As the number of accusers coming forward against Bill Cosby continues to grow, some of us seem shocked that someone so revered – a man in the public eye for more than 50 years – could allegedly have been a vicious predator and gotten away with it for so long.
It stuns us whenever a person with a sterling public image is accused of horrible crimes. It shakes our sense of justice when serious allegations against a famous role model are covered up or ignored.
In Cosby’s case, besides being a beloved entertainer, he has a doctorate in education; co-wrote a book with a respected Harvard professor on the problems of people suffering from low self-esteem, abandonment, fearfulness, sadness, and frustration; and has always been a staunch advocate for strong family and racial relations.
If even one of the many accounts we are hearing is true – and it needs to be emphasized that he denies all the allegations and hasn’t been tried or convicted on any of them – we would be left to wonder how someone so apparently caring, successful, and insightful could be such a miserable individual.
But individuals of prominence are able to get away with predatory behavior precisely because they display different behaviors in different settings. To the world at large they present themselves as sober and sensitive, full of guidance and understanding, while to their victims they reveal a wholly unexpected and even violent side.
Rumors about Cosby began to circulate years ago, to little effect. (In 2005, one alleged victim filed a civil claim against Cosby, who settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. The media paid fleeting attention to the story.) It was not simply that his star was too bright, though that was surely part of it; it was also our collective naiveté about sexual predators. We simply did not want to believe that such things could happen among “finer” people. If it were not that so many women have now come forward with the same allegations, we might still be quick to discount them.
Does this sound familiar? It should. The situation brings us back to how we choose to perceive abusers in our own community. Not long ago an individual from Europe contacted me about a case in Brooklyn. I had some peripheral involvement with that situation; the perpetrator is now in jail. The caller told me he knew the convicted man and still thinks he had been railroaded – in effect that he was the victim rather than the women he abused.
I explained that the authorities had properly investigated and that many victims had come forward to report what had been done to them. Not every victim’s testimony was used in the court case because they were all similar and unnecessary for the prosecution. It was impossible for the victims to have rehearsed their stories, but their experiences were very much the same and they had all been victimized in a similar way by this perpetrator. All of this pointed to their believability. Predators tend to have a modus operandi, a typical way of acting. I also told the caller that it is important for us to develop a sense of believability toward victims.
Just a few days later, I attended a shiur on ne’emanus – believability. The psak was that in cases of abuse there should be not even be a question – when a victim comes forward, a report must be made to the authorities. There might be a question only in cases with very young children, the rav added, citing a case from the 1970s that he said indicated very young children may be misdirected and therefore a question regarding their believability exists.
I knew about that particular case and informed him that when young children give details of sexual abuse – something they should otherwise have no knowledge of at that age – they are confirming that they had indeed been abused. The case he referenced had been dismissed on a technicality and in fact many of the predators were rearrested. I referred the rav to a book that examines this and similar cases: The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross Cheit (Oxford University Press), which dispels the myth that victims make up their stories and therefore should not be believed.
Victims are not usually quick to come forward to report what happened to them. And it is exceptionally rare that they are not telling the truth. Except in cases of custody, victims tell the truth. If there is any question, only properly trained investigators can do the necessary research. If we are to confront abuse, we must begin by believing the victims.