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Jewish World Review April 7, 2000/ 2 Nissan, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Consumer Reports



Something is really wrong when the NOW Gang is advising the police on policy --
LATE LAST MONTH, Philadelphia police commissioner John Timoney announced an unusual step: women's advocacy groups will be given a major role in evaluating sexual assault complaints. This is being hailed as a victory for victims and possibly the start of a model program to be emulated nationwide. But is the need to protect the civil rights of the accused being forgotten in the process?

Timoney's bold move comes as a response to legitimate concerns about the downgrading of serious offenses, a longstanding and pervasive problem in the Philadelphia Police Department. Some attempted rapes were classified as minor assaults; nearly 30% of all sexual assault complaints were rejected as "unfounded" or dumped into the "investigation of person" category. Behind this pattern, it seems, was not bias against women but an effort to keep crime statistics low. Many violent crimes involving male victims got the same treatment: a robbery at knifepoint became a "disturbance" and so forth.

Yet Timoney's proposal will not affect the handling of any crime other than rape or sexual assault, nor will it involve advocates for all crime victims. Only feminist groups, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), are being brought on board.

And this poses another problem: However noble some of these groups' goals may be, they are not just advocates for victims. They espouse a political ideology in which sexual violence is viewed as a weapon in men's "war against women," and the truthfulness of any woman's claim of rape is a virtual article of faith. Feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon writes, "Feminism is built on believing women's accounts of sexual use and abuse by men."

Some activists are so devoted to this dogma that they refuse to believe a woman who says she lied; they suggest that she must be under pressure or "in denial." In 1985, when Kathleen Webb came forward to say that she had sent a man to prison seven years earlier on a false rape charge, many feminists tried to find reasons to dismiss her recantation. Concerns about false accusations are decried as a throwback to "the myth of the lying woman."

In a not-so-distant past, the fear of women "crying rape" often led to unjust and degrading practices: corroboration requirements that were not applied to other crimes, special jury instructions to treat the accuser's testimony with extra caution. But the dogma that "women don't lie" is hardly better. Sometimes, they do -- to cover up a sexual liaison, or out of revenge, or due to psychological problems. To acknowledge this is no more anti-female than it is anti-male to acknowledge that some men, for various reasons, do terrible things to women.

Listen to me, darnit!
Ironically, one of the organizations involved in Timoney's program, WOAR, settled a lawsuit in 1991 from a West Philadelphia man who had spent nearly a year in prison on a false accusation by a WOAR volunteer. John Goodson was released when evidence turned up that his accuser, Muriel Stein, was mentally unstable and had staged phone threats against herself made to WOAR. By the way, WOAR refused to open its files to help Goodson in his suit against Stein, or to acknowledge that her "rape" was a hoax.

Traditional prejudices against rape complainants often made it difficult to prosecute even valid cases, particularly if the woman wasn't a model of propriety. But today, many people -- such as Court TV commentator Rikki Klieman, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Massachusetts and later a defense attorney -- believe that the pendulum has swung the other way: a man can be charged solely on a woman's word, with no attempt to check out the facts.

In 1997, Paul Krauth, an electronics specialist in New York, was arrested on charges of raping a woman he had met on the Internet and invited for dinner. Photos of Krauth being hauled off in handcuffs were all over the papers. Only later did the investigators bother to review e-mail records and phone messages casting doubt on the woman's story, or to interview her thoroughly. In less than a week, all charges were dropped. But the stigma of being arrested for a sex crime can linger.

Krauth was relatively lucky. In Maine a few years ago, state authorities insisted on prosecuting a middle-aged jail guard for sexually assaulting an inmate despite records showing that he wasn't on duty the day of the alleged attack, a doctor's conclusion that a medical condition rendered him incapable of the sexual acts his accuser described, and the woman's history of fraud. The case dragged on for two years before the guard was acquitted.

Not only are feminist advocates averse to acknowledging that a woman who says she was raped may be lying; they also favor an extremely broad definition of rape that includes any advances, even "verbal pressure," after the woman says no. Clearly, allowing these groups to oversee the handling of rape complaints is likely to create strong pressure to file unsubstantiated charges.

Such an outcome may be all right with Timoney, who has said that the police department needs "to go, literally, from one extreme to another." But what will the consequences be? Many weak cases will be dismissed by prosecutors (undoubtedly leading to a new outcry from feminists and to pressure not to drop charges). Some men may be wrongly convicted; others may be cleared after a long ordeal that costs money, time, and mental anguish. Some, unable to bear the shame and the uncertainty, may take their own lives.

The latest statistics show that the treatment of sex crime complaints in Philadelphia is already in line with the rest of the country. If Timoney wants to do more, why not have a panel of civilians with no ideological bias review complaints from women or men who say their reports of crimes were mishandled? That way, the program would benefit victims without opening a new round in the gender wars.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©2000, Cathy Young