Silence allows sexual assault to thrive

September 27, 2013
FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2013 file photo, Stacey Rambold stands in a courtroom after sentencing by Judge G. Todd Baugh in Billings, Mont., for the rape of Cherice Moralez. The legality of Rambold's sentence of 30 days is being challenged by state Attorney General Tim Fox. (AP Photo/Billings Gazette, Paul Ruhter, File) Stacey Rambold shown Aug. 26 in a courtroom after his sentencing in the rape of Cherice Moralez. (Paul Ruhter/Billings Gazette via AP)

It has been an eventful week in the case of Stacey Rambold, the former Montana high school teacher who was convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl who later committed suicide. But all the activity moves the spotlight away from the most important person in the case: the victim.

On Thursday, Rambold was released from the Montana State Prison after serving his 30-day sentence.

The case stirred outrage across the country, partly because of the short sentence for Rambold, 54, but largely because of the comments made by Judge G. Todd Baugh when he imposed it.

The judge said the 14-year-old victim was “as much in control of the situation” as Rambold and described the teenager as “being older than her chronological age.” The age of consent in Montana is 16.

Prosecutors have appealed Rambold’s sentence as inappropriate. Montana law calls for a sentence of at least two years in prison, and the prosecution had recommended a 20-year sentence, with 10 years suspended, in this case.

On Tuesday, representatives of the Montana National Organization for Women and the group UltraViolet, a group that fights sexism, filed a complaint about the judge to Montana’s Judicial Standards Commission. The complaint includes online petitions calling for Baugh’s ouster with an estimated 140,000 names, according to the Billings Gazette.

The five-member commission will decide whether to send the complaint to the Montana Supreme Court, which has the power to remove judges from the bench.

But the point that needs to stay in focus is the effect that blaming the victim has. It can be devastating to the person reporting a rape, which is why in 2013 the names of victims are generally not made public by the news media.

More than 50 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But who wouldn’t think twice about reporting an incident to the police, knowing that at every step in the process one of the questions would be, “What did you do to cause this?”

In the Rambold case, the defendant pleaded guilty. But that didn’t stop the judge from making statements that blame the victim. When the system works like that, it’s a wonder that anyone is courageous enough to report sexual assault.

On Monday, Mariska Hargitay, star of the NBC series “Law and Order: SVU,” and her husband, Peter Hermann, appeared on the ABC program “Katie” to talk about the No More campaign, which is focused on ending domestic violence and sexual assault by encouraging people to speak up.

“Perpetrators depend on silence,” Hermann said. “They depend on it. Think about a criminal. Think about a rapist. Think about an abusive spouse. Think about how helpful it is to that perpetrator if nobody is willing to talk about the crimes. It’s genius for them. It’s fantastic. They thrive on it. So these issues thrive in silence.”

This public service announcement for the No More campaign sums it up well:

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