Roman Polanski and the Challenge of Forgiveness

By Josh Lupo

Many of us are now probably familiar with Roman Polanski’s rape accusation.  In 1977, a Los Angeles County Court convicted Polanski of having “unlawful sex with a minor.”  Reading the words from the trial transcripts of his victim, then 13 year-old Samantha Geimer, one learns that Polanski gave the girl a Quaalude and offered her champagne before engaging in sexual intercourse with her.  According to her testimony, she repeatedly told him no and resisted his sexual advances.  Towards the end of his lengthy and highly publicized trial, which to this day has not officially ended, Polanski fled to Europe.  He has remained in Europe for more than  thirty years and recently faced the possibility of returning to the U.S. for trial after being re-arrested in Switzerland, though the Swiss have refused to extradite him (Click here for an overview of events).

Flash forward thirty years after the crime to a fascinating turn of events in the Polanski case; new twists that are especially fascinating for those interested in the relationship between religion and secularism.   In 1997, Geimer publicly forgave Polanski.  This event has caused some scholars of religion to reflect on complex questions: Does forgiveness, a nominally “Judeo-Christian” practice, have a place in the  American law system, or in the public sphere?  Or is this too simple a reduction?  Some might argue that  forgiveness is a universal practice, one practiced across many different cultures.  In either case, there seems to be a strong aversion to substituting punishment with forgiveness in the U.S. (with perhaps the exception of a presidential pardon). Our laws, in general, center around a retributive form of justice, one in which criminals have to “pay” for their crime with their time, labor, or life. Forgiveness flies in the face of this kind of justice. 


Public reaction to Polanski and his victim’s forgiveness has been mixed to say the least with many Hollywood celebrities taking a supportive stance in favor of Polanski.  During the 2003 Oscars, for example, he received a standing ovation from the audience when he won the Best Director award for The Pianist.  Some feminists have reacted differently, but with equal vigor (Check out the reaction at feministing). Many of the supporters of his arrest claim that he has been able to evade facing the consequences of his crimes because of his celebrity status.  These supporters claim that if we do not seek to punish him to the fullest extent of the law then we are, as a society, authorizing his crime.  They argue that it begins to look like rape is permissible as long as you can make a good movie.  How can we as a society allow this? 

Samantha Geimer

In a more sympathetic portrayal of Polanski’s life, the film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired describes Polanski’s struggle for survival after his mother was killed in the Holocaust and later, after the Manson family murdered his wife, Sharon Tate, in 1969. This story might lead one to think that while Polanski committed a terrible crime, it is reasonable to feel sympathy for him. 

Clearly there are many different views on the way justice should look in the Polanski case.  But let us turn back to Geimer’s forgiveness to get a clearer picture of the justice she is offering.  Geimer fought to have the case dropped after Polanski’s re-arrest in Switzerland.  It appears she has moved on since forgiving Polanski back in 1994 and wants everyone else to do so as well.  Perhaps her forgiveness is not “pure,” in the sense that she has not extended a sympathetic embrace to him, but I think most would be hard pressed to find a pure form of forgiveness.  In either case, Geimer’s attempt to have the charges dropped should make us reconsider whether forgiveness should have a place in the law.  If both the victim and the perpetrator are ready to move on, why should the law stand in their way?

To begin to answer this question, we can turn to theorists of forgiveness.  The subject of forgiveness has attracted some of the most important 20th century philosophers of religion, including Jacques Derrida and John Milbank. These thinkers have either sought to find a way to fit the concept of forgiveness into our nominally secular, retributive system of justice (in the case of Derrida), or to advocate an alternative system of Christian justice based completely on reconciliation and forgiveness (in the case of John Milbank). Both of these positions advocate a theological alternative to our current secular, retributive, system of justice.  But both also assume that justice is, in essence, either forgiveness of or payment for wrongdoings.  But is this always the case?  Can justice look different than either retribution or forgiveness?

If we return to the case at hand we find a helpful starting point for such an alternative. Geimer has claimed that she has “moved on” from this incident and would rather not continue to be dogged by the press. Perhaps it is not so much that she has “forgiven” Polanski, as it is that the pain of the memory has faded and she would now like to focus on other aspects of her life.  Since Geimer has also tried to prevent Polanski from having to return to America to face a re-trial, we might also wonder whether justice is retributive in this case.  We must then ask the question: What if there is no clear way of achieving justice in the Polanski case?  I would propose that what the Polanski case demonstrates is that justice cannot be tied exclusively to a secular or theological perspective, and indeed, sometimes will remain opaque to both.  Like the theorists of forgiveness, those involved in the Polanski case remain ultimately unable to say what justice truly is.  I would argue, then, that to give an account of justice requires both a theological and secular vocabulary.  The recognition that justice often transcends both makes clear the need for greater reflection on justice within our culture, including both theological and the secular perspectives.

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