The Minnesota Supreme Court has recently granted a petition of review in a child sex abuse case in which the Court of Appeals (and now the state Supreme Court) must trace the outer edge of legal liability for people and institutions somehow connected to one of our society’s most destructive and disruptive crimes. (John Doe 169 v. Paul Alan Brandon, et al.)
The simplicity of pure hatred and complete condemnation is profoundly appealing to many and nearly all of us. On the flip-side, emotional ambiguity is unpleasant and unsettling. Our society’s movie tastes reflect our longing for clear distinction between good and evil. We savor the sweet moment when evil, seemingly indomitable, is finally and dramatically put down for good. We don’t even stop and reflect at how we have just thoroughly relished watching a reenactment of a person slain or thrown down a seemingly infinite pit (which is quite convenient for sequels).
What is morally, rationally, and emotionally far more difficult for us all are the culpable bystanders, the negligent, the sloppy, the lazy, the less-than-perfect but so-human decision-making that we all do every day and that, every once in a while, ruins (or ends) the life or lives of others. Holding people accountable in those situations is gritty business.
This is a lot of what Jeff Anderson tries to do. Starting with a purely evil (but penniless) core — a child sex abuser (or, at least, an alleged one) — Anderson brings lawsuits on behalf of the sexually abused seeking compensation where no amount can ever suffice (but it can help). Anderson brings his actions not only against the villain but, in outwardly radiating perimeters, those around the villain, those who put the villain in a position enabling abuse, those who saw the proverbial red flags but who nevertheless failed to act decisively. How far should the law let these outwardly radiating circles stretch?
Here’s a somewhat counterbalancing point of view: if we can recognize an idea of outwardly radiating circles of anger and blame, from a white hot core of outrage to an outer shell of disgust and resigned disappointment, there must be a kind of negative mirror image of outwardly radiating circles of compassion, from the deepest sympathy for the victims radiating outward to some understanding, some compassion extending to the outermost limits.
(Controversially, I will take it to the extreme: consider some tiny measure, some hint, of compassion even to the perpetrators themselves. None of us chooses to make decisions that, in hindsight, we hate ourselves for (or at least judge ourselves for). And all of us have regrets or find fault with ourselves for decisions we have made, misdeeds we have done or good deeds we have willfully foregone. None of us has chosen to have our weaknesses or our moral failings and no one chooses to be a despicable, despised, monster social outcast.)
And I conclude with a side note: Why do we so often hear of the cases concerning the sexual abuse of boys (from Jeff Anderson and more broadly) when it is and has for a long time been widely known that sexual abuse of girls is far more frequent and pervasive? Is the brutalization and victimization of girls and women in our society so widespread that, like the air around us, we are immersed and oblivious to it? Do lawyers like Anderson get many more complaints about abuse of girls but they value them less? Or does Anderson get far fewer because these victims (and their families) are more shamed/ashamed than boys and their families?