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Steubenville Tragedy Needs Effective Communication

“No one walks away unscarred: The need for restorative justice in cases of juvenile rape.”

The recent Steubenville rape trial is truly a tragedy in every sense of the word, as everyone it has touched, including the victim, the rapists, their parents and friends, the town in general and even the CNN correspondent covering the trial has been traumatized by the anger the case has generated.  It is the second intoxicated juvenile rape case to gain national attention in the last few months.  The previous case, which went to trial this past fall in Louisville, Kentucky, was no less tragic; two intoxicated prep school lacrosse players took advantage of an even more intoxicated 16-year-old girl after a party, took pictures of themselves digitally penetrating her and photo-messaged them.  Given that without the benefit of communications technology and the appallingly misguided need to triumphally share their shameful deeds, it seems likely that neither of these incidents would have come to light.  We can therefore make the assumption that these two cases represent the tip of the iceberg, and that the vast majority of such rapes most likely go unreported and unprosecuted.

If this situation is not unique then, and each year we get an entirely new crop of adolescents, too young to gain insight from these tragic circumstances and in the process of discovering anew the sensations that accompany alcohol consumption and lower pelvic massage, it seems a small leap of logic to surmise that we will see more of this wretched behavior in the future.  Therefore, it behooves us as a society to evaluate if these unfortunate situations can be prevented and, if they occur, that they are being handled optimally for all parties concerned.  The attention and acrimony surrounding these two cases suggests there is ample opportunity to question whether this is so.

Understandably, much of the anger is directed at the two rapists, but astonishingly, it seems that much of the venom is directed at the women involved and surrounding the case.  The victim, out-numbered, out-sized, out-strengthed, and more helplessly impaired than her attackers was victimized at the time of the rape, again immediately thereafter as the photos of the attack were spread on social media, again on reporting the rape to the authorities, and yet again on giving testimony at trial.  As if these indignities were not enough to make her the object of universal sympathy, her two girl friends that were present at the party testified against her as witnesses for the defense, and she subsequently was harassed on Facebook and Twitter by female friends of the two boys.  To protect the victim’s identity, she has been called Jane Doe in the media.  This had the unintended cosequence of further dehumanizing the victim, and as a result, CNN reporter Poppy Harlow (who is also female) in a piece that sympathetically described the effects on the boys of the handing down of their punishment, neglected to mention the victim’s trauma and, as a result, was widely castigated in the media for supporting a culture in which rape is acceptable.

The question raised in the blogosphere is why, in this obviously pitiable example of traumatic oppression and trampling of human dignity, are women not standing shoulder to shoulder on behalf of the victim.  Explanations offered by various media outlets include self-interest on the part of those defending the rapists and what I refer to as the Valdemort explanation; that is, the reason the Death-eaters would follow someone so powerful and obviously evil is that by aligning themselves with it they feel they are less apt to be injured by it than if they were to try and stand up to it.

In this situation, with so many obviously well intentioned people so clearly at odds with each other, it seems high time to question whether the whole adversarial process is part of the problem. 

From the victim’s perspective, there are several inadequacies:

  • Other than her testimony, which is subject to cross examination and the implication by plaintiff’s attorneys that her plight is a consequence of her own behavior, she is unable to tell her story
  • There is no acknowledgement of her injury by the rapists
  • There is no acknowledgement of an obligation to her, the victim, on the part of the rapists
  • There is no apology offered
  • There is no attempt to remediate or compensate her for her injury
  • She has no input into the sentencing agreement
  • There is no attempt to identify or address how she will relate to her attackers and her peers now or in the future, nor
  • Is there and attempt to address how she sees she is able to view and respect herself after suffering such humiliation
  • There is no attempt to address the underlying problem in the community— disrespect, violence and de-personalization of women


From the boys’ perspective, the process focuses on punishment and retribution and their need to defend themselves from the consequences of their actions.  Anyone allied with the boys, including their lawyers, their friends and family necessarily has to cast the victim outside of their moral circle and can only see her as an enemy and a threat.  This helps explain the alarming stupidity of threatening the victim on Facebook and Twitter after the trial.  In the presence of this toxic adversarial relationship, any display of sympathy for the rapists necessarily is an understandable affront to those who sympathize with the victim

To summarize: in response to a wound in the community, the focus is on creating another wound; there is no effort directed at repair or redemption and consequently there is nether closure nor hope.

