Why convicting Dr. Huxtable is so hard

An op-ed by SMU Associate Law Professor Jessica Dixon Weaver, an expert in family law and children and the law.

By Jessica Dixon Weaver

The mistrial in the sexual assault case against Bill Cosby reveals the difficulty of convicting “America’s Dad,” Dr. Healthcliff Huxtable. It may be easy to blame the hung jury on the fact that there were some inconsistencies in Andrea Constand’s statements, or on the fact that it is difficult to sentence a blind man who is almost 80 years old to jail for the rest of his life. 

But one of the real reasons it is so hard to convict Cosby is because it shatters the image and meaning of being a father. 

It reminds me of why it is so hard for our society to deal with another type of sexual assault — child sexual abuse. While Cosby is not accused of assaulting a minor in this trial (though there are five women who claim they were minors when he assaulted them), there are some important similarities between his case and the situation in which 1.8 million children have found themselves.

Most people who sexually abuse children are trusted members or friends of the victim’s family. In fact, in 80 percent of substantiated reports of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is a parent. In close to 90 percent of cases, the offender is male. If the abused child were to report the crime, there would likely be doubt that the alleged perpetrator could actually have done such a horrible thing. The act flies in the face of everything the community knows about the person. Often the child is not believed and may even be blamed.

Dr. Huxtable is someone we trusted. Bill Cosby’s entire brand was built on being a family man of strong morals and integrity. Many of the approximately 60 accusers have said the same thing Constand has stated: They believed he was like a father to them whom they respected and greatly admired.

Most victims of child sexual abuse do not tell anyone what happened after the incident. Most recently we witnessed this in the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State. Only three of the boys came forward after they were violated, even though there were at least 30 victims who were part of a civil settlement against Penn State. 

The reasons why children do not tell are complex. Self-blame. Shame. Fear. Desire to protect their family. Admiration of the perpetrator. Disappointment about life and what has happened. 

The response of the adult women who have come forward years later with allegations against Cosby mirrors the response of 73 percent of children who have been sexually abused.

Perpetrators of child sexual abuse do not fit the stereotype of sexual offenders. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches, church leaders, neighbors. This type of crime cuts across race, cultures, and class. Sexual offenders are rarely prosecuted and held accountable for their actions. The fact that Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of criminal sexual abuse and sentenced to a minimum of 30 years is not the norm. The former Penn State president (one of the highest paid university presidents in the U.S.) along with two other administrators, were also sentenced to jail time for their failure to report the allegations of child abuse. 

Cosby has avoided the consequences of his alleged behavior for most of his professional life, largely because of who he is and the power he once held in American society.

There are, of course, many differences between the reported accusations against Bill Cosby and child sexual abuse. In most cases, child sexual abuse repeatedly occurs to the same victim, sometimes over the course of many years. Because some children are so young, they do not even understand what has happened to them or that it was sexual abuse. They do not even have the words to explain what happened, and often it is just the word of one child against an adult.

In comparing the case of Dylan Farrow against her prominent father, Woody Allen, to the case against Bill Cosby, the number and stature of the adult accusers in Cosby’s situation lends credibility to their statements. Too often a single child’s voice is ignored, and we do not do enough to inform and encourage children to tell somebody they trust. 

Men who hold power, even a president who endorses sexual assault, should be held investigated promptly and held accountable for their actions. 

Five decades after the first accusation, “America’s Dad” will not face jail time – at least not the first go ‘round. Yet, Dylan Farrow’s Dad, and many other fathers accused of sexually assaulting their daughters, will not have criminal charges brought against them at all. The question we need to ask ourselves is when we will wake up and do more to protect these young children and women. Hopefully, it won’t take us another 50 years.

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