What does it take to enable a sexual predator? It takes a village, as it turns out. If the predator is a wealthy and well-connected man, that is, and his victims are girls and young women who have neither wealth nor influence. It takes a village to raise children; it can also take a village to destroy them.
Julie K. Brown, the investigative Miami Herald journalist whose dogged reporting on serial abuser Jeffrey Epstein brought the case to wide public attention, lays it out plainly in her new book. “Professional, legal and moral ethics were set aside for a broken system of values that places corporate profits, personal wealth, political connections and celebrity above some of the most sacred tenets of our faiths, our teachings, and our democracy,” she writes in Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story.
Those interconnected webs of power and criminal exploitation are also laid out in the CBC podcast Evil By Design, which explores the sexual abuse allegations against Canadian fashion tycoon Peter Nygard, currently in jail in Manitoba awaiting an extradition hearing. The sex trafficking and racketeering charges were laid by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, in relation to what it calls “a decades-long pattern of criminal conduct involving at least dozens of victims in the United States, the Bahamas, and Canada, among other locations.” Mr. Nygard denies all the charges, and none of them has been proved in court.
I will warn you that neither the book nor the podcast make for light summer fare. But if you’re in the right frame of mind to be enraged at the way that money and power find willing collaborators to flout law and morality, while crushing powerless people along the way, you won’t be disappointed.
What is perhaps most shocking in Ms. Brown’s book is the way that everyone around Mr. Epstein seemed to expect him to get away with it. It was a fairly simple scheme: He donated to police forces and political parties (mostly the Democrats) in Palm Beach, where he was based. He was involved in business deals with other rich men. He used his legal team to intimidate anyone who tried to investigate or oppose him, but he often didn’t need to because the legal system wasn’t interested in pursuing him.
The “perversion of justice” in the title refers to the laughable plea deal that Mr. Epstein received from Florida prosecutors in 2008, which saw him placed in a country-club jail, but only at night and even then with the door of his cell open. By day, he could leave to “work.” Teenagers who get grounded face more restrictions than this serial abuser of girls.
Speaking of teenagers, Mr. Epstein had a type: girls – some as young as 14 – who came from poor neighbourhoods or broken families. He promised them a way out of poverty, by offering them an entrée into the world of modelling, for example. When some of his victims finally spoke out, he had his minions harass them and their families. These girls were disdained and slut-shamed, not only by Mr. Epstein’s legal circle but by the prosecutors who were supposed to be their advocates. “He victimized people he thought nobody would ever listen to,” said Courtney Wild, who was assaulted when she was 14, “and he was right.”
At the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum were the men that Mr. Epstein considered his equals. Donald Trump, whom he hung out with at Mar-a-Lago; Bill Clinton, who flew on his private plane; Bill Gates, who visited his Manhattan townhouse; Prince Andrew, his good pal. Other powerful men visited Mr. Epstein on the Caribbean hideaway that locals called “Pedophile Island.” When Mr. Epstein died while awaiting trial in a New York prison, ostensibly a suicide, he took the secrets of those relationships with him. (For the record, Ms. Brown is suspicious of the suicide verdict.)
There’s an island paradise at the centre of the allegations against Mr. Nygard as well – and the parallels don’t end there. As investigative journalist Timothy Sawa details in the Evil by Design podcast, the fashion designer would allegedly hold “pamper parties” at his compound in the Bahamas, where girls and young women were lured with promises of manicures, speed-boat rides, and yes – promises of modelling careers. Many of these women came from impoverished backgrounds. At these pamper parties, it is alleged, some of them would be drugged and raped.
Corruption appears to have been a central feature of the scheme. An observer alleges in the podcast that police officers were paid off, and large donations to Bahamian political parties were made. Women were afraid to go to the police with allegations of assault, knowing that they wouldn’t be believed and that the deck was already stacked against them. More than 50 women are part of a class-action lawsuit accusing Mr. Nygard of assault, allegations that he denies.
One of the saddest things to acknowledge is that women were allegedly often complicit in these webs of exploitation. Teenagers would allegedly recruit other teenagers to Mr. Epstein’s lair with promises of cash, and girls were recruited to the “pamper parties” by other young women. Some victims said they did this to avoid being targeted themselves. Others were in it for personal gain, the worst kind of betrayal.
But the real betrayals exist in the very heart of systems that protect predators. In the words of Julie K. Brown, “Epstein got away with his crimes because nearly every element of society allowed him to get away with them.”
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.