Young: How to judge sexual-abuse allegations

In this file photo dated August 27, 2013, In this file photo dated August 27, 2013, film director Woody Allen poses during a photocall for the French Premiere screening of "Blue Jasmine." Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Cathy Young Cathy Young, a columnist for Reason and Real

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics. ...

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The child sexual-abuse accusations against filmmaker Woody Allen, resurfacing more than two decades after the initial scandal in a statement by Allen’s now-grown daughter, have re-ignited a debate on whether an artist’s work can be separated from his or her moral failings. But the controversy raises even more pressing issues. How does one judge the credibility of sexual-abuse claims, particularly from long ago? How much of a presumption of innocence should there be in the court of public opinion? What does society owe the accuser — and the accused? This case illustrates how wrenchingly complex these questions are.

Allen was accused of molesting then-7-year-old Dylan, one of the two children he had adopted with longtime partner Mia Farrow, during a bitter custody battle in 1992. The Allen-Farrow breakup was spurred by her discovery of his affair with her adopted daughter from a previous marriage, 21-year-old Soon-Yi Farrow Previn. Farrow recorded a video of Dylan describing molestation by Allen. In 1993, a Connecticut prosecutor dropped the case, saying that while there was “probable cause” to bring sexual-abuse charges, Dylan was too “fragile” for a trial. Medical experts found no evidence of molestation.

Last October, Vanity Fair ran a feature on Mia Farrow’s family in which Dylan (now 28, married and using a different name) discussed her alleged abuse. More recently, new honors for Allen — including a Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award — have prompted Mia and Dylan Farrow to speak out, accusing Hollywood of disrespect toward abuse survivors. On Saturday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a letter from Dylan on his blog with excerpts in his column.

Allen has always staunchly proclaimed his innocence.

For many people who have reacted passionately to the disclosures, the battle cry is, “Believe the survivor.” In their view, Dylan’s account settles the matter.

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But does it? We now know much more than we did 20 years ago about how easily children can be coaxed into saying (and believing) they were abused. The 1980s saw a wave of cases in which one parent’s suspicion of wrongdoing at a day care center would balloon into accusations of unspeakable acts toward numerous children. Dozens of men and women were convicted. In the mid-1990s, those cases collapsed, as it became clear that the children made the accusations under pressure from investigators and parents. 

Many of these now-grown “victims” insist they were molested and describe having painful flashbacks — even when material evidence has shown the crimes to be virtually impossible. 

While sexual-abuse allegations in child-custody disputes are actually fairly uncommon, a major study published in Child Abuse and Neglect journal in 2005 shows that about half of the charges made in such circumstances are found to be unsubstantiated.These are not necessarily deliberate lies; often, the accusing parent genuinely believes the child is being molested, reading malicious intent into horseplay or affection.

In Allen’s case, the suspicions are facilitated by the fact that he was a 56-year-old man sleeping with his daughter’s stepsister. While Soon-Yi was an adult, it was unquestionably a sordid affair that makes him look like a self-absorbed creep. Yet it’s quite a leap from that to being a pedophile.

Kristof and others say that while a criminal conviction requires solid proof, the accusation should be enough to deny Allen honors because survivors deserve support. But that can be a slippery slope to a presumption of guilt that can also infect criminal justice. In this tragic case with no winners, uncertainty may be the lesser of two evils.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.

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