The flurry of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein confirms an unsettling truth that deep down we already knew. There's a reason "casting couch" has become a grotesquely ubiquitous term. We have long quietly assumed that big-time movie producers exploit their power to sexually exploit women. We should have heeded the warning signs. The smoke has been there for a long time. Of course the faint plumes were evidence of a fire raging, a fire we both did not imagine and yet knew was burning.
How could we have been so blind?
The answer to this question will also give you the answer to the next question: Can we seriously doubt that Hollywood is also turning a blind eye to a very real child sex-abuse scandal?
The evidence is there, just as it was in the cases of Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein. In 2011, former child star Corey Feldman warned that pedophilia in Hollywood was "the big secret" and "the number one problem." Feldman alleged that he was abused and that his friend was raped on a movie set at the age of 11. But he didn't just talk about instances of abuse. In a later interview, he described a system whereby young children were groomed by powerful older men who formed an organized network, with "publicists" providing cover. He would "love to name names," but feared the legal risks, he said.
Precisely such an organized system for grooming and abusing children is described by a documentary; one molester described in the film pleaded no contest to two counts of child molestation, but the rest of the network has never been named, let alone investigated or charged. The title of the documentary? An Open Secret.
Former child star Elijah Wood made global headlines after saying in an interview last year that there was "something major" in Hollywood. "It was all organized," he said. "There are a lot of vipers in this industry, people who only have their own interests in mind. There is darkness in the underbelly," adding that Hollywood can "squash" the victims so that they "can't speak as loudly as the people in power." (He later issued a carefully worded clarification that he had no "firsthand experience or observation," which still leaves room for being aware of an open secret.)
These stories fit a pattern, and not just the pattern common to all sex crimes allegations — the shame, the gas-lighting, the fear you won't be believed — but also the pattern common to testimonies about a systemic problem: the coordination, the law of silence, the coverups.
And just as striking as these allegations is the deafening silence that surrounds them.
We know that Hollywood is perfectly willing to look the other way when it comes to credible allegations of child abuse. Woody Allen remains persona grata in Hollywood despite allegations of child abuse that would have turned most visible executives in most industries into pariahs. Many prominent members of the industry (including Harvey Weinstein) lobbied against Roman Polanski facing charges for the documented rape of a 13 year old.
The smoke is there. How long will we ignore it?
There are industries and careers with access to vulnerable children, which criminologists tell us attract predators like water rolling downhill. The Catholic Church runs schools and orphanages. Hollywood churns through countless child actors and would-be actors, most often away from home, whose parents must navigate a highly strange and sophisticated environment.
There is the problem of an illustrious institution that aspires to moral leadership in a culture war context. Sympathizers don't want to think the unthinkable about "the good guys." Insiders don't want to give ammunition to the "the other side." Bishops wrapped themselves in moralistic rhetoric to brush off allegations of moral turpitude; Weinstein thought he could distract from his alleged depredations by picking a fight with the NRA.
Most of all, there are the dynamics around power, money, and glory. They enable the abuse even as they prompt the coverup, since the institution and its prestige must be protected. Those around the perpetrators become accomplices, actively or passively. The system becomes self-sustaining. The more abuse, the more coverup. The more coverup, the more abuse. Everyone looks the other way because everyone looks the other way. No one will speak up because no one will speak up. Bit by bit, isolated incidents that might happen in any context metastasize into a monstrous system that feeds on itself. The guilt of a few becomes the guilt of all, as the system is sustained by its own rottenness.
If the Catholic Church, which is at least nominally committed to a grand moral vision, could fall prey to these dynamics, why should we believe that Hollywood, which at the end of the day is a for-profit industry, should be any different? Don't get me wrong: I'm absolutely sure that plenty of people in Hollywood believe in art and not profit, and sincerely hold their industry's professed humanistic values. But that's the point: The systemic dynamics are bigger than that. Even staunch anti-Catholics will concede that plenty of priests are upstanding people. We won't understand those systemic dynamics if we don't grapple with the fact that the same institution that produced Mother Teresa could produce what later churchmen called "the filth."
None of what I'm saying can be presented in a court of law. I have no smoking gun, no bombshell revelation. But nor am I hallucinating. That all the signs are there is not speculation. It is fact. We know for a fact that there are serious allegations, and that allegations about other forms of sex abuse in the same context not only turned out to be true, but much worse than we imagined. We know for a fact that some of these allegations get suspiciously ignored, and we know there is the motive and the capability for coverups. Go back to the old saw about criminal investigations: means, motive, opportunity. Check, check, check.
Children's lives are at stake. When will we as a society start seriously asking questions?
How many people know, but won't speak up? How many people could know, but don't ask questions?
Systemic dynamics are bigger than most individuals, but they're not bigger than heroes. The Weinstein story might not have broken if Ashley Judd and Asia Argento hadn't been willing to speak up, if Ronan Farrow had taken his NBC editors' no for an answer. I hope against hope that someone who reads this story can be at least one such hero.
Child rape is as horrible as horrible gets. How long — and how many victims — until we stop being blind to it?