Innocent until proven guilty: What does this really mean?

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CA Supreme Court -  courtesy of Shawn via Flickr

CA Supreme Court - courtesy of Shawn via Flickr

After a few weeks of taking a break and catching my breath, I am happy to be back and look forward to a great new year of shining some light and pointing to hope in the dark pockets of the Christian community.  At least that remains my prayer in 2015.


He’s innocent until proven guilty

During the recent holidays, it seems as if I heard that phrase over and over again whenever the name of Bill Cosby surfaced in a news article or in a conversation.  Just recently, I read a report about a Bill Cosby concert that was interrupted by people heckling him about the growing mass of allegations that he has raped numerous women over the past decades.  After the show, one of his supporters told a reporter, “I don’t believe he’s been charged with anything and at least in this country you’re innocent until proven guilty.”  Similarly, in a recent discussion I was having with a group of friends, those who expressed an opinion that Bill Cosby had committed these assaults were scolded by one member of the group for “jumping the gun” and “convicting him” without all of the information.  This person strongly suggested that we refrain from casting “judgment” unless or until Cosby was criminally charged and a verdict rendered.

These type of “innocent until proven guilty” responses to allegations of sexual abuse are not limited to public figures.  When a member of a faith community is accused of sexually abuse, it is not uncommon for leaders and other members to caution everyone to hold off forming any opinions and to give the accused the benefit of the doubt until he has been “proven guilty” in a court of law.  All too often, this results in the alleged offender being treated like the victim while the victim is ignored, marginalized, and sometimes even rebuked.

CA Supreme Court -  courtesy of Shawn via Flickr

CA Supreme Court – courtesy of Shawn via Flickr

So, is a person who has been accused of sexual abuse “innocent until proven guilty”?  Yes!  Under the law.  One legal dictionary states, “One of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system holds that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.”  This simply means that a person charged with a crime is legally innocent and cannot have their freedom taken away (sent to prison) unless and until they have been proven guilty in a court of law.  It is critical to remember that “innocent until proven guilty” is a legal term and that just because a person is viewed  under the law as “innocent” does not mean that they did not commit the offense.  It simply means that a jury was unable to unanimously agree that the government was able to prove the crime beyond and to the exclusion of all reasonable doubt.  It means that the defendant will be considered “innocent” under the law and will not lose his freedom.   It does not mean the offense never occurred.  Case in chief:  the murder trial of O.J. Simpson.  Though the judicial system determined that he was “not guilty”, does that mean that he didn’t murder Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman?  Does the fact that he was found “not guilty” mean that we should have no concerns being alone with him…especially when he’s angry?

Why do so many insist that we withhold any opinion regarding whether a person committed an offense until that person has been found legally guilty in court?  The reality is that we form such opinions every day regarding people and situations without the need to make them contingent upon a criminal conviction.  For example, a person who reportedly drives while intoxicated is considered legally innocent until he is arrested, charged, and convicted in a court of law.  However, does this mean that I have to withhold my opinion regarding whether I want to be driving on the same road with this person?  Does this mean that I should not warn my teenage drivers that they should do all they can to stay away from this individual should they see him driving?  What if I own a restaurant and am told that a certain individual in town has a reputation for not paying his food bill, but has never been convicted for these alleged thefts?  This person is certainly considered innocent under the law and should not be punished unless or until he has been proven guilty within our criminal justice system. However, does this mean that I should have to wait until the person is convicted before making the decision that he has to prepay for his meals? Should I be scolded for “rushing to judgment” simply because I received information and took precautionary measures to prevent a possible theft?   Please hear me, I am not saying that a mere rumor should be the sole basis of our opinions that lead to taking responsive actions.  What I am saying is that when we hear about others who allegedly commit an offense against another person, we all have a responsibility to collect as much information as possible so that our opinions are well informed and our decisions are well-reasoned.  Such opinions and decisions should not constrained by the conclusive (or inconclusive) results of the criminal justice system.  Doing so will defies our God given common sense and will often result in disastrous consequences.

