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To whom do we afford grace?

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Amongst the many structural and ideological flaws I found in Conti’s op-ed is that, despite what we commonly consider to be the nature of op-ed pieces, the article in fact fails to make a strong claim. In the hopes of not repeating the mistake, I will state my opinion as clearly as I can: although it is true that the sexual offender registry should be part of the equation in our discussion of criminal justice reform, Luke Heimlich’s case is not representative of the problems with the way we treat sexual offenders, nor should we have any sympathy for his situation.

I would like to begin by addressing possible objections to the very nature of an op-ed written in response to another op-ed. It appears to be an opinion held on this campus that if someone responds negatively to a political belief held by one individual, they are perpetuating the silencing of certain voices. This is an unbased claim. There is a necessary distinction between making a moral judgement on the permissibility of an action (in this case writing an op-ed) and making a moral judgement on the action itself. In this particular case, my moral and critical judgement falls into the latter camp.

Conti’s article devoted, by my estimation, about 270 words to Heimlich’s athletic capabilities. It devoted one sentence to describing the crime he committed. I do appreciate the idea that describing the details of sexual assaults, molestations, and harassment can be insensitive to the victim. I also believe that it is nonetheless often necessary to make these details as public as the victim would allow in order for the public to cast a more accurate moral judgement. Yes, all acts of sexual violence are heinous, but some are more heinous than others. In the research I’ve done, it seems that the victim’s family seems willing to have this information disclosed. Heimlich sexually molested a family relative for the first time when she was four and the last time when she was six. The first time this happened, court documents state, “she told him to stop, but he wouldn’t.” She is also quoted as saying, “it hurt.”

Conti’s article also failed to mention what the victim’s family feels about Heimlich’s opportunity to continue playing baseball. All that was necessary was a quick Google search to find out that victim’s mother has stated, “I’m appalled that the college he’s going to would even have him on their team.” I take it to to not be a controversial opinion that we should value the sentiments of the victim’s family on whether someone has been rehabilitated enough to continue participating normally in society over our own.

I hope that the details of the molestation and the opinions expressed by the victim’s family will help dispel any possible assumption that the molestation was an isolated incident whose consequences are no longer relevant to the victim and her family. So long as the victim, now 11 years old, continues to suffer what I can only imagine to be incredible psychological trauma, I am utterly unwilling to devote any time or energy to dwelling on the end of Heimlich’s baseball career. I cannot imagine any point in my wholehearted condemnation of Heimlich at which I would, as Conti puts it, “become no better than he.” Perhaps my imagination is lacking, but I cannot envision a situation in which overzealous and unforgiving punishment of a child molester makes us no better than a child molester.

None of this is to say that I do not fully appreciate the fact that the criminal justice system has large room for reform in all areas, including the sexual offender registry. In Washington law, any minor in possession of consensual sexting with a person of any age is obligated to register as a sex offender. This is a far less serious offense than child molestation and yet results in the designation of the same societal qualifier. These laws also disproportionately affect persons of color and low-income people who are then faced with limited job prospects and ostracization by society. To put the racialized elements of the registry into perspective, Brock Turner, the last white college athlete to make national headlines for sexual assault, now gives talks on college campuses about the dangers of excess drinking. Luke Heimlich is not representative of the registry’s problems or of the room society does or does not allow for rehabilitation. He is a white man who molested a child and went on to play college baseball.

Sexual molestation undoubtedly differs from other acts of violence that we punish by law. It is a loss of autonomy; it is a loss of humanity, it is a profound degradation. Acts of sexual violence are inherently different from other acts of violence and deserve to be evaluated differently. This does not justify the racially and socioeconomically biased implications of the sexual offender registry or the uniquely aggravated ostracization that many sexual offenders face. Rehabilitation has great value, but why is it that we only seem to allow for white athletes to be rehabilitated?

Conti characterizes Heimlich’s case as a “fall from grace.” I take it that Conti intended to use grace’s denotation as the condition of being favoured by someone. Ironically, in the Christian theology which popularized the aforementioned denotation, Grace is the often unmerited favor God bestows upon the human race as a whole, sinners and innocents alike. Within this context, we should evaluate how modern society has cruelly co-opted this notion. White men with athletic ability are indeed bestowed Grace by society as a whole: their perceived heroism perseveres against all odds. Others are not as lucky. They were never afforded grace, so they cannot fall. Luke Heimlich has indeed fallen, dragged down by his own atrocities. We should devote our care and energy to those who do not have the opportunity to rise, not to whether someone like Luke Heimlich deserved to fall.

 

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