Convicting Giants: Is Weinstein the Beginning?

Written by Miriam Wicks-Wilson
Graphic by Abbie Holbrook

CW: rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, victim blaming, gaslighting, institutional betrayal

On the 24th of February 2020, Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape by a jury in New York. Weinstein’s conviction brought mixed emotions for many people. For some, the conviction brought a sense of relief that Weinstein was finally convicted; for others it brought frustration that it was such a long time coming, and for others still it brought hope – hope that the case could be used as precedent to ensure further prosecutions against him and others like him. One particularly common feeling was frustration that he was not given the maximum sentence, imprisoned for 23 years instead of 25.

Beyond the already dramatic, immediate effects of Weinstein’s conviction are much more important and far-reaching implications. The conviction sends a message to other rich and powerful men that they may not be as untouchable as once thought, and that the days of their behaviour going unchecked are drawing closer to an end. Already, the conviction has provided the momentum to kick off another trial against Weinstein in Los Angeles brought forward by two other accusers. Had Weinstein instead been found innocent, it would have sent the opposite message: even with copious amounts of evidence, including taped confessions, this behaviour is okay and powerful men can continue to get away with it.

Although there were mountains of evidence and testimonies against Weinstein, a crucial contributing factor to Weinstein’s conviction was the work of journalists Ronan Farrow, Bill O’Reilly Jodi Kantor, and Meghan Twohey. In cases like Weinstein’s, it can feel like half or more of the battle is simply against the enormous and heavily embedded power men like Weinstein commanded. The excellent works of journalists, such as Farrow’s book Catch and Kill, and Kantor and Twohey’s book She Said, proved instrumental in exposing Weinstein’s behaviour to the public, as well as spurring the mainstream awareness of movements like #MeToo and Hollywood’s Time’s Up. For example, Catch and Kill details the many roadblocks Farrow encountered in his research about Weinstein, including a number of people in NBC, the news organisation for whom he was working at the time, who were working to protect Weinstein.  By exposing this behaviour, the public perception of Weinstein was able to be shifted from that of an untouchable titan into one of a prolific abuser whose time was surely running out. Without the work of these journalists, it is likely that Weinstein’s behaviour would have continued unchanged; with efforts to stop him quelled by his power and influence. 

In contrast with the Weinstein case, on April 7 2020, Cardinal George Pell of the Catholic Church was released from prison after the High Court of Australia quashed his conviction of child sexual abuse. Pell was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing two choirboys through his work as Archbishop of Melbourne during the 1990s, accused by numerous men of sexually abusing them as children through his position within the Catholic Church. The High Court gave the reasoning that there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof”. 

Evidently, disbelief of survivors is a problem all over the world, and institutional betrayal is still pervasive. Less than two years ago, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified in the United States of America against then-Supreme Court Judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh, alleging that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in 1982. Ford was subjected to victim blaming by American President Donald Trump, who stated that if Ford’s accusations were true, she or her parents would have reported the assault at the time. Trump’s assertion completely ignores the shame, anxiety, and disassociation many survivors suffer. His statement also ignores that reporting sexual assault is a taxing process (if police take survivors accounts seriously at all) and the fact that prosecution is often complicated by potential lack of physical evidence in sexual assault and sexual harassment cases. Bri Lee outlines her experience in prosecuting a historical sexual assault in her memoir Eggshell Skull, and underlines how difficult the experience is, both as a defendant and as a Judge’s Assistant. Lee details that without physical evidence, trials often deteriorate into “he said, she said” and victim blaming. Ford’s testimony was ignored and Kavanaugh was sworn in as a Supreme Court Judge on 6 October 2018.  Kavanaugh’s appointment as a Supreme Court Judge demonstrated how little regard sexual assault (especially historic) cases commonly receive. 

With historical cases (a term used to differentiate between recent sexual assault, and sexual assault that happened in the recent past), and particularly historical child sex abuse cases, there are significant barriers in getting a conviction. If there is no physical evidence, and it was not reported to the police at the time of the assault as alleged against Blasey Ford, then it is nearly impossible to get a conviction. In historical cases, physical evidence is extremely hard to come by as it has either been destroyed by the time that the assault is reported, or there was never any to begin with. In a statement released after Pell’s conviction was overturned, Witness J said, “It is difficult in child sexual abuse matters to satisfy a criminal court that the offending has occurred beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is a very high standard to meet — a heavy burden.”

Even more discouraging still is the fact that even when a conviction is attained, it can still be undone such as in the case of Pell. The High Court’s finding is supremely dispiriting for survivors of sexual assault and harassment and continues to perpetuate the idea that powerful men can do whatever they like to whomever they like without any consequences. When Pell’s conviction was overturned, shock, despair, and horror rippled through not only the Australian public, but also those internationally who had looked at Pell’s conviction as a sign of cultural change in the Church and in society more generally. 

For too long, survivors have been gaslit, disbelieved, told they were lying, or attention-seeking. The #MeToo movement helped to shine a light on what many of us have known was happening for as long as we can remember, to bring it out of the shadows so it can finally start to be challenged. I agree with Witness J when he went on to say: “I would like to reassure child sexual abuse survivors that most people recognise the truth when they hear it. They know the truth when they look it in the face.”

In an ideal world, we would not need incredible allies like Farrow, Witness J, and Twohey and Kantor to call out predators like Weinstein and Pell. But until then, we can work towards a better society bit by bit – by calling out the casual sexism you see in your everyday life, or challenging sexist attitudes, as well as continuing to fight for equal rights for women and non-binary people institutionally. Until we get there, I urge you to look the truth in the face and recognise it for what it is. Recognise them for who they are.

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