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Roman Polanski: What if He Were 'Father Polanski'?

4 years ago
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Perhaps my sensitivity to the Roman Polanksi fiasco can be traced to having covered the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church for so many years -- even before 2002, in fact, when it became a "scandal," which basically means the media pays attention.

Or perhaps my irritation at the emerging empathy for the award-winning director stems from a basic sense of justice.

Sure, the French and Polish governments are protesting the arrest of the 76-year-old Polanksi on Saturday in Switzerland, where he had gone to attend a film festival. Polanksi was raised in Poland and he lives in France, and you know the French and their artistes. Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand issued a statement saying he "profoundly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already known so many during his life." Polanksi is Jewish and barely escaped death in a concentration camp; his mother was killed at Auschwitz. Mitterrand also charged that with Saturday's arrest, Polanski was "thrown to the lions."

"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," he said.

Yada yada yada. Which is also what I say to the similar, and similarly unsurprising comments coming from Hollywood:

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," Bill Flicker, a film editor who once worked with Polanski in France, tells the Washington Post. "It's stupid and a waste of resources. I don't understand why they are doing it." (I'll tell him why in a moment.)

But what's up with the likes of Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein?

In a passionate and rambling defense of the director, he says the LA District Attorney has better things to do than hunt down poor Polanksi, and he compares the fugitive director to Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables," chased by the evil inspector Javert. Goldstein refers to the "op-ed moralists, excitable bloggers and the Glenn Becks of the world noisily weighing in on the propriety of his possible prosecution" and says Polanski "has already paid a horrible, soul-wrenching price for the infamy surrounding his actions."

"The real tragedy is that he will always, till his death, be snubbed and stalked and confronted by people who think the price he has already paid isn't enough." (Actually, that's not the real tragedy. And last time I looked, I wasn't Glenn Beck.)

Then there's Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum.

She titles her verdict "The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski" -- and continues in that vein. First, Applebaum questions why the secretive Swiss are suddenly so intent on pursuing criminals -- interesting, perhaps, but way beside the point when you are talking about the drugging and raping of a 13-year-old girl by a man who was then 43 years old.
In 1977 Polanksi (who in the 1970s won deserved acclaim with films including "Rosemary's Baby" and the superb "Chinatown"), hired Samantha Geimer, a high school freshman who wanted to be an actress, for a "photo shoot" at the Los Angeles house of his friend and "Chinatown" star, Jack Nicholson. Polanski plied Geimer with champagne and Quaaludes, took her to the hot tub, and then forced her into various sex acts. Polanksi pled guilty to one of the six counts against him -- having sex with a minor -- and was sentenced to 42 days of psychiatric evaluation in a state prison.

Polanksi fled the country, however, because he feared that the judge in the case, Laurence Rittenband, was going to undo that plea deal and sentence him to 50 years behind bars. Rittenband died in 1993, and there are doubts as to whether Polanski's fears were justified, and even bigger doubts as to whether such a stiff sentence would have held up on appeal.

In any case, life in Europe certainly seems preferable to what Polanski's victim endured. Speaking to Larry King a few years ago, Geimer -- now 45 and living in Hawaii with her husband and four children -- said this about the events:
King: "Did he forcibly rape you?"

Geimer: "You know, I said no. I didn't fight him off. I said, like, 'No, no, I don't want to go in there, no. I don't want to do this, no.' And then I didn't know what else to do. We were alone. And I didn't want to -- I didn't know what would happen if I made a scene. I was just scared and after giving some resistance, figured, well, I guess I'll get to go home after this."
Elements like that would seem to be more relevant than whether the Swiss are being cheesy. Yes, Geimer has said she does not want Polanksi to go to jail, and she wants to get on with her life. That's understandable, but does not mean Polanksi shouldn't be called to account for his crimes, or that justice should be ignored.

There is the obvious parallel to the cases in the Catholic Church, which have rightly scandalized the public and the media. Prosecutors and plaintiffs' attorneys have been dogged in pursuing these cases -- whether out of concern for their careers or for justice -- and the outrage was so widespread that the State of California created a one-year window in 2003 during which the statute of limitations on abuse crimes by Catholic priests (and others) was lifted. That meant the victims of men who were often long dead could finally get their day in court, or find some sense of justice and closure -- and for cases that were no more egregious than Polanski's abuse of Geimer. Polanski is alive, at least.

Comparisons are by their nature invidious. But what if Roman Polanksi were wearing a Roman collar? Would "Monsignor Polanksi" receive the same considerations? As Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit, writes at the Post's "On Faith" site, "Imagine if the Knights of Columbus decided to give an award to a pedophile priest who had fled the country to avoid prison. The outcry would be universal." And rightly so, as Reese says. But Polanski gets an Oscar in absentia in 2003 and earns sympathy because he can't receive it in person.

