The facts are not in dispute.
Roman Polanski pled guilty three decades ago in Los Angeles to drugging and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl. When it looked like a judge was going to send him to prison for 50 years, he fled the country. Last month the long arm of the law caught up with the 76-year-old film director in Switzerland, which jailed the fugitive in anticipation of extradition hearings.
But judging from early reactions, some are willing to overlook his child-molester past. At the Zurich Film Festival, which was to have presented the Oscar-winning artist a lifetime achievement award, red "Free Polanski" buttons became the rage. Debra Winger, Oscar-nominated actress and festival jury president, released a statement accusing Switzerland of "philistine collusion" against Polanski.
France and Poland, countries of which Polanski is a dual citizen, urged Switzerland to release him on bail and pressed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the case.
"To see him thrown to the lions and put in prison because of ancient history -- and as he was traveling to an event honoring him -- is absolutely horrifying," said French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand.
Yes, Polanski's life is sympathetically tragic. In addition to losing his mother in a Nazi concentration camp (that he avoided with the help of Polish Catholic families), in 1969 his 8-months-pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was killed by Charles Manson's followers. Polanski is an accomplished, and highly decorated, cinematic artist, described by some as the best of his generation.
Yet the fact remains that the outpouring of defense of him is an exercise in selective outrage. What if Roman Polanski wore a Roman collar? It is a sure bet that the same voices who decry his detention (for a crime he admits, no less) would be howling that justice has been denied for too long.
Why the double standard on child molestation? It makes no difference that his now-45-year-old victim, with whom Polanski later financially settled, recently said she wants to get on with her life and doesn't think he needs to go to jail. What is relevant is that, as a grown man, Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, and that he fled his punishment for three decades of luxurious exile. This is wrong in any moral universe.
Preventing child molestation in any form and by any class of perpetrator should be society's goal. The outpouring of outrage over the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal was and is well placed. What does it tell us, though, that some segments of society are willing to overlook Polanski's crime?
Anyone with our nation's children at heart also should be concerned at the lack of outrage -- or action taken -- about pervasive and well-documented sexual abuse of minors by teachers and staff in our nation's public schools. An underreported 2004 Hofstra University study found "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests." Fifteen percent of all students, the study found, have experienced some kind of sexual misconduct by a teacher between kindergarten and 12th grade; and up to 5 percent of teachers sexually abuse children.
Morally, it is right that we hold priests to higher standards. But basic justice for our children demands that we treat molesting priests, and filmmakers, and schoolteachers, with the same severity.
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