Statute of Limitations
Does sin have an expiration date? Should the statute of limitations apply differently to sexual misconduct versus crimes against humanity? Does justice hold a ticking stopwatch?
A candidate for the United States Senate is alleged to have committed multiple offenses of sexual assault nearly four decades ago. Should his misdeeds from many years earlier be relevant today?
A middle-aged man committed a brutal murder 25 years ago. He was convicted and served a long prison sentence. He’s now free and hopes to rejoin society as a productive citizen. Should we continue to hold his criminal record against him?
A 92-year-old senior citizen now living in Chile is identified as a notorious former Nazi, who actively participated in what’s known as The Final Solution. Should the elderly man be arrested and tried for his participation in crimes against humanity?
From these real-life quandaries, we recognize that morality isn’t so much a line, but a matrix.
The common defense for Roy Moore, the current frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama is that all five of his alleged incidents of sexual and personal misconduct (two against minors) happened so long ago that they’re no longer relevant. Moore is 70 now and married. When he was in his mid-30s and single, Moore liked the company of young girls, make that — very young girls. However, there’s no record — at least not yet — of any recent transgressions. Whether deserved or not, if we give Moore the benefit of the doubt that he’s led a scandal-free life since the early 1980s, should his clean record later override suspected crimes as a much younger man?
The floodgates have now opened up on a cultural epidemic of sexual misconduct in America. Many men in positions of power — from movie stars to business executives to politicians — are now shuddering in the shadows at the prospect of things they did and said to subordinates, years ago. The sexual misconduct dragnet has even dredged up tawdry accusations against Tom Hanks and George H.W. Bush, two public figures most of us agree would seem to be the least likely of sexual conquistadors.
It’s pretty clear Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Wiener, Bill O’Reilly, and others exposed as sexual predators weren’t just scumbags before who eventually grew out of a sick phase. They’re scumbags now. Their misdeeds happened recently and thus reflect poorly on the quality of their character today. Perhaps these powerful men are morally redeemable and can make proper amends someday. That remains to be seen. However, our judgment must apply to what we know now, not what’s presumed might happen in the future.
Consider the case of Kevin Spacey. He might have posed an excruciating predicament had his scandalous behavior been confined to a single drunken incident three decades earlier. Some might have forgiven or at least been willing to forget one misdeed (Spacey allegedly hit on an underage boy in 1986). Our mass indignation became far easier once we learned that Spacey has committed similar acts over the course of a lifetime.
While Spacey and others present no moral ambiguity, Hollywood has a disturbingly short memory when it comes to rectitude. It holds grudges for less a time than most people elsewhere. If anyone other than a supremely-talented film director had raped a 13-year-old girl, he would have been an eternal outcast. But not Roman Polanski, who fled the United States, dodged justice, and continues to live unpunished as a fugitive. Years after the statutory rape occurred, Polanski continues making movies to this day. He was even awarded an Oscar in 2002. Apparently, in Hollywood, the statute of limitations may as well be a parking meter.
Central to the question of forgiveness is accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Several abusers who were called out by their victims have publicly apologized. Whether sincere or merely the clever crafting of public relations spin (call me cynical — most of these apologies are nothing but the contrivances of sycophantic handlers working for powerful people who were caught), those who admit their wrongdoing are taking the right first step. Time will probably heal most wounds. Roman Polanski clearly shows, they will work again eventually.
I’ve had some interesting discussions with Facebook friends about crime and punishment. At least one of these friends is a convicted felon (his identity won’t be revealed here). He committed a serious crime when he was 20, and later served ten years in a state penitentiary. Today, he’s a free man. He’s working in an honest job and has even started a family. But he continues to be stigmatized by his actions from many years ago. To what extent should he be judged, if at all?
I think most of us will agree that a felon who has paid for his crime and has demonstrated genuine repentance for the suffering he caused deserves another chance. In fact, someone who successfully overcomes a bad childhood, addiction, and a criminal past is even more worthy of our admiration for having conquered their personal demons. Most of us were born lucky, with good parents and enjoyed a proper upbringing. Those who change from bad people into good people merit an extra level of commendation.
But what about the most terrible crimes in history, most of which have gone unpunished? Only a small fraction of those who carried out of the most brutal barbarism of the Third Reich have been tried and convicted. Most escaped justice. Many fled to safe havens, like counties in South America where their criminal pasts were either ignored or forgotten.
Only a small number of Nazi war criminals are still living, most aged in their 90s. Is there really any point to hunting them down, rounding them up, and shaming old men hobbling on canes or puttied to wheelchairs? What end is served?
This one is easy. Criminals who escape justice must be pursued until the end of their miserable lives, and even beyond (dig up the bodies and remove them from privileged resting places, if necessary). They should never be comfortable enough to feel they’ve gotten away with villainy. Not only do the ghosts of their victims absolutely demand this. Modern would-be despots must be dissuaded from carrying out similar misdeeds. One of the most effective deterrents to another holocaust is the grisly image of the guilty hanging from a rope.
Justice must never be subject to any stopwatch. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to sinners and sin. However, we must also accept that those who genuinely seek redemption must be entitled to change into better people. In fact, they must be encouraged to do so. This decree has no religious overtone. Justice and the opportunity for redemption, when deserved, are the fundamental covenants of humanism.