Ghislaine Maxwell’s conviction for recruiting young girls to serve Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual desires set a marker: Enablers are not safe from criminal prosecution. In that sense, her conviction was an important first-of-its-kind moment in the #MeToo era. But real progress still demands a reckoning with an uncomfortable truth. In the world of wealth and privilege, most enablers are beyond the reach of criminal law.
Like Mr. Epstein, other wealthy and powerful men who have been convicted of sexual misconduct charges in recent years also relied on others who, at best, looked the other way and, at worst, actively enabled the abuse, almost all without consequence.
The cases of Mr. Epstein, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly are examples of this cultural complicity. In each instance, the abuse was considered an open secret because many people knew or suspected what was happening but failed to intervene. Ms. Maxwell’s conviction demonstrates that prosecutors can, in extreme cases, hold those who enable abusers criminally liable.
But we should not be blind to the myriad ways of enabling that do not rise to the level of a crime. They are the ordinary acts of ordinary people that, however intentioned, combine to protect abusers — particularly men with status, wealth and privilege.
In the case of Mr. Cosby, for instance, David Carr, then a media columnist for The Times, included himself on a list of those in the media who were in the know but didn’t pursue it. “I was one of those who looked away,” he wrote. He recalled interviewing Mr. Cosby in 2011 for an airline magazine “and never found the space or the time to ask him why so many women had accused him of drugging and then assaulting them.” Mr. Carr was hardly an aberration. “No one wanted to disturb the Natural Order of Things,” he explained.
Of course, a failure or an unwillingness to disrupt the status quo is not a crime. That is as it should be. But it is also why the problem of cultural complicity will not be solved by criminal law alone.
Many people enabled the R&B artist R. Kelly’s longtime abuse of girls and women. The reporter and music critic Jim DeRogatis, who has reported about the abuse, has said innumerable people knew about or witnessed Mr. Kelly’s behavior. Yet only a few have been charged with crimes related to his abuse.
The story is much the same for Mr. Weinstein. As The Times reported, the movie producer “relied on powerful relationships across industries to provide him with cover as accusations of sexual misconduct piled up for decades.”
Mr. Epstein also benefited from this sort of complicity. His crimes came to the attention of law enforcement in 2005. As reported by Julie K. Brown of The Miami Herald, the police chief who supervised the investigation in Palm Beach, Fla., recalled that “this was not a ‘he said, she said,’ situation. This was 50-something ‘shes’ and one ‘he’ — and the ‘shes’ all basically told the same story.”
Ms. Brown wrote that police investigators determined that Mr. Epstein had assembled and exploited a “large, cultlike network of underage girls” — mostly 13 to 16 years old, many from disadvantaged families — and coerced them into repeated sex acts.
Instead of pursuing federal charges, however, the U.S. attorney at the time agreed to a jaw-dropping deal that two experienced former prosecutors described as “shockingly lenient.” Mr. Epstein agreed to plead guilty in state court and serve 18 months in county jail. His victims were not told of the deal before it was reached. He was permitted to leave jail six days a week to go to the office, where he continued to run his hedge fund. This jail sentence, such as it was, ended five months early, when he was released in 2009.
A fund created by Mr. Epstein’s estate to compensate his sexual assault victims has paid some $121 million to more than 135 people. The fund declined to say how many of the eligible claims were for the period since his 2009 release.
One reason prosecutions like Ms. Maxwell’s are so unusual and so difficult is that the law forbids only the most extreme enabling behaviors. Although criminal statutes vary, absent a specific legal duty to act, people are generally not held responsible for omissions that cause harm. But when a person’s purposeful assistance is integral to another’s abuse, the outcome may be different, as it was for Ms. Maxwell. Under such narrow circumstances, criminal prosecution can play a part in dismantling a culture that protects abusers.
By the accusers’ accounts, Ms. Maxwell didn’t just passively enable Mr. Epstein’s abuse; she facilitated it. This depiction was the essence of the government’s case.
Ms. Maxwell should be held accountable for the incalculable suffering she brought upon vulnerable girls. But her conviction should not obscure the reality that Mr. Epstein’s enablers were many: employees who allegedly helped him capitalize on the desperation of marginalized girls and women, the influential friends who knew or should have known of his ongoing scheme, the Florida prosecutors who provided the sweetheart deal, the power brokers who by association legitimized his misconduct.
This litany of protectors generally operated within the bounds of the law; Ms. Maxwell did not. The promise of prosecution is that, like her, the most blameworthy enablers of abuse can be held to account. For those who survived Mr. Epstein’s predations, this conviction is a long overdue measure of justice.
The rest of us should not be left with an undue sense of complacency. Impunity for abusers is given collectively, and it lies mostly beyond the law. Even more difficult than prosecuting the worst enablers is confronting the complicity we share.
The #MeToo movement has shed light on the interlocking relationships that protect sexual predators. By speaking up, victims have sought to hold even the most powerful men to account. In the same vein, we can all do our part. If people intervene when they see or suspect abuse, this culture of complicity surrounding predators will begin to unravel. And that will amount to meaningful progress.
Deborah Tuerkheimer is a professor of law at Northwestern University and the author of “Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.