The unmasking of pious, bigot Roy Moore as a U.S. Senate candidate with a history of making sexual advances on high school girls, could end up having a beneficial effect for some girls in Florida.
Florida is one of 25 states that offers adult men a chance to avoid statutory rape by marrying the underage girls they impregnate.
The minimum age for getting a marriage license in Florida is 18 years old, but the law has exceptions that permit minors to marry. They include parental consent, a pregnancy, or an existing child by the couple.
Even without parental consent, a county court judge in Florida can authorize the marriage of a pregnant girl — and there’s no minimum age.
From 2012 to 2016, there were 1,828 marriages in Florida involving minor children. Most were between the ages of 16 and 17, but there have been court-sanctioned marriages involving several 14 and 15-year-olds as well as one 13-year-old girl, according to the Florida Department of Health statistics.
The Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that provides legal and social services to girls fleeing violence, tracks the numbers of underage girls who are given permission by a judge to marry.
In Palm Beach County, seven minors under the age of 16 were granted a pregnancy exemption to marry from 2010 to 2016, according to the center’s figures. And another 28 Palm Beach County girls who were 16 or 17 were allowed to marry men who were 24 years or older — which would be an age difference that could have led to the men being prosecuted.
“These examples may make more concrete how Florida’s current marriage age law undermines its statutory rape laws, enabling cover-ups or workarounds for predators that put girls at risk,” said Jeanne Smoot, the senior policy counsel for the center.
Coercing raped girls to marry their attackers has been going on for decades in Florida.
Sherry Johnson, a Tallahassee-area woman who is now 58 years old, said she was raped by her church bishop at eight years old, then raped by her stepfather and then raped by the church deacon, who made her pregnant.
“I was raped at eight, pregnant at nine, gave birth to my daughter at 10, and then forced to marry my last rapist at 11,” Johnson said. “I ended up with nine children by the time I was 27.
“I’m still getting my life together. I just got my high school diploma at age 55, and now I’m working three jobs,” she said. “It’s been a hard, hard, horrible life.”
Johnson has been arguing for years that it’s wrong to coerce young girls like her to marry their rapists.
“I’ve been telling my story, but it wasn’t getting heard,” she said.
But it is now. Johnson’s cause has been taken up by former Wellington City Council member and current Florida Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who was a rape victim herself at age 19.
Benacquisto has recently opposed changes to the reporting of sexual misconduct by her fellow male Florida Senators after Sen. President Joe Negron tried to limit the number of people sexual misconduct allegations could be reported to.
Benacquisto and Florida Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, another sexual assault victim, wrote an open letter to the women working in the state Capitol, urging them not to put up with sexual misconduct and to report it without fear.
“We understