On April 6th, Rebecca Watson posted an entry on Skepchick about Lawrence Krauss, who had been quoted in a Daily Beast article defending his friend, financier Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein had been embroiled in a sex scandal involving underage girls, and Dr. Krauss, in the quote, expressed his skepticism of the allegations of sex trafficking and pedophilia that had been made. Rebecca mercilessly ridiculed Krauss for what she saw as an abuse of science and skepticism in the service of sexism and denial of criminal behavior.
That blog post, and the many comments that followed, touched a nerve -- in fact, multiple nerves -- for me. To explain why, I need to tell you about my background:
I grew up in a community of devout Christians, of the fire-and-brimstone kind. They saw the world in black and white, because they had God and his good book on their side. Even as a child, I struggled to understand this view of the world; I didn't like their God or his book, and unlike my parents or their friends, the world, to me, was gray. My father was a pastor, and my mother was (to me, anyway) very much like the Old Testament God -- cruel, vindictive, quick to find fault, and harsh in her punishment. The world was very black and white to her, too. My sister was good, and I was bad -- "the bane of her existence," "the cross she had to bear," and "one of life's trials and tribulations." She would frequently remind me of how truly disgusting I was -- skinny, ugly, smelly, stupid, and unloveable. She told me this for my own good, of course. "The truth hurts," she would say. "You'll have to learn to live with it." This often happened in front of others, who would either sit by silently, or nod in approval at her biblical approach to child-rearing.
One Saturday, when I was 13, I was home alone, asleep, when my sister's boyfriend came into my bedroom. He told me he loved me, and started doing things to me. I didn't know what was going on at the time -- I knew nothing about sex or rape, with my strict upbringing -- but I didn't like it, and I did my best to fight him off. My head hit hard on the bedframe during the struggle, and I lost consciousness.
Some time later, when my mother arrived home, she barged into my bedroom to rouse me out of bed, and yelled at me for not yet mowing the lawn (one of my assigned chores that day). I told her my sister's boyfriend had hurt me, that I felt sick, and my head hurt. She slapped me across the face and berated me for making up such a ridiculous lie. It was the most vicious tirade I've ever heard from my mom. I never saw her more angry. She sent me off to mow the lawn. As I pushed the mower, I questioned myself: Had I imagined it? Was I lying? Had I just had a blackout (which happened frequently, as I had low blood pressure) and hit my head accidentally? While I was still out with the lawn mower, my father returned home and my mother sent him out to spank me with the board he used on such occasions.
That night, feeling nauseous, with a massive headache, I was so confused that I really didn't know whether it had happened or not. I hadn't meant to lie, but I must have. My mother was right: I was nothing but bad, and she and the world would be better off without me. I took a paring knife from the kitchen and tried to slash my wrist; in that moment, I, too, was seeing things solely in black and white, as my mother did. But the knife was dull, my head was pounding, and I was weak and shaky from not eating all day. I blacked out before I could cut deep enough into my wrist to do the job. The next thing I remember is my mother yelling at me from the kitchen to go clean the church for the Sunday morning services. Life was back to normal.
When my sister's boyfriend attacked me a second time, I knew I hadn't imagined it. Over the next four years, I put up with his sexual abuse (as I came to understand it later). Putting up with the sexual abuse was far less painful than the continuous verbal abuse I suffered at the hands of my mother.
So you can see how the issue of molesting underage girls would be a deeply personal one for me. All of these painful memories came rushing back when I read Rebecca's post. It sounded as though Dr. Krauss had turned a blind eye to sexual abuse, and I was upset by that. My mother and (as I discovered much later) others in my own family had done the same to me, and I cringe when I think it may have happened to other young girls.
And yet, there were things about that post, and the ensuing comments, that bothered me.My skeptical antennae first went up when I clicked through the links Rebecca provided to the articles on which she based her post. They were highly sensationalized and inflammatory, and I found very little, if any, established fact. Even though I was upset by what Dr. Krauss had said, this lack of evidence disturbed me.
Many of the comments on that post disturbed me, too. It sounded like the gathering of a lynch mob, with plenty of moral outrage, and scorn heaped on Dr. Krauss and the few commenters that questioned the others' certainty about what had happened. Some commenters confused Krauss with Epstein, and one went so far as to wonder if Krauss, too, is a sex offender, since he was defending one. This is a very serious accusation to make, as it could destroy someone's reputation. Worse, making such an accusation, when it is completely unfounded, makes things that much harder for actual victims to be believed.
Besides my mother not believing me, I've heard it from others, some of whom should have known better. When I was in my 30s I was having difficulties with my health, my job and my life. I went to see a GP about my frequent headaches, and psychologists and psychiatrists for counseling. When I told them about my sexual abuse, I got responses such as, "Did you enjoy it?" "When you were under 16, it was his fault, after 16, it was yours," and "You must have asked for it." It's hard enough to withstand this sort of attitude, but witch hunts based on false accusations don't help, as it makes those that hold that attitude feel even more justified in doing so.
So I embarked on a mission to find out as much as I could about the Epstein case. It took many hours of reading through the news stories, blog posts, and documents that I could find on the Internet, to gather what factual information I could. It wasn't easy, given the sensitive subject, and because the events in question happened several years ago. What facts I did find, while bad, weren't as damning as Rebecca's post and the comments had originally led me to believe:
- After an 11-month investigation, the Palm Beach police filed a probable-cause affidavit recommending that Epstein be charged with four counts of illegal sexual activity with a minor (which in Florida means sexual activity between an adult and a minor at least age 16) and one count of sexual molestation (which means sexual activity between an adult and a minor under 16).
- The state attorney's office did not bring these charges immediately, but instead called a grand jury to review the evidence. The grand jury found that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges, and could recommend only a charge of solicitation of prostitution (and not of a minor).
- The police had also called in the FBI and federal prosecutors, as they continued to suspect Epstein of some more serious crime. However, no federal charges were brought against Epstein. Instead, his lawyers and the federal prosecutors negotiated a non-prosecution agreement in which he would agree to plead guilty to a state charge of solicitation of an underage prostitute, and register as a sex offender. In exchange for that plea and Epstein's fulfillment of the other terms of the agreement, the federal prosecutors agreed to suspend a grand jury review of the evidence for any federal charges.
- The agreement also stipulated that Epstein would offer to settle out of court any civil suits brought by the alleged victims, and cover their legal costs if they chose to settle.
I kept asking myself, "What am I missing? Why can't I see what seems so black and white to everyone else?" Here was a man who was routinely called a pedophile and sexual predator in the press, but every time I looked for facts to back up those assertions, I came away less than convinced of the reported accusations. There was no trial, so what evidence there was didn't get a full hearing. There were court filings, but those were allegations for the civil suits, so they, too, had not been tested in court. A number of the witnesses turned out to be rather shady themselves, and unfortunately, even some of the girls lacked credibility. This was a lot messier, and a lot grayer, than what I'd seen on Skepchick and other skeptic blogs.
I came to the conclusion, based on the evidence I could find, that Dr. Krauss's description of the situation was plausible, and therefore reasonable. The girls had been informed of what to expect before going to Epstein's house and were told to lie about their ages; some went back multiple times, and some brought friends. There was no substantive evidence of any international sex trafficking or island orgies. Nor was there evidence that Epstein used his wealth and influence to obstruct the proceedings, just suspicions. He even admitted in one interview that he had behaved inappropriately and was not blameless. And the plea agreement meant that the girls were at least spared from having to be witnesses, subject to cross-examination by high-powered attorneys intent on destroying their credibility.
I'm upset about those girls; even if they hadn't been brought to Epstein's house by force, what sort of lives did they have that they would involve themselves in something like this? Perhaps the settlements will provide them with the opportunity to take a better path than the one they were on before meeting Epstein. If that happens, then something positive will result from this sordid affair.
Epstein is no saint, but he doesn't appear to be the monster he has been made out to be. And Dr. Krauss isn't a self-justifying, sold-out dupe, since the evidence I found supports his claims. I could be wrong about Epstein, and if substantive evidence does turn up, I will reconsider my opinion. Dr. Krauss says essentially the same thing. We have both done our best to reach a provisional conclusion based on evidence. Isn't that being skeptical?
While I was initially upset by the stories about Epstein's alleged abuse of young girls, and Dr. Krauss's support of Epstein, in the end I was horrified by the lynch-mob mentality that I saw among my fellow skeptics, venting righteous indignation and rushing to judgment based on suspicions, rumors, and tabloid sensationalism. I walked away from the black-and-white world I grew up in, and I don't want to end up back where I started.
Ethics demand that we do what is right for the helpless victims of abuse. Skepticism demands that we base our conclusions on the facts. For me, at least, ethics demand that as well -- no matter how noble our intentions, if we see things solely in black and white, we may be missing the shades of gray, and bad things can happen as a result.
- Probable cause affidavit, 01 May 2006, from The Smoking Gun
- Palm Beach Police incident reports, 19 Jul 2006, from The Smoking Gun
- Non-prosecution agreement, 24 Sep 2007, from Palm Beach Daily News (PDF)
- "World's Top Physicists to Meet in the Virgin Islands", 14 Mar 2006, St. Thomas Source
- Letter from Palm Beach Police Chief Michael Reiter to Florida State Attorney Barry Krischer, 01 May 2006, from ABC News
- "After long probe, Palm Beach billionaire faces solicitation charge", 26 Jul 2006, Palm Beach Post
- "Palm Beach Police Chief Says Justice Wasn't Served in Teen Sex Scandal", 26 Jul 2006, ABC News
- "Despite Lengthy Police Probe, State Attorney Closes Millionaire's Sex Case", 27 Jul 2006, ABC News
- "Warrants Were Prepared to Arrest Others in Millionaire Sex Scandal", 28 Jul 2006, ABC News: The Blotter
- "Millionaire Employs Legal Dream Team in Sex Scandal", 28 Jul 2006, ABC News: The Blotter
- "Billionaire’s lawyer tried to discredit teen girls, police say", 29 Jul 2006, Palm Beach Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein and Those Nobel Prize Winning Orgiasts", 01 Aug 2006, Dealbreaker
- "Epstein Update: Nobel Prize Wide Shut", 01 Aug 2006, Dealbreaker
- "Epstein camp calls female accusers liars", 08 Aug 2006, Palm Beach Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein craved big homes, elite friends - and, investigators say, underage girls", 14 Aug 2006, Palm Beach Post
- "Epstein’s Angels", 01 Sep 2006, Broward Palm Beach New Times
- "'Unhappy Ending' Plea Deal", 01 Oct 2007, NY Post
- "Model Shop Denies Epstein Tie", 06 Oct 2007, NY Post
- "Epstein Eyes Sex-Rap Relief", 09 Oct 2007, New York Post
- "I Was Teen Prey of Pervert Tycoon", 18 Oct 2007, New York Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein takes his licks in new allegations; ‘Call Me Janice,’” wallstreetfolly.com, 25 Oct 2007
- "Billionaire Gave Teen a 'Licking': Suit", 25 Oct 2007, NY Post
- "Cops' Flops Letting Mogul Get of 'Easy'", 12 Nov 2007, NY Post
- "The Fantasist", 08 Dec 2007, New York Magazine
- "Tycoon Perved Me at 14", 25 Jan 2008, NY Post
- "Epstein Sex Suit Dropped", 26 Feb 2008, NY Post
- "Major Twist in ‘Minor’ Sex Suit", 26 Mar 2008, New York Post
- "Banker Epstein pleads in prostitution case, gets 18 months", 30 Jun 2008, Palm Beach Post
- "Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein jailed for paying underage prostitutes", The Telegraph, 30 Jun 2008
- "Bear Bites Billionaire", New York Post, 30 June 2008
- "Financier Starts Sentence in Prostitution Case", 01 Jul 2008, NY Times
- "Jeffrey Epstein Not Wanting for Attractive Young Visitors in Jail", 12 Aug 2008, Huffington Post
- "Prison shopping spree: Jeffrey Epstein Gets a ‘Lil’ Chub’, some lube, and more", 01 Oct 2008, wallstreetfolly.com (and receipts retrieved from The Smoking Gun)
- "Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘Sweetheart’ Plea Deal, Embarrassing Deposition", 17 Sep 2009, Huffington Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein non-prosecution agreement details harsh sentence avoided, immunity for co-conspirators", 17 Sep 2009, Palm Beach Daily News
- "Palm Beach sex offender’s secret plea deal: Possible co-conspirators not charged, presses victims to settle civil suits", 18 Sep 2009, Palm Beach Post
- "Rothstein, Epstein scandals converge with sex offender claiming he was used in swindle", 7 Dec 2009 (updated 8 Dec 2009) Palm Beach Post