This shouldn’t be any different when we learn about someone who has been accused of a sexual offense.  If it’s a public figure who has no contact with our children, we should certainly be free to form an opinion about the allegations, regardless of whether or not the individual has been convicted.   However, if the alleged offender is someone in our faith community, it is becomes critical that that our opinion and response not be exclusively contingent upon whether or not the person is ever “proven guilty” in court.  We must review the available information regarding the allegation, and be prepared to take immediate and well-reasoned precautionary measures to protect children and anyone else who may be a target of such abuse.  Doing so is not casting “judgment”, it is simply being responsible.  It is never a rush to judgment to fall on the side of safety when it comes to protecting the vulnerable.

Research has consistently found that very few children falsely report abuse.   Based upon these findings, there is a very high probability that a person in your faith community who has been accused of sexual abuse actually committed the offense.  Waiting for a jury verdict before forming an opinion and taking protective steps could very well place children at risk.

The next time you are admonished for “rushing to judgment” because of expressing concerns about someone who has been accused of sexual abuse, take comfort in the fact that “judgment” is the responsibility of judges and juries, but taking steps to protect the weak and vulnerable is a responsibility given to all of us by God.

  • Raz

    Thank you, Boz, for this very relevant post. I understand how hard it is to believe that someone you know, someone in your family, or someone in “the ministry” is even capable of something so vile as sexually abusing a vulnerable child. But it can happen, it does happen, and it will happen in the future. We must stop running away from the truth, even though it is so painful to face it and grapple with it.

    On the subject of “innocent until proven guilty”, it is important to me to point out to your readers that in cases of missionaries who abused children overseas, they cannot be prosecuted for their crimes here in America, if the abuse was committed prior to the passing of the Protect Act. Everyone needs to understand that this DOES NOT indicate that they are innocent! They are untouchable under US laws, but they are still dangerous pedophiles on the loose!

  • Oscar

    Bill Cosby stands accused of heinous crimes and for those accusations he is paying a high price before any trial has taken place, guilt ascertained or innocence proved.

    However if Bill Cosby was not a high profile entertainer, but a high profile fundamentalist he probably would have been able to paint himself as a saintly hero under attack by heathens, the unsaintly and even the devil himself. And the gullible would have lapped it up, as they always do.

    And so we see a well loved entertainer tried and found guilty by the media before any charges are laid and yet far to many leaders of their flocks, snacking on the innocent lambs, knowing it is unlikely they will be dragged out of the pulpit to face charges, because they are well protected.

    It isn’t a fair world sometimes!

  • AJ Ketchum

    What I never will understand is why any group, church groups especially, use the “until proven guilty” line with accused molesters but see no issue with requiring others to step down during the investigation when accused of other crimes. Would a church allow their treasurer to remain in control of their money while being investigated for embezzlement? Is the churches money more important than its children?

  • Oscar

    I’ve already seen this happen.

    A missionary accused by his victim of sexual abuse was investigated by the mission concerned. The investigation consisted of “did you do it”, obviously his answer was “no” and no further action was taken. However his victim waited until the missionary returned to his home country, put the matter before the police and guilt was established and a jail term secured.
    The mission explained his absence as “a mental health issue” and the matter covered up.
    However, some time later it was suspected the same missionary was embezzling mission finance. Two high ranking officials were despatched to investigate and question the individual.