Recently, a remarkable Florida couple, Andy and Kate Grosmaire, sought out the opportunity to engage the services of Sujatha Baliga, an expert in restorative justice after the murder of their 19-year old daughter at the hands of her long time boyfriend, Conor McBride.  The intent was not to usurp power from or circumvent the judicial process, but rather to compliment it. In the presence of the Grosmaires, the state’s attorney, Baliga, McBride and his parents, a priest (who served both spiritual leader and representative of the community), and several personal items that represented Ann, the deceased, a reparative conference was undertaken at the county jail where Conor was being held.  Conor was given an opportunity to recount the events leading up to and including the murder, admit his guilt, express his regrets, apologize, ask for forgiveness and agree to make steps toward redemption.  The Grosmaires were able to forgive McBride, and have been able to move past the anger for their loss and forgive Conor, though their grief is no less.  In addition to this restorative intervention, in a separate proceeding, a 20-year sentence was recommended by the county attorney and accepted by a judge.

The concept of restorative justice is not new, it’s just not the way we generally do things in our society, but perhaps this is an opportune time to give this concept some consideration.  A reparative intervention would have the following components

  • The presence of the injuring and injured parties
  • Opportunity for the victim to speak directly to the rapists, relate her story and her detail her injury without them having to the need to counter-attack
  • Opportunity for the rapists to admit responsibility, express regret, apologize, ask forgiveness seek the opportunity for repair and redemption
  • An agreement between all parties, particularly the victim and the community, on what constitutes situationally appropriate, fair and reasonable compensation and restitution.

From the community perspective, having the rapists be a voice to young people about the sanctity of human dignity could prevent another ugly incident, a goal that we all could certainly support.

To be fair, there are things about this approach that are discomforting to many of us.  Forgiveness, for all its power and ubiquity, is actually poorly understood.  Popular myths regarding forgiveness include:

  • It’s often being perceived as weak or effeminate
  • The perception that it is a free pass
  • There is little acknowledgement of the work and effort required to truly forgive a major injury or insult, and little recognition that it may be an ongoing process rather than a one-time decision
  • The perception that it precludes punishment or circumvents the judicial process
  • The passive process of cooling off over time is not forgiveness, nor is appeasement in the presence of a favor or under the threat of negative consequences
  • The unfortunate coupling in popular culture of forgiveness with forgetting, which are two completely separate and actually mutually exclusive concepts
  • The perception that forgiveness is an act of obligation, rather than a choice made of one’s free will

What needs to be borne in mind is that forgiveness is a gift directed at the individual, whereas punishment is directed at the act, injury or crime, but inevitably, the individual becomes collateral damage, and, to an extent, so does the community at large. Forgiveness is an attempt to humanize and understand someone who has injured someone else; it is an attempt to remind the injuring party of the consequences of their actions and their responsibility to fulfill their obligations as members of society.  Ultimately, it is where the repair begins.

Even so, many are simply more comfortable with the deterrent effect of the retributive system.  There is justifiable concern that an injuring party may choose not to admit guilt, choose to admit guilt for self-serving reasons and then retract their admission or, worst of all, make an false or insincere attempt at apology and redemption.  Admittedly, these are risks of extending an offer of forgiveness.  Respect for the free will of the individual demands that a choice against contrition be accepted, though it does not have to be without consequences, and anyone making an offer of redemption must be aware and prepared for this eventuality.

In the final analysis though, trying to make repair is more likely to bring the community back together and since tomorrow’s rapists and victims, now 9 years old, are unlikely to be much deterred by making harsh examples of today’s perpetrators. Restoration and giving the rapists and opportunity to educate their peers is the only means at our disposal short of and extended period of protective custody to prevent this from happening again.  In short, it’s worth the risk.


William Hymes

Dr. Hymes has been practicing thoracic surgery in the Louisville, KY area since 1993, but still considers himself both a “recovering New Yorker” and a “recovering bully.”  Educated in New York, Massachusetts and Texas, he is now pursuing a masters degree in conflict management at Sullivan University in Louisville.  MORE >

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