- "Attorney for Epstein Victims: No Contact With Rothstein; Calls Epstein Suit Against Rothstein 'Disgraceful'", 10 Dec 2009, Broward Palm Beach New Times
- "Jeffrey Epstein Sues Accused Ponzi Schemer Scott Rothstein for Misusing His Name", 11 Dec 2009, Huffington Post
- "Judge: Convicted billionaire sex offender Epstein’s private parts to remain private", 14 Dec 2009, Palm Beach Post
- "How much is Jeffrey Epstein worth? He’s a billionaire, his attorneys say", 13 May 2010, Palm Beach Post
- "Former Epstein house manager Alfredo Rodriguez given 10 days to surrender journal", 03 Jun 2010, Palm Beach Daily News
- "Jeffrey Epstein seeks to keep his journal’s contents confidential", 11 Jun 2010 (updated 12 Jun 2010), Palm Beach Daily News
- "Sex offender Jeffrey Epstein settles seven more lawsuits", 13 Jun 2010, Palm Beach Post
- "Billionaire Pedophile Goes Free", 20 Jul 2010, The Daily Beast
- "The Billionaire Pedophile’s Sex Den", 22 Jul 2010, The Daily Beast
- "Lawsuit documents link Jeffrey Epstein to modeling agency owner Jean Luc Brunel", 15 Oct 2010, Palm Beach Daily News
- "Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein: I'm a sex offender, not a predator", 25 Feb 2011, NY Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein Mocks the Law That Just Let Him Off Easy", 25 Feb 2011, Huffington Post
- "Jeffrey Epstein, Sex Offender: ‘Underage Girls Are Like Bagels,’ or Something", 25 Feb 2011, Village Voice
- "Virginia Roberts, Jeffrey Epstein’s Underage Masseuse, Also ‘Worked For’ Prince Andrew", 28 Feb 2011, Village Voice
- "Jeffrey Epstein: Sex Offender, Yes. Billionaire, No.", 28 Feb 2011, forbes.com
- "Jeffrey Epstein ‘kept a diary of his under-aged victims,’” 05 Mar 2011, The Telegraph
- "FBI to reopen case against sex offender friend of Prince Andrew: Duke may be forced to claim diplomatic immunity to avoid questioning", 05 Mar 2011, Daily Mail
- "Bizman sex rap looms", 06 Mar 2011, New York Post
- "Teenage girl recruited by paedophile Jeffrey Epstein reveals how she twice met Bill Clinton", 06 Mar 2011, Daily Mail
- "Epstein’s Girl Friday ‘fixer’: Dead tycoon’s daughter Ghislaine Maxwell and the girls she hired for paedophile’s stable", 07 Mar 2011, Daily Mail
- "Sarah, Duchess of York, Got Loan From Wealthy U.S. Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein", 08 Mar 2011, Huffington Post
- "Jeffrey and Ghislaine: Notes on New York’s Oddest Alliance", 08 Mar 2011, Vanity Fair
- "Attorneys want Jeffrey Epstein agreement thrown out", 21 Mar 2011 (updated 23 Mar 2011), Palm Beach Daily News
- "Behind Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein's Sweetheart Deal", 25 Mar 2011, Daily Beast
- "Jeffrey Epstein attorney Roy Black denies allegations in letter by ex-U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta", 30 Mar 2011, Palm Beach Daily News
- "Jeffrey Epstein’s Society Friends Close Ranks", 01 April 2011, The Daily Beast
- "Lawrence Krauss Defends a Sex Offender, Embarrasses Scientists Everywhere", Skepchick blog post by Rebecca Watson
- "TAM 9 Speaker Lawrence Krauss in contrversy [sic] of his own making", JREF Forum thread
- "In the event of my dissolution into degeneracy", Pharyngula
- "Skepticism: Tits or GTFO?", shethought.com
- "The Fallibility of Prominent Skeptics: The Lawrence Krauss Fiasco", The Skeptical Teacher blog
- "Please take his shovel away before he hurts himself", canadianatheist.com
- "Lawrence Krauss and dark matters", examiner.com
- "Jeffrey Epstein, Lawrence Krauss, and The Inequity of Justice", The Darwin Report blog
- "But he seemed like such a nice guy...", blogotariat.com
- "Scandal in the skeptic community", Skeptic Friends Network forum thread
- An Open Letter to Lawrence Krauss, 06 Apr 2011, Dale Husband's Intellectual Rants
- "Blind Spots and Male Privilege", galileospendulum.org
- "Rebecca Watson Engages in Demagoguery, Embarrasses Skeptics Everywhere", thearmchairskeptic.com