Some of the reaction to the Steubenville Ohio rape case has highlighted the plight of the perpetrators – two teenage high school football players who penetrated a drunk teenage girl with their fingers and circulated photographs of the crime online – while downplaying or ignoring the plight of the victim of the crime.
Initial television coverage focused on how the guilty verdict had ruined the lives of the perpetrators, who cried in court when found guilty. Then posters on Twitter and Facebook threatened the victim of the crime with homicide and bodily harm. Two teenage girls have been arrested on suspicion of making these threats.
These back-to-front ethical priorities are similar to some of the reaction to a sex crime in another small town in Ireland three years ago, where a Catholic parish priest led a public display of solidarity with the perpetrator while ignoring the plight of the victim.
In December 2009, a nightclub doorman, from the town of Listowel in County Kerry, was found guilty of sexually assaulting a local woman. A police patrol had found the victim semi-conscious, bruised, scratched, and naked from the waist down, with the man crouching over her, beside a skip in a car park.
The doorman had claimed that he had found the woman there and was trying to revive her, but CCTV footage showed him carrying her to the car park from a party at the nightclub. He was jailed for five years.
Just before his sentence was announced, up to fifty local men queued inside the courthouse to shake hands with or hug him and sympathize with him. This show of solidarity took place in front of the woman, who was waiting to give her victim impact statement.
One of the organizers of the show of solidarity was the local Catholic parish priest. He later said he shook hands with the guilty man to support him and let him know he wasn’t alone. When asked why he hadn’t shaken hands with the victim, he said that it didn’t even occur to him to do so.
As is the case in Steubenville in Ohio, the controversy split the town of Listowel in Kerry, where the perpetrator was as popular with many locals as the high school footballers are in Steubenville. The victim of the Listowel crime was devastated. She felt suicidal, but her toddler son kept her going.
Then the national Irish media picked up the story, and wider public opinion intervened. People flooded the Kerry Rape Crisis Centre with flowers and supportive messages. The woman was amazed and elated by this huge show of support. Within days, the parish priest had stood down.
The lesson: public opinion matters. And how we collectively respond to high profile sex crimes will have an impact on how individual people will respond in other cases, whether or not the media are covering them.
Why would some otherwise decent people in Listowel and Steubenville, two small towns separated by the width of the Atlantic Ocean, respond in this similar uncaring way to a member of their own community who has been the victim of serious crime?
They may see ‘one of their own’ who they love or like or admire or identify with, who is facing unpleasant consequences. They may not believe that forcing someone to have sex without consent is a serious crime. They may not know or care about the victim, so it easier to blame her than face up to his responsibility. They might not want their town to be mired in controversy.
But these responses are unjust on everybody involved. Sex crimes are serious matters. And however well we know or sincerely care about the perpetrators, our compassion has to start with the victims.