The bagel thief and his rich and famous friends

DA at a press conference in Manhattan appealing for victims to come forward 

When contemplating the career of Jeffrey Epstein, two items are essential. First, vomit bags to void your disgust with him. And second, a punching bag to void your anger at his “friends”.

Get used to seeing Epstein’s name on the front page. The lurid sex crimes he is charged with, his mysterious wealth, and his A-list rolodex will keep journalists busy for weeks, if not months to come.

Here’s a reprise for those who thought that this was just another tasteless episode of Sex in the City. In the finance and social pages Epstein had a reputation as a philanthropist, a socialite, and a billionaire. His friends (all ex-friends now) included President Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, former Harvard President Larry Summers, actor Kevin Spacey. You get the idea.

A widely-quoted remark that President Trump -- who insists that their relationship ended years ago -- made in 2002, sums up the vibe around Epstein: "I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life."

Young beautiful women. Girls, really. Some of them as young as 14. Epstein collected them. He paid them for massages and sexual services and asked some to recruit other girls. This debauched behaviour apparently went on at his Palm Beach residence in Florida, his huge Manhattan home, his ranch in New Mexico and a private island in the Virgin Islands, nicknamed “Paedophile Island” by the locals. He flew on a private Boeing 727 nicknamed “The Lolita Express” by the press. It appears that dozens of girls were involved. Some of them are speaking out now.

There are three chapters in Epstein’s social life.

Up until 2006 he had lots of friends. He had become rich and powerful, reputedly by managing the money of billionaires. And his riches opened the door to other rich and powerful people. But in 2006 he was charged with sex with minors in Florida. His legal team, which included Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who represented O.J. Simpson, and Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated President Clinton, managed to reduce this to the relatively minor charge of soliciting prostitution from an underage girl. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, but he was allowed to work in his own office for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The second chapter ran from 2006 to July 6. Epstein’s friends, personal and institutional, thinned out. He was swatting off lawsuits from the women he had injured and increasingly bad news from the Miami Herald, which was doing a “Spotlight” on his nothingburger of a prison sentence. And then there was #MeToo. But still many people didn’t care. According to the New York Times, “A strange thing happened when Jeffrey Epstein came back to New York City after being branded a sex offender: His reputation appeared to rise.”

In 2010, the year after he got out of a Florida jail, Katie Couric and George Stephanopoulos dined at his Manhattan mansion with a British royal. The next year, Mr. Epstein was photographed at a “billionaire’s dinner” attended by tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. A page popped up on Harvard University’s website lauding his accomplishments, and superlative-filled news releases described his lofty ambitions as he dedicated $10 million to charitable causes.

The only unforgiveable offence in New York’s social circuit is not having done time but not having enough money. A jail term was not such a big deal. “I’m not a sexual predator, I’m an ‘offender,’ Epstein told The New York Post in 2011. “It’s the difference between a murderer and a person who steals a bagel.”

The third chapter was July 6 to now. On July 6 Epstein was arrested and charged with sex trafficking and sexually exploiting dozens of girls as young as 14 between 2002 and 2005. The axis of the story shifted from Florida to New York, putting it on the front page of newspapers around the world. New York Police found thousands of sexually suggestive photos locked in a safe. The media was flooded with stories from angry victims. After all this, the friends evaporated. Jeffrey who?

Chronicling the rise and fall of Jeffrey Epstein is going to be a minor industry. How much did his friends know about his obsession? Why did Harvard University take his millions in donations? Did he procure girls for some of his erstwhile friends? How did he become a billionaire? Or was he just a millionaire? How did he make his money? Through fraud? Through blackmail?

The media is going to have a feast. So many people are tainted by their association with Epstein, in politics, in academic, in Hollywood, in business, in social circles. The web of his connections stretches across the United States and to overseas. Who knows what secrets will be found on those photos?

We can leave the sordid details to the police and the media. What matters most is how a rich, well-connected man could commit these crimes with impunity. Why didn’t someone blow the whistle on him decades ago?

Three answers have been floating around.

The corrupt capitalist system. “Jeffrey Epstein Is the Ultimate Symbol of Plutocratic Rot,” says Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times. “It reveals a deep corruption among mostly male elites across parties, and the way the very rich can often purchase impunity for even the most loathsome of crimes. If it were fiction, it would be both too sordid and too on-the-nose to be believable, like a season of ‘True Detective’ penned by a doctrinaire Marxist.”

Or at Salon, Bob Hennelly says that “Jeffrey Epstein is Exhibit A for capitalism’s moral bankruptcy”. He argues that “we remain in the dark about how every day great wealth can insulate the guilty, no matter heinous their crime, from really being held accountable”. 

But even if “capitalist pigs” can – and do – game the American justice system, this doesn’t explain why so many people turned a blind eye to Epstein’s abuse.

Toxic masculinity. Other commentators argue that the #MeToo movement has gathered momentum and is turning a spotlight onto the sewers of sexual abuse. Now we live in an age of radical transparency in which women – or at least more women – have been empowered to denounce toxic masculinity. Weinstein was the first, followed by an endless click-clack of falling dominoes. 

#MeToo might have inspired the Miami Herald’s exposé of the legal farce of Epstein’s 2006 prosecution and conviction. But it can’t account for the silence of so many onlookers, “friends”, employees, and business associates. Not all of them were toxic and not all of them were males. 

The Sexual Revolution. The most plausible explanation comes from surprising allies --feminists and Catholics. In a searingly candid article for New York magazine, Lisa Miller, a former senior editor at Newsweek, blames it on the 60s and 70s. “The sexual revolution gave the elites and the circles orbiting them intellectual permission to downgrade sexual violence to a matter of taste.”

Sure, it enabled reproductive rights and abortion and gay marriage, which are “precious” achievements, but “its legacy has been destructive: insidious, pervasive, and long-lasting”. What did Hollywood think of Roman Polanski? Remember Whoopi Goldberg excusing his misadventures with a minor? “I know it wasn't rape-rape. I think it was something else, but I don't believe it was rape-rape.”

Then there is Dr Jennifer Roback Morse, a trenchant critic of the sexual revolution. In a brilliant article connecting the dots between Harvey Weinstein, Cardinal Ted McCarrick and Jeffrey Epstein, she contends that “The Catholic belief system tells us no one is entitled to sex.”

Yes, our belief system makes us Public Enemy No. 1 of the sexual revolutionaries. We are a big problem for those who believe they are entitled to unlimited child-free, problem-free, guilt-free sex. Not only do we tell them they are wrong, but also our belief system equalizes people. The poorest girl from an unknown family is encouraged and supported in refusing sex to any man of any station, in the same way a daughter of a billionaire would be encouraged likewise.

Catholics’ walk up Golgotha over the past 20 years or so has given them experience of the structures of sin. It shows that libidinous men in positions of power are dangerous. That disdaining traditional sexual mores corrupts everyone. That abusers hide in plain sight. That secret vice loves company. That victims won’t talk. And that some leaders prefer omertà  to justice.

This awful pattern of exploitation and silence which was so familiar from scandals in the Catholic Church has emerged again in the Epstein case. An abuser is hiding in plain sight and shielded by powerful friends. As Miller puts it:

That Bill Clinton and Trump might play dumb is understandable, if reprehensible. But Larry Summers? Alan Dershowitz? Leslie Wexner, Bill Barr, Ken Starr (!); journalists Katie Couric and George Stephenapoulos; Eva Andersson-Dubin, who founded Mount Sinai’s breast-cancer center? Not to mention their spouses and partners and the people who manage their calendars and the Harvard finance men and women accepting his millions?

And what about other enablers? The security guards, the butlers, the builders, the drivers, the cleaners, the accountants, the pilots. All of them caught a whiff of the stench rising from his affairs. And almost no one spoke up. What stopped them?

Dr Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest who has studied clerical sexual abuse in the US, told MercatorNet that Epstein and the bishops had both trivialised the wounds caused by abuse. What they had in common was:

“[a] failure to comprehend the gravity of the crime. This is the invidious cultural heritage of the sexual revolution. If sex is free love, how wrong is it to take a little that doesn’t belong to me? And if I get the same feeling from homosexual sex, how can it be so wrong?  It can’t be wrong if it feels so right. I don’t need to belabor with you how the ideology of “love is love”, meaning “sex is sex”, has corroded justice and human dignity in sexual relationships since the 1960s.”

Of the three explanations, the third seems the most plausible, if the most painful. We live in a society in which any kind of sexual pleasure is regarded as a basic human right, as long as two (or more) participants “consent”. But this is always going to trivialise sex and will allow abusers to flourish.

Jeffrey Epstein needs to be thrown in the slammer. His punishment may deter other abusers. But it won’t motivate whistleblowers. Only a deep belief in the sacredness of sex and its reservation to marriage will do that.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet 


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