    So the answer to your question is yes money is more important.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I wrote a long response to this article based on my own experiences and how these words apply and encourage me, but am trying to be more concise. 🙂
    This specific article is really helpful to me, personally. I was raped and sexually abused. It happened and I struggle with it.
    The primary source of my struggle is that the people who did this are all considered innocent. They are innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law and innocent because of their statements of repentance in the eyes of their religious organizations. That has left me with a lot of confusion. I feel like I am struggling with something where I am wounded, but there are no “perpetrators” as they are considered innocent.
    I read this article and realized that this is at the heart of much of my struggle. The truth is that those who sexually abused me ARE guilty / WERE guilty of the offenses. The offenses actually happened and in one case, the perpetrator readily admits it. His claim to innocence is based on God having forgiven him.
    He may never be convicted legally and they may never be seen as guilty by the religious groups who protect him, but what happens still is a part of history. It did happen and I struggle to know how to find healing from it.
    It seems that many within religious circles focus so heavily on whether or not the person has been legally convicted or whether or not the person repented. Either way, I have still been affected and am hurting.
    I have learned the hard way that the Christian community, by in large, is not quite ready for victims of sexual abuse especially when the offender is a “man of God.” This is incredibly isolating. I have to admit that I don’t go to church. I can’t. Some ask me why and I can’t exactly put it into words. I see the comments of so many Christians in my community condemning those who recently reported sexual abuse and I just don’t feel safe in a building where there are so many people condemning us.
    Recently, I spoke with someone about this struggle. She was encouraging me to come to church and I explained to her the difficulty of going to a place where I know that many are publicly making statements against those who recently reported sexual abuse (during the GRACE investigation of BJU). She responded that I should come and just keep silent and not tell anyone that I am one of those who reported. She meant well, but I heard that and just felt more alone. It isn’t that I can’t keep silent. I can. It just hurts to know that that is the only way I can be accepted is if I don’t tell anyone that I was a victim of rape. It isn’t that I want to tell everyone. I don’t!!! I just want to know that IF I told, I wouldn’t be hated and condemned and I wouldn’t be accused of harming a man of God for exposing his actions.
    I really don’t understand how offenders are loved and protected so much more than their victims.

  • Scout

    Learning to be a survivor….. It is sad that the person to whom the abuse happens is often left to feel that there is no place for them. They can’t ‘tell’ because people don’t believe them, or others think that they are dwelling on it too much, and being unforgiving. That is a whole other topic that I could go on about for hours. Often the web of personal contacts and friendships is so involved at a church that you don’t even know who you can actually trust….if anyone. My daughters and a friend were ‘abused.’ Not as severly as you were, but I think it was the deception, and the willingness to throw someone under the bus, and the cover-ups that were really an eye opener for me. I can’t even imagine what I would feel like if it had been worse. I am saying this to say that I can really relate to how you feel. The only thing that has gotten me through all of this is that God sees it all. They will not get away with this ultimately, He sees it. He does not condone it. These people may NEVER confess, or apologize, but rest assured it has not gone unnoticed. At its root it is people pleasing….and sinful to cover for the perpetrator, and blame the victim. There are many verses in Gods word that condemn these kind of actions….not just the abuses, but the covering up of them. To use Gods word, and say that “love covers a mulitude of sins” ……. is to misuse Gods word….but that is a verse that is often quoted. There is a fine line between love covering sin, and enabling evil to abound. I hope and pray that your heart will be healed with the knowledge that God is watching, and He loves you with an everlasting love!

  • Beth Duncan

    I hear you, Learning. I was raped as a child by someone not in the church, and then a pastor took advantage of my vulnerability when I went to counseling with him for the after effects when I was in my early 20’s. And what you said is true; the Christian community is at large not ready to deal with sexual abuse perpetrated by a “man of God.” But some in the community are. I have found some very good friends in my present church who have been willing to listen, and also some online resources / forums. That is what has helped me. And your friend’s advice, to go and keep quiet – well, she probably meant well, but you need to find a place where you don’t have to be afraid to speak out.

  • Why do so many insist that we withhold any opinion regarding whether a person committed an offense until that person has been found legally guilty in court?

    Because you’re discussing acts which are also crimes and typically the evidence in these cases is pretty dubious. Basic prudence is not rocket science.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I’m sorry, but am not sure what this is in reference to. I googled the name and see that she is/was an actress, but don’t see the connection to my comment???
    Am obviously missing something…

