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Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby Photograph by Brennan Linsley — AP
Commentary

Bill Cosby and Apologies: Is there a Way Forward for the Fallen Star?

Feb 03, 2016

Is there enough evidence to convict Bill Cosby on charges of sexual assault? Will the conflict between two district attorneys associated with the trial unfolding in Norristown, Pa. be resolved in Cosby’s favor or against him? These are but two of the many legal questions the media has focused on after more than 50 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault.

But there’s an ethical question worth asking: if Cosby is indeed guilty, is it too late for him to confess and accept the consequences of his actions?

No, it isn’t.

Before I explain why, it’s crucial to emphasize a central tenet in our democracy, one that too often gets ignored in cases like this: people are innocent until proven guilty. Cosby’s innocence may appear increasingly difficult to believe—by his own admission, he obtained Quaaludes with the intention of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with—but “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is not a valid legal or ethical principle.

For a particularly nauseating example of how wrong society can be in jumping to conclusions of guilt, take a look at the documentary, The Central Park Five. The film tells the story about the Central Park jogger case, in which five young men were tried for raping a woman and leaving her for dead in Central Park.

At the time, prominent commentators on both the right and the left publicly stated that the five young men were guilty as charged. All went to prison, one of them for 13 years. But as the film reveals in disturbing detail, they were innocent—another man confessed to the crime in 2002—and their lives were all but ruined in the botched legal process.

So if Cosby is guilty, then the following applies to him.

Statutes of limitations: The law vs. ethics

The idea that there is a finite amount of time in which people can be charged with and punished for wrongdoing is a legal, but not an ethical, precept.

For example, there is only so long you have to file a lawsuit against a physician or other health care provider if you believe, and even have evidence to prove, that he or she committed malpractice. Sometimes, depending on where you live, that window spans years. “[E]very Florida obstetrician potentially remains at risk of a professional liability claim until after each child he or she delivers passes age 12 years,” observes physician/attorney Adam Levine.

But ethically, from the perspective of the person who has done something wrong, there is no statute of limitations for saying, “I did it, I’m sorry, and I’m prepared to receive the appropriate punishment.”

Courage after Cowardice

It takes a person of extraordinary courage to make that kind of statement, and someone who has committed serial sexual assaults over a period of decades isn’t likely to possess traits like courage that are associated with strong character. But people are full of surprises. If Cosby really did the things he is accused of, it’s not too late for him to take steps toward restitution.

One of the subjects I teach in executive education programs around the world is the ethics of apologies. Just last week in Fortune, I wrote about Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s catastrophic handling of the Flint water crisis and how his apology came too late. The worst response to wrongful conduct is denial, as BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward demonstrated in the wake of the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Prompted by an outpouring of outrage, Hayward eventually accepted the blame.

Many prominent leaders, however, are too cowardly to do so, even when the preponderance of evidence makes it clear they’re at fault. But it’s not just in the interest of society for the guilty to confess. It’s also in their own interests. You don’t have to be a Christian (I’m not) to see the wisdom of John 8:32: “[T]he truth will set you free.”

As it stands, it’s a near certainty that Cosby’s obituaries will talk about his fall from grace and the loss of both his personal fortune and global popularity. Even if he is exonerated in courts of law, many of his obituaries will overlook the “innocent until proven guilty” principle and assume he did it.

If Cosby is innocent, those obituaries will be a permanent stain on a remarkable career that ended in public humiliation. If he’s guilty, he will have earned that humiliation, but he can still do the right thing by admitting what he did, asking his victims for their forgiveness, and accepting the consequences of his actions the way a person of honor would.

As Cliff Huxtable, Cosby was a role model for dads everywhere. As a confessed criminal who admitted his guilt and apologized, he would be a role model for anyone who has done terrible things but is afraid to admit guilt and take steps to turn things around.

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