In June of last year, shortly after the public revelations about the conviction of Jan Joosten, then Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, for possession of staggering amounts of child pornography, I published a post with the title ‘Privilege Beyond Bounds’ (see here). This is a follow-up, in the light of Joosten’s publication of a statement on academia.edu (see here).
Exhibit A: IICSA, the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse, has demonstrated that religious actors, factors, and institutions have been and continue to be in deep when it comes to sexual abuse, including of children. The evidence is overwhelming (see here) and has recently been widely reported in the mainstream press.
Exhibit B: Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain but all indications are that crimes of sexual violence, including crimes related to what is called ‘extreme pornography’, are rampant. Conviction rates are, of course, much lower than incidence. The harm caused and the social cost of such crimes, for victims in particular, but also for many others, including those who work with perpetrators and victims, are profound, far-reaching, and long-term.
Exhibit C: When I was 13, I saw the film Death Wish II, with Charles Bronson. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was an R16 film (I think) and so I shouldn’t have seen it at my age. The rape scene early in the film has etched itself into my memory. It was traumatising. I am not suggesting it was anything like the trauma of abuse. I’m saying shocking images stay with us.
Exhibit D: Like everyone else who has wide-ranging networks of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I have encountered many addicts with various addictions (most common being alcoholism). Most of these addicts do not describe themselves as cured. Many describe themselves as struggling with their addiction, sometimes as managing their addiction. Many do not (or for a long time did not) acknowledge or admit to their addiction, or to the damage it causes.
Into this line-up of exhibits comes the statement from Jan Joosten. Apparently, it was posted on the day of Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement. This will have been deliberate and strategic.
A few quick and important qualifications before turning to Joosten’s statement.
- Yes, the ‘exhibits’ above allude both to reports and statistics and to personal observations. All of these are kinds of data. The so-called ‘objective’ and the so-called ‘subjective’ both yield data. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is a topic that makes me respond emotionally – with horror and outrage and despair. I make no apology for this. I do not believe an emotional response, or a response informed by personal experience, is any less valid.
- A post like this serves to give Joosten a platform. I have misgivings about that. I much prefer to champion the incredible research and publications of people like Gordon Lynch, Monica Rey, Gerald West, Ericka Dunbar, and the many others who have, including on forums like The Shiloh Project, shown how research can advance social justice and positive change. I do think, however, it is important to respond to Joosten’s statement. It is another step in our pushback series.
- Following on from Point 2, there is so much more to be said on what this post only brushes on – especially concerning the many, many systemic and intersectional ways and means by which members of minoritized and oppressed groups (the socio-economically deprived, citizens of The Two Thirds world, refugees, LGBTQ+ persons, to name just a few) are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, including to sexual violence and trafficking, while those with privilege, even when caught in criminal activity, seem rather impervious, often barely breaking their stride.
Joosten’s statement is as follows:
“After having been sentenced to one year in June 2020, I was released on 11 September 2021. I will never stop feeling remorse for what I did—offending the honor of children and participating in a process that harmed them severely. I also deeply regret the suffering I brought to my family, to friends, colleagues, and students. I cannot set things right. But I do try, in a modest way, to make amends. One good thing that has come out of all this is that I have been able to break with an addiction that had held me for years.
Taking my inspiration from Ezekiel 33:11, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live,’ I wish to make a fresh start. I have changed, but my professional interests, training and abilities are still with me. I plan to go back to work, researching, perhaps publishing, and—who knows?—teaching in the field of Hebrew and biblical studies. I appeal to the clemency of the scholarly world—researchers, students, and publishers. Jan Joosten”
Here is someone who was caught and convicted for possession of some 28,000 images and videos of child pornography. According to newspaper reports, these offences spanned at least six years. There was no mention of Joosten seeking any therapy or clemency until after he was caught and his conviction imminent. This was so despite knowing his actions to be both wrong and illegal.
Joosten’s sentence was light given the scale of his criminal activity. Moreover, he remained, research active in some capacity, albeit with a low profile. According to Wikipedia, ‘Joosten still holds a role at the University of Strasbourg’. Moreover, his academia.edu profile remained up and he has corresponded with other scholars (see the comments section here).
In his statement, Joosten acknowledges ‘remorse’ for ‘offending the honor of children’ (a strange choice of expression to my ears) and for ‘participating in a process that harmed them severely’. He also acknowledges the suffering he brought to persons in his family, social, and work circles. True, he cannot go back in time and undo any of what he did; but this statement is still a long way off from persuading (me at least) that Joosten really ‘gets’ how he comes across, which is as glossing over his crimes and as arrogant.
Granted, academia.edu is not the ideal forum for it – but this statement is not anything like the victim-focused ‘full disclosure’ required at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, for instance, or the earnest reflection, leading to amends at the heart of Yom Kippur (e.g. see here).
What is this ‘modest way’ in which Joosten is making amends? Is he working with law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to trial other sex offenders? Is he helping with grant applications to address and prevent spiritual and sexual abuse? Is he doing voluntary work to benefit communities vulnerable to sex trafficking and other exploitations? Is he finding ways to help widening participation students and emerging scholars from under-represented groups? Is he trying to be mindful of his privilege and of his entitlement?
Rather miraculously, Joosten claims to have broken with his addiction. This addiction held him – like some monstrous jailer (again, responsibility seems to be being pushed away a bit here). If – unlike the vast majority of addicts in my experience – Joosten has found a way to cast off in a mere year an addiction that made him for at least six years ‘particate in a severely harmful process’, a process, or better scandal, that is costing and blighting the lives, prospects, potential, and capacity for joy and fulfilment of thousands upon thousands of children, it would be good to know how this works. I find it hard to believe that Joosten is no longer seeing in his mind’s eye the images he pored over for so many weeks and years. I find it hard to believe that an addiction that enabled him to lead a double life, regularly visiting what he (ickily) called his ‘secret garden’, which he claimed he knew to be wrongful, has been so easily cast off.
Joosten now wishes ‘to make a fresh start’ because he has ‘changed’. He plans to go back to work. It’s rather as though he’s had a ‘time out’ or a dip into another career that wasn’t enough to his liking. It feels a bit like damage limitation before ‘back to business as usual’. But that just doesn’t feel right in this case. For good measure, the Bible is quoted: If the Bible says the wicked can turn from their ways, then why shouldn’t ‘the scholarly world’ give ‘changed’ Joosten the clemency he wants? It’s almost as if refusal of clemency would now be unreasonable, un-biblical.
I know there are very many paedophiles and sex offenders across the world. Even if we take just the ones who have been tried and convicted, it is impossible to keep all of them under surveillance, let alone locked up. I am not suggesting that Joosten be imprisoned forevermore. I’m also not crying for blood – literally, or metaphorically.
I accept that he cannot undo the past and that he is sorry he was caught, sorry that he lost his prestige, and sorry that he brought distress to his family members. I find all of that emotionally plausible. I am less persuaded that he truly understands the magnitude of the crimes for which he was convicted, that he has embarked on making amends, that he has changed, and moved on from addiction. I find all of those implausible, based on the albeit succinct statement, earlier exchanges (see my previous post), and experience of addicts.
Clemency… that is, the quality or disposition of showing compassion, leniency, mercy, or forgiveness, in judging or in punishing. I don’t see myself as representative of, or as representing, ‘the scholarly world’ and I don’t think that as someone who wasn’t anywhere near the frontlines of the grave harm Joosten wrought it’s mine to give.
But I don’t buy this.