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I assume you are referring to the possibility of those who could potentially be falsely accused?
    I think you may possibly be misunderstanding the intention of this article. I can’t speak for Boz, but will share just a bit of my story and see if it helps.
    In my situation, the person who sexually assaulted me has confessed. He has told multiple people that my allegation is true. His claim to innocence however, is primarily that he “confessed” it to God and so, is forgiven.
    He doesn’t deny anything. The Christian ministry he works for specifically stated to me that he confessed, but they see him as not guilty b/c he is forgiven by God and has not been found guilty in court.
    His ministry actually asked me what I wanted to agree not to cooperate with law enforcement to ensure that he is protected as he is a “godly” man with a “godly” ministry.
    And if that isn’t enough, he has freely admitted it to others as well, The actually admitted his guilt to his university (at the time) immediately after the incidence. There is no question of his actual guilt. He and the Christian ministries he is connected to, simply see that he shouldn’t be held legally accountable b/c of his statement of repentance.
    For you to say that the evidence in these cases is pretty dubious sounds like you are saying that the victims cannot be believed, that we are somehow not credible, however, I disagree.
    People quickly form opinions about those who have been victimized. It is often the perpetrators who are sheltered and protected. The victims are not. That seems a bit mixed up and shows how religious society really sees victims and offenders.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    Am curious at your choice of wording, in stating that evidence in these cases is pretty “dubious.” I looked the word up and found these synonyms: ” suspicious, suspect, untrustworthy, unreliable, questionable.” That implies that the judgement should be based on the one making the allegation. It assumes they are untrustworthy, unreliable, suspicious, etc. Why that word? Why would one make the assumption that someone making an allegation of sexual abuse would make it up?
    Do you know the horrible path that a person has to travel to make such allegations? Those who make such allegations are quickly left isolated, condemned, and hated. Why would a victim WANT to go through this process? In reporting my offender, I have paid a heavy price for reporting. I am accused of destroying God’s work – NOT because it didn’t happen, simply because I told what happened. That is WITH him admitting what I have said is true.
    He is still the one to be protected, and I am left alone. Even if he ends up convicted, I will be the one to pay the heavier price. It isn’t just the price of having endured sexual assault. It is also the price of having told. I was told not to tell b/c he is a “godly man.”
    I knew the potential price when I reported, but felt that not doing so, would likely or possibly result in more victims. Your statement is merely a reflection of many in the world who turn against survivors.

  • I can’t speak for Boz, but will share just a bit of my story and see if it helps.

    Why does that not surprise me?

  • However if Bill Cosby was not a high profile entertainer, but a high profile fundamentalist he probably would have been able to paint himself as a saintly hero under attack by heathens, the unsaintly and even the devil himself. And the gullible would have lapped it up, as they always do.

    I’ll tell Ted Haggard and Rev. Whatshisname Quiverfull that they should up their game in anticipation of the next round of accusations. That way, they won’t be reduced to selling insurance in the future and their wife will not have to give magazine interviews apologizing for them.

  • What I never will understand is why any group, church groups especially, use the “until proven guilty” line with accused molesters but see no issue with requiring others to step down during the investigation when accused of other crimes.

    Just which denomination does this routinely – issues press releases insisting politician or business manager x ‘step down’? While we’re at it, several thousand Catholic priests have been yanked out of parish ministry and retired or put in nursing home chaplaincies over the last thirty years. The basis for this is modally a single accusation, and such accusations are commonly not timely (fifteen years after the supposed incident being about normal). Do you fancy such priests have been ‘proved guilty’?

  • Tom

    Nothing wrong with using common sense, but I think most of the research sited here is bogus. The “Abel Harlow Child Molestation Prevention Study” was cited early in this blog (Jan 9, 2014) and I wonder if that is Boz’s source when he says “research has consistently found…” Harlow refused to have his research peer reviewed and is not considered reliable. Other statements like “Churches are more vulnerable than public institutions” are ludicrous. Charol Shakesaft’s 2004 Dept of Ed study suggests that kids are 100x more likely to be abused in school than by a priest. And so, common sense suggests a bit of skepticism when it comes to statistics provided in this blog.

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  • bkwyrm

    If we are told that we must believe the accused is innocent because they have not been convicted, we are also being told to believe the accuser is lying.
    That’s why so much of this “innocent until proven guilty” language is so painful to survivors of sexual abuse. 68% of rapes go unreported. Around 2% of rapists actually go to jail. And yet people insist on granting the grace of assuming innocence of the accused, maybe not realizing – or not caring – that by doing so, they are calling the victims among them liars.

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