniment” in the Roman Church. But these outrages call for a different kind of spirit: the spirit of judgment, the fiery spirit of Saint Paul, who raged against sexual immorality in the early Church in his epistles and consigned those who defiled the people of God to fates worse than excommunication. For mercy without truth and penance is just PR.

Sohrab Ahmari is senior writer at Commentary and author of the forthcoming memoir of Catholic conversion, “From Fire, By Water.”

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India’s Supreme Court Rules Sex With Child Brides Is Rape

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM)

 

India’s Supreme Court Rules Sex With Child Brides Is Rape

Oct 11, 2017

India’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that sex with an underage wife constitutes rape, in a landmark ruling that campaigners say could affect millions of girls.

The decision overturned a previous clause that permitted men to have sex with a married girl as young as 15, the Indian Express reports.

India’s age of consent is 18 and child marriage is illegal, but the practice persists in many parts of the country. According to Girls Not Brides — a coalition of NGOs working to end child marriage — 47% of Indian girls are married by the age of 18.

Marital rape is not recognized as a crime in India, but sex with a child under 18 is considered rape. Under the new ruling, girls who are raped by their husbands can bring charges within one year of the offense.

The ruling was praised by rights advocates, who noted it coincided with International Day of the Girl Child on Oct. 11.

“The judgment is a step forward in protecting girls from abuse and exploitation, irrespective of their marital status,” Divya Srinivasan of gender-equality group Equality Now told Reuters.

Read More: Surviving Sexual Assault in India

Others raised concerns about the difficulty of enforcing the new provision, particularly in India’s conservative rural areas where child marriage persists due to poverty, low education, patriarchal social values and weak law enforcement, according to UNICEF.

“A minor girl who is already married, almost always with the consent of her parents, will not usually have the courage to go to the police or court and file a case against her husband,” said the BBC’s Geeta Pandey.

In 2015, there were more than 34,000 rape cases reported in the country, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau. Domestic abuse is even more widespread, affecting 40% of married women between the ages of 15 and 49, and 70% of child brides, according to government statistics cited by Reuters.