The Sexist

Washington Post Missteps on Sex Offender Essay

Last month, the Washington Post Magazine printed an "XX Files" essay by Wanda Fleming. In "Suspended Disbelief," Fleming wrote about struggling with the news that a friend's husband had been accused of sexually assaulting a young girl. The essay's sub-head reads, "Guilty or not, it's a tragedy." After a correction to the piece was published in Sunday's magazine, the "or not" scenario seems a lot less likely.

Writes editor Tom Shroder:

The column had factual errors, and editors in the Magazine, including me, failed to catch them. The author wrote that the man had been talked into accepting a plea agreement, and implied that there had been only one accuser. In fact, the man had turned down the plea offer, and had been tried and convicted. Also, more than one girl made accusations. The inescapable conclusion is that the man's guilt was not as ambiguous as presented. No names were used, but the families of the victims only too readily recognized the circumstances and were understandably upset by the implication of the story.

The correction, as appended to the piece online, seems like it could be an honest mistake: "This column incorrectly indicated that a man accused of molesting a child had pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement. He was found guilty in a bench trial." A letter from the victim's grandmother, also published in Sunday's edition, is far more revealing. She writes:

[The article's author] did the right thing when she instinctively shielded her daughter from a convicted child molester. Even though the "facts" she reports are far from accurate, they provide sufficient detail for the case to be recognized by those of us affected by it. Denial may well be a survival tool for the molester's wife and sons. However, the families of the children molested by this man could not then, and can not now, afford denial.

These parents listened with growing horror when their daughters told what happened while watching movies with this trusted family friend and his children. They berated themselves over and over again for being so gullible—why did they not suspect the repeated invitations for movie afternoons? They saw their reputation and credibility destroyed by friends of this "affable" seeming man. [The author should] please tell her daughter that not all bad guys look like bad guys!

I am the proud grandmother of one of the young girls who had the courage to tell her story to detectives and social workers; to stand alone, without the comfort of a parent, in front of a grand jury; and, in a crowded court-room to testify and be cross-examined in the presence of the man who molested her. This man was convicted.

I understand why the molester and his wife wanted this story written. I do not understand why the Post saw fit to print it. It can only reopen barely healed wounds.

Fleming's piece, at first glance, offers a compelling insight into what happens when an old friend is branded a monster. In light of the piece's factual inaccuracies, however, the author comes off as callous to the molester's victims—young girls who spoke out about being sexually abused, only to be discredited in the Washington Post.

Take this mention of one victim:

For a moment, it looks like her husband might be exonerated. A rumor swirls that the child has expressed sorrow for him and his family. But although the rumor proves true, it comes to nothing.

An 8-year-old molestation victim apologizing to her molester is not an alibi for your friend. It's another symptom of what he did to her.

Or this one:

"Do you think she'll ever recant?" I ask. "Maybe when she's older?"

A fair question from a friend of an accused molester. But one that seems a lot less fair when you know that "she" is actually "they." Do you think all the victims will recant, maybe when they're older? Here is where reasonable doubt turns to conspiracy theory.

How about this final mention of the molester, after he returns from prison: "the accused comes to pick up his wife."

But he's not "the accused." He's not even "the guy who took the plea bargain." He's "the convicted." His reputation hasn't just been tarnished by rumor and accusation—it's been confirmed by the courts. Now, it's not just Fleming's friend whose reputation has been tainted. The young victims, like so many victims of sexual assault, have also had their dignity dragged through the mud.

Photo by decade null.

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