Yes, Polanski himself suffered terribly in his early life, and that, combined with his age and his post-conviction life on the lam, would certainly have figured into any sentence or other arrangement should he have returned to face the music. And the truth is, few abusers can simply be dismissed as "monsters." That is the easy way out for society. Most abusers, in fact, were themselves likely abused, and many have awful stories of personal sorrow.

Yet Applebaum seems to gloss over Geimer's suffering while highlighting that of Polanski: she says Polanski's crime was "statutory rape," adding that "there is evidence that Polanski did not know her real age." Huh? (Maybe Applebaum is thinking of a line from another Jack Nicholson movie, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," in which R.P. McMurphy protested to the asylum doc that the redhead who got him in trouble was "15 going on 35.")

Applebaum also protests that the crime was committed so long ago, and that there is evidence of judicial misconduct in the original case, and that Polanski "panicked" and fled out of an "understandable fear of irrational punishment" due to his past traumas. Besides, the guy has suffered enough, no?

"He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers' fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film."

"If he weren't famous, I bet no one would bother with him at all," Applebaum concludes.

Well, I'll take that bet. But why should the famous escape justice, anyway?

Applebaum's apologia echoes once again the unsettling sense of special pleading that has always surrounded Polanski's case.

At the time of the crime, Nicholson's girlfriend in those days, actress Anjelica Huston, said she saw Geimer on the day of the atack and described her as "sullen." (Nicholson was not at the house at the time, but Huston was.)

"She appeared to be one of those kind of little chicks between -- could be any age up to 25," Huston said in court papers. "She did not look like a 13-year-old scared little thing," Huston said.

Of Polanski, Huston added: "I don't think he's a bad man. I think he's an unhappy man."

Polanski also complained at the time that he was "some kind of mouse" played with by "an abominable cat" -- meaning the judge in the case, which, as the Post's William Booth noted, "foreshadows the carnival trials to follow, those of Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson." Those examples don't do much to exonerate Polanksi, of course; while not all those gentlemen were convicted criminally, it's hard to argue they were blameless in their various misdeeds.

Booth's comparison is in an article about a 2008 HBO documentary, "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired," that also sought to deconstruct the case and show that Polanski got something of a raw deal, even if he did in fact do the raw things he originally pleaded guilty to doing. (Polanksi had recently been citing the documentary as an argument to have his longstanding arrest warrant dismissed by a Los Angeles court.)

Yes, the tradition of the "casting couch" can -- for whatever reason -- evoke nostalgia for the good old days of naughty Hollywood and studio moguls. But how can you get dewey-eyed over drugging and raping a 13-year-old child?

I can't. And especially not during the High Holy Days, when Polanksi was arrested; arguing for pardon without atonement is not what Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that ended Monday at sunset, is about.

But what's most important in all this is the opinion of victims. Which is why I am reproducing in full an email sent to me this morning by David Clohessy, head of SNAP, the main organization for victims of clerical abuse, and himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest:
We as a society must clearly show, by our actions, that child sex abuse is wrong and that child molesters will be pursued, whether they are rich or poor, prominent or unknown, whether they 'face the music' or flee the country. It's a grave disservice to crime victims and an irresponsible risk to children if we let child sex offenders walk free because they've delayed justice or fled overseas.

Is it possible that there was some prosecutorial misconduct in Polanski's case? Of course. Does that mean he gets to unilaterally decide to 'opt out' of the justice system and walk free? Of course not.

No one seems to even consider the possibility that Polanski may have abused others, even recently. That's yet another reason he should be extradited.

Finally, he did not 'have sex with a girl.' He abused her. He molested her. He's pled guilty to this. And, according to several media reports, he plied her with drugs and booze. 'Having sex with' is a phrase that implies consent. And we've all agreed, as a society, for years, that a vulnerable teenager simply can't consent to sex with an adult, especially a powerful and charismatic one.

If Polanski is NOT extradited, the message child molesters will get is 'If you get smart lawyers, hang tough, and move elsewhere, you'll get away scot-free, especially if you've got some kind of talent.' That's a terrible message.

It's sad that California has a budget crisis and that Polanski has suffered pain in his adult life. It's wonderful that his victim has forgiven him. None of this, however, means he's not still a risk to kids. Nor does it somehow give a convicted child molester any kind of 'free pass.'

The church's on-going child sex abuse and cover up scandal should have taught us that when authorities give excessive deference and favoritism to some predators, because of their occupation, more children end up being devastated and more adults stop trusting and cooperating with law enforcement.
All good points, all hard to refute.

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