Shelly Stow, an occasional commenter here who blogs provocatively at With Justice For All about the harassment and persecution of former sex offenders, raised the topic of today’s Ethics Quiz. She posted about the plight of Peter Yarrow, the Peter in Peter, Paul and Mary, now, thanks to cruel mortality, just Peter and Paul. I was not aware of this, but in 1970, when he was 30 and a rather significant star, he had sexual relations with a 14-year-old girl. Shelly is wrong to call this “consensual,” for 14 is statutory rape territory. The law declares that a 14-year girl is a child and not capable of meaningful consent, and fans of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Kaitlyn Hunt notwithstanding, it is quite right. He pled guilty to something less than rape, and served a three-month sentence; he is also, as a result, a registered sex offender. President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1981.
Yarrow, as Sixties folk singers tend to be, is a social activist, and is politically active as well. Not for the first time, his child molesting past became an issue recently when he agreed to sing at a campaign event for Martha Robertson, a Democrat running for Congress in New York against incumbent Republican Tom Reed. A spokesman for the RNC told the media,
“It is absolutely deplorable that Martha Robertson would kick off her congressional campaign by having a convicted sex offender headline her fundraiser. If Robertson’s judgment is so bad that she would even entertain the idea of raising money with a man who molested a 14-year-old girl, she has no business representing the people of the 23rd District of New York in Congress.”
He also said Robertson should cancel the fundraiser and return any money she raised with Yarrow’s support.
“What is wrong with this scenario? Our criminal justice system is comprised of one part punishment and one part rehabilitation. The purpose of the punishment is to bring about rehabilitation. Sometimes it works like it is supposed to. Mr. Yarrow committed a crime in 1969. That is over 40 years ago. He served his court ordered punishment, and in light of the fact that there has been no re-offense in over 40 years, I think we are safe in declaring him rehabilitated. Everything worked just like it is supposed to. What then is the problem? Is rehabilitation not good enough for some? Is there some other standard of measure needed?”
This launches the Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for this weekend, which I will phrase this way:
Is it unfair for Peter Yarrow to still face criticism, suspicion and condemnation based on his crime of 40 years ago, for which he has been both punished and pardoned?
For this one, I am not at all certain of the answer, and will be very interested in your responses, not that I am not always.
Here are some of the considerations that have me, to paraphrase the title of one of the hit pop songs Mr. Yarrow helped to write, “Torn Between Two Answers.“
1. Yarrow, by any standard, has used his fame and celebrity to support and further admirable, mostly progressive causes, in a wide range of missions that include combating school violence, helping victims of Agent Orange, supporting hospices, freeing Soviet Jewry, promoting colonoscopies, and more. He was recognized for Congress for his work in human rights.
2. Subsequent good acts do not erase past bad ones. Nor does a Presidential pardon mean that criminal acts never happened.
3. Yarrow has acknowledged and presumably apologized for his conduct, presumably more than once.
4. I really hate the apology attributed to him in which he said, “It was an era of real indiscretion and mistakes by categorically male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I’m sorry for it.” Yechhh. In order, Yarrow points out that everybody was doing it, the granddaddy of rationalizations, trivializes child rape as “an indiscretion,” seems to suggest that sexual molestation goes with the territory of being a “categorically male performer,” whatever that means, and notes that he was “nailed,” a.k.a. “caught.” before he gets to being wrong and sorry. Lousy apology, at least a 7 on the Apology Scale, and maybe a dastardly 9.
5. The main thrust of Shelly’s blog, which I support, is to oppose paranoid and mean-spirited restrictions on the rights of registered sex offenders, as well as not lumping all offenses, from urinating in public (“indecent exposure”) to forcible child rape in the vague category of “registered sex offenders.”
6. I do not believe that anyone has the right to claim that past crimes must be permanently out-of-bounds when assessing their character.
- Exhibit #1: Nathan Leopold, the thrill killer (along with Richard Loeb) who had his sentence commuted and devoted the latter part of his life to philanthropy. He was still a cold-blooded murderer, and I would not have voted for any candidate who trumpeted having his support. (Full Disclosure: In this I admit to being influenced by my father, who detested Leopold and, regardless of his admiration of Clarence Darrow’s famous plea for mercy that successful saved Leopold and Loeb from the electric chair, was adamant that Leopold should have been executed.)
- Exhibit #2: Anne Perry, the best selling novelist who, as a confused teen, helped murder her friend’s mother. I’m glad she has turned her life around, but Perry is a multi-millionaire author with a new name whose readers, most of them anyway, are unaware of her crime. The friend’s mother is still dead, the victim of a premeditated slaughter, and all in all, Perry got off easy. No, I will not read her books, on principle. Is there nothing she can do to erase this old, old crime, then? No, not in MY book.
- Exhibit #3: Ted Kennedy, who used his money, celebrity and influence to avoid criminal penalties for, at very least, negligent homicide, and quite possibly murder, and lived out the rest of his life as a privileged, powerful and admired U.S. Senator while his young victim rotted in her premature grave. That is not justice.
7. Sex with a 14-year-old folk song groupie is a far cry from murder, and significantly less heinous than forcible rape.
8. Nobody is saying that Yarrow isn’t free to support whomever he wants to. They are arguing that a candidate for high office should be trumpeting the support of celebrities who never molested a child, even once. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable standard. Do you?
9. While Yarrow’s subsequent good works do not erase his past crime, they do enhance, or should, our assessment of his current character.
10. Still, I would ask Shelly these questions:
- Would she argue that Yarrow’s past should be irrelevant if he took a job as the coach of a teenage girls swimming team?
- Would it be fair to raise such a conviction if Yarrow were himself running for elective office?
- If Yarrow were vocally supporting Hunt, who was just sentenced, or Polanski, would Shelly still think his own statutory crime would be an unfair topic?
- Would she consider him to be a valuable ally in an anti-child sex abuse campaign?