{In the News} Guilt, Innocence, and Dangerous Opinion

What image comes to mind when you hear the phrase "child molester"?  "Pedophile"?  "Sexual offender"?

Do you envision a creepy looking man with greasy hair, shifty eyes, and ill-fitting clothes?

Or maybe a big, burly guy covered in tattoos and scars?

In the News

I don't keep up as well as I used to with the news.  In fact, a friend posted about a recent "hot topic" sort of news story the other day with this lead-in:

If it is possible that someone hasn't heard about this story, I'll give a one bullet point summation.

I had to comment on her post that yes, it was possible, because I hadn't. :)

Thanks to Facebook, I keep up a bit better with local news. One of the major headlines locally this week has been on an unfortunately all-too-common topic:  a former teacher in an area school arrested on suspicion of sexual indecency with a child.

The stories themselves always make me feel a bit sick to my stomach.  Regardless of guilt or innocence, people's lives are devastated forever...in the case of guilt, the victims and their families and all who know and care for the perpetrator, and in the case of innocence, the one falsely accused and his or her family.

I'm even more disturbed, though, when I catch a glimpse of the responses of the public to such stories.  I had a similar reaction to the Casey Anthony case and  to the Sandusky/Paterno situation.

In these cases...and many, many others...people have had immediate, vehement reactions.  News sites and social media sites explode with public opinion on both sides.  There are replies from everyone from family and close friends to total strangers, most weighing in with definite, unshakable views.

Perhaps it's my background in the child protective services field.  Perhaps it is our more personal experience with unimaginable criminal behavior touching our family.  But every time I see such reactions, I have an immediate, intense reaction myself: a strong desire to ask, "But how do you know??"

Because we don't.  As the "general public"...even the general public who may be close to the family...we can't possibly know.  We don't have all the facts; we don't have access to the evidence that is available.  We just don't know.  We may have strong opinions.  We may be quite prejudiced {prejudiced in this case referring to having any preconceived opinion or feeling, favorable or unfavorable} in either direction regarding the situation and/or the individuals involved.

But we don't know.

There are those few who admit that...who have a distinct leaning in one direction or another, but who realize that they truly don't know one way or another.  I'm always relieved to see those comments, but saddened to see how little influence they generally have on others.

Dangerous Opionion

With this latest story, however, I have found the comments even more disturbing.

As soon as the news hit, people began to take sides.  Friends of the one arrested jumped quickly to his defense.  Others jumped in quickly to vilify the accused.   The accusers...young boys...have received sympathy from some and condemnation from others.  In this case, because the alleged offender is well-known and much loved in the community, his supporters far outweigh his critics.  There has been a Facebook page set up for his supporters, and there are fundraisers of all kinds being planned to help with his legal expenses.

I truly believe that many of those on both sides are very well-intentioned.  Loyalty to those we care about is a commendable thing.  Sympathy for one falsely accused or for victims of a horrible crime is a commendable thing.

In cases such as this one, though, we must be very, very careful.  Opinion without fact can be a dangerous thing.

On the one hand, there is, without a doubt, such a thing as a false allegation.  It is a terrifying reality of our current culture, and one which Billy and I saw too many times in our work in the child protective services field.

On the other hand, the fact that someone is a leader in community, church, and school does not mean that he  "couldn't have done such a thing".  The fact that someone has a reputation for being kind, compassionate, honest, and generous does not mean that he "couldn't have done such a thing".   The fact that people who have known the accused for many years (or even a lifetime) believe in him does not mean that he "couldn't have done such a thing".

As Boz Tchividjian says (in his article 5 Things You Should Know About Child Sexual Offenders, which is well worth a click-through):

The faith community must come to terms with the heartbreaking reality that those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends. Our protective antennas must always be on alert, especially when our children are around those that they know and trust.

I have no idea whether the allegations in this case are true or false.  I have no personal knowledge of the case or the individuals involved.  What I do know is that decisions about guilt or innocence cannot be made based on reputation or relationship.  The only ones able to determine guilt or innocence are those directly involved...either by having been an eyewitness to the alleged events or by having had access to actual facts/evidence related to the case.

Abusers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  They come with all educational backgrounds, professions, and reputations.  Child sexual offenders can be quite charming and convincing.  Some are able to live double lives for years without the slightest knowledge of those closest to them. We must be careful not to presume guilt until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt, but we must also not automatically assume that any person is incapable of "doing such a thing".

Our Responsibility

Our justice system isn't perfect.  We've seen that, as a family, "up-close-and-personal".  However, it is the system we have for enforcing the law and protecting our citizens, and we need to allow it to do its job.  We need to be careful about making decisions of guilt or innocence without having all the facts.  We need to be very careful that if we should ever be involved in making an accusation, we do so with the utmost caution. (And our current child welfare/reporting systems need massive overhaul...but that is a different post.)

We need to be very, very careful about accusing a child of making a false accusation without evidence of such.  That doesn't mean that we assume the accused is guilty.  It does mean that we are open to what the child is saying and that we allow those in positions of responsibility to do their jobs so that guilt or innocence can be determined appropriately.

We also need to be very, very careful, for the sake of our children, that we don't ever assume that anyone is incapable of anything.  We don't need to see offenders behind every bush, but we do need to err on the side of caution with our children.

And regarding incidents "in the news", we need to be aware that we simply don't have all the facts.  Unless we have firsthand knowledge of the incident involved or access to the facts/evidence, we need to be very, very careful about making any sort of assumptions of guilt or innocence.  Rather than jumping to hasty conclusions, we need to pray for all those involved, that the truth will be revealed, that justice will be served, and that repentance will occur wherever needed.

Thanks so much for visiting Ponderings of an Elect Exile!  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments section below.  Or you can send me an email through the email option on my profile page if you prefer.  

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