Singer R. Kelly pleaded not guilty to 11 additional sex-related...

Singer R. Kelly pleaded not guilty to 11 additional sex-related felonies during a court hearing before Judge Lawrence Flood at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on June 6, 2019. Credit: AP/E. Jason Wambsgans

It may be more than coincidental that R&B music star R. Kelly and well-connected Wall Street financier Jeffrey Epstein were arrested in the same week on federal charges related to sexually abusing underage girls.

For one thing, as Labor Secretary Alex Acosta said two days before he submitted his resignation, "We live in a very different world."

Indeed, we do. Acosta was awkwardly trying to defend his own softball handling of Epstein’s prosecution for sex crimes in Florida more than a decade ago when Acosta was U.S. attorney in Miami. Epstein served 13 months in jail but was allowed to leave six days a week to work in his office.

An excessively sweet deal for Epstein? Acosta argued that he actually was something of a hero. Epstein might have gotten off completely in the 2008 plea deal, Acosta claimed, if he had not overridden state authorities to ensure that Epstein would face jail time. But even that didn’t explain why Acosta apparently ignored the 53-page indictment -- and 36 underage victims his office had identified -- that could have sent Epstein to prison for the rest of his life.

Nor did Acosta explain why he negotiated the plea deal with Epstein’s lawyers in a hotel room without a stenographer or notification of the victims until the deal was done.

Credit The Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown for bringing the case and new details to light, along with an impressive list of the rich and powerful who apparently knew what was going on, yet allegedly looked the other way while he sexually abused children for years.

That list included Bill Clinton, who reportedly took multiple trips on Epstein’s private jet on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, and Donald Trump, who now-famously told New York magazine in 2002: "I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."

So we hear. Trump has more recently treated Epstein like a distant rumor. "I’m not a fan," he has said.
But in friendlier times, the 1980s and ’90s, Trump and Epstein, along with private equity mogul Tom Barrack, were "a set of nightlife musketeers," as journalist Michael Wolff described the relationship in his gossipy bestseller "Fire and Fury."

And we can credit Chicago-based journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has been investigating R. Kelly since 2000, with revelations that led to the Lifetime documentary "Surviving R. Kelly." The new charges come on top of state charges for Kelly, who was acquitted a decade ago in Cook County of charges alleging he filmed himself having sex with his goddaughter, a girl estimated to have been as young as 13.

Citing what she called the documentary’s "deeply, deeply disturbing" allegations, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx made an unusual public plea in January for any Kelly accusers to come forward. The next month she announced that a Cook County grand jury had indicted Kelly on multiple counts of sexual abuse, three of which involved allegedly underage victims.

What is most striking to me and others who have followed Kelly’s amazing career, as well as the gossip that has been orbiting around him for years alleging his predatory pursuits of underage girls, is the new seriousness with which the allegations are being taken.

As Acosta said, "We live in a very different world" - and that’s a good thing. For decades, feminists have decried a "rape culture" that causes people to trivialize claims of sexual assault and harassment and refuse to acknowledge the harm caused by sexual violence.

The #MeToo era has brought an important change, turning the spotlight of attention and sometimes prosecution against powerful celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, and sending important notice to the rest of us to avoid not only predatory behavior but also the passive support that comes from responding to apparent wrongdoing by looking the other way.

At the same time, of course, we must preserve the presumption of innocence as a matter of simple justice. Even though it didn’t involve allegations of sexual violence, the apparently fake hate crime reported by "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett last winter should properly caution us against jumping to conclusions.

Time will tell how much of a different world our society has become. It is up to all of us to make the difference.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.


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