The other day, I had the movie Spotlight going on in the background. If you’ve never seen it, it’s about The Boston Globe uncovering the sexual abuse of children priests by the Catholic Church. One of the big dramatic moments in the movie is when they go to an attorney who had filed lawsuits against the church back in the early ’90s over allegations of abuse, and the reporters ask why he never came to them with the story. He says he sent them a list of 20 names, but they never ran the story. In reality it turns out that the Globe did run the article listing the names. On page B42 of the Metro section.
What’s more notable is that at the time, there was already a huge case about an abusive priest. The story, which hinted at a larger conspiracy and problem, was overlooked because there was already so much pushback, and no one followed up. The film kept that moment to reflect on the meaning behind it; in that the abuse, the scandal, was sitting right there and no one put it all together. It reflects our collective guilt at not wanting to dig deeper into dark things.
This moment immediately made me think of the scandal involving financier and well-connected pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein came to our collective attention when the Miami Herald wrote a story about the offensively lenient sentence he received for “solicitation” negotiated by President Trump’s recently-departed Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta. However, I recall reading about Epstein and his alleged ties to high-powered politicians and celebrities over a decade ago during his trial. In fact, if you go to Google and filter your search results to exclude everything after July 2015, you’ll find article after article talking about his ties to Trump, Bill Clinton, royalty, and celebrities of all types, and all the rumors about him. Now that Epstein is being prosecuted in a federal district court less friendly to him, all of the media is abuzz with talk of the ties between Epstein and Trump. Especially the winking nod to Epstein’s love of “young women” in a quote from the president letting us come to the horrifying realization that Epstein’s abuse was sort of an open secret or at least whispered about.
While many other folks are talking about what this means for Trump and turning all of this into a partisan political fight, it left me wondering, why did it take till now? Plenty of people are coming forward to talk about how they saw things, how they heard things (they called his private island “Pedophile Island”), and how some even counseled Epstein on how to spin it all, and all I can think is, And you motherfuckers did nothing?
Let’s be real here. There are way too many of us who not only enable all of this in the desire to be close to the seat of power and profit, but far too many of us just want all of this buried and to go away because we don’t want to talk about it. Maybe it’s because no one wanted to face the idea that someone we trusted, someone we liked, could be like that. I know that it’s a well-worn trope and a point of anger often that when someone is caught being awful, people talk about how nice they were, how quiet they were, how nothing seemed odd. Hell, it’s a source of pride for New Yorkers who regularly brag about, joke about, or ignore the obviously mentally ill homeless guy having an episode on the subway.
Yet as much loss of faith in humanity as that causes, it’s a fact this was out there for years. We knew about Epstein’s ties, about the sweetheart deal, about all of this, and there were people reporting on it for years, and nothing happened until now. Yes, new charges are being brought against Epstein, which makes it news, but why weren't we this outraged in 2010? 2012? Why did it take 'til Trump was three years into office to really have these allegations explode like this? I have a sick feeling in my stomach in that we just didn’t care enough, or that we thought “we” might get hurt by maybe finding out Epstein helped people we like do something terrible. Oh, so many people are saying they would love to see people on “their side” taken down if it’s found out, but far, far too many times, we have seen where people will gladly turn a blind eye when it suits them.
Just look at people like Bill Cosby, whose abuses were an open secret. Louis C.K., whose abuses were an open secret. Michael Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Les Moonves, on and on and on. Hell, some of these people we still consider heroes. Our own president was just credibly accused of rape and the story vanished from the press a few days after it emerged.
I’m gonna hurt some of you guys here, but David Bowie allegedly committed statutory rape and we kind of said nothing. Prince kept underage girls around. Roman Polanski was convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, fled the country, and for decades some of your favorite actors have clamored to work with him and the industry has continued to hand him awards. Asia Argento was a leading member of #MeToo Movement until it turned out she slept with an underage boy. All of this and the “casting couch” trope of Hollywood is so pervasive and long-lasting it can be traced back to the 1920s. It was just treated as a plot device for films forever, was the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, and we act like #MeToo is a shocking revelation. Let’s not even get into all the child celebrity tell-alls. We’ve treated them as boring unless they were all about drugs, child sexual abuse, and wild parties.
The sad truth is that Epstein, like countless other offenders before him, wasn’t a super secret. In reality, they were often right out there in the open. They weren’t even slick about it. It just seems we just didn’t care enough. It seems like we weren’t willing to put the obvious pieces together until we couldn’t ignore them any longer. That we accepted it as the way it is. We have treated decades of stories of abuse as tabloid fodder and never put pressure on law enforcement to investigate. Hell, we even at times seem to not only revel in it, but if it’s someone we like, we even kinda celebrate it. Just look at all the female rapist teachers people make semi-serious jokes about wishing they had that teacher. The thing about Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein is that these aren’t just failures of institutions of power, these are just the famous ones. This stuff happens around us every day in our bland, unfamous, unwealthy lives, and we still say or do nothing.
Epstein, like so many, far too many before him, is a failure of our collective society to do anything about it until we can’t ignore it anymore.