Roman Polanski’s get out of jail free card

Should the geniuses of Hollywood be judged by a different law in view of their cultural contributions?
Jeremy Prichard | Jul 22 2010 | comment  

Survivors of child sexual assault internationally may feel unsettled by the treatment of Roman Polanski, who was released from house arrest in Switzerland last week. It is the attitudes of celebrities on both sides of the Atlantic, more so than the decision of the Swiss authorities, which have sent messages that are out of step with both modern perspectives of sexual crimes and jurisprudence.

For instance, apparently some months ago Woody Allen publicly advocated for lenience towards Polanski on the bases that “It happened many years ago. He has suffered. He's an artist, he's a nice person.” Many others, including Allen, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorcese and Pedro Almodovar, signed a petition containing a different complaint, which related to the circumstances surrounding Polanski’s apprehension last year as he travelled to a film festival. Among other things, the petition argued that there was a “tradition” for filmmakers to travel “freely and safely” to what amounts to an “international cultural event”.

None of these considerations are relevant in the context of the drug-facilitated sexual assault of a 13-year-old which Polanski admitted to. Neither the passage of time, nor Polanski’s character, nor his talent has any bearing on the gravitas of the crime. And surely his “suffering”, which presumably encompasses things like anxiety over apprehension, hardly represents a proportionate sentence for his act. It is worth remembering the potential degenerative effects of child sexual assault, ranging from severe psychological illness, to reduced capacity to form or maintain relationships, to self-harming behaviour. Through reducing self-esteem and exacerbating a sense of powerlessness, sexual assault may increase victims’ vulnerability to subsequent sexual predation as well as other forms of abuse.

Regarding the nature of his apprehension, there’s no argument that filmmakers contribute to international culture. But it seems odd to suggest that film festivals have somehow acquired a capacity to offer immunity from criminal law extending to paedophilia. It is not surprising that some commentators have suggested that some members of the Hollywood/Cannes milieu may have developed a view that they are beyond the norms of their respective societies.

It is hard to imagine celebrities defending a paedophile priest on the grounds that his crime was a long time ago, he’s been otherwise good, and he delivers engaging homilies. Neither would anyone seriously complain if his arrest occurred en route to an international cultural event, religious or otherwise. On the contrary, if he had Polanski’s profile there is a sporting chance Richard Dawkins would be investigating methods by which the priest could be arrested if he visited the UK.

But on another note, should the case against Polanski be dropped because the girl he once abused, Samantha Geimer, publicly forgave him in 1997? Certainly public prosecutors frequently consider the wishes of victims of crime in deciding whether to lay charges against an individual. A critical factor concerns the impact that a trial might have upon a victim of crime. Indeed strong evidence indicates that trials can be highly traumatic for sexual assault victims of all ages.

However, available information suggests that since Polanski pleaded guilty to the charge of Unlawful Sexual Intercourse, there may be no need for Samantha Geimer to be involved in the proceedings. And although the crime was one that was first and foremost perpetrated against her, it was also a crime against the community in which it occurred and a crime against the US State. Allowing the law to take its course against Polanski would address an injustice against these entities.

We need good consistent messages on child sexual assault: prosecution is never too late; and no exemption for prosecution is provided because of personality, talent, fame or membership of a subcultural group.

Jeremy Prichard is a lecturer in law at the University of Tasmania.

Copyright © Jeremy Prichard . Published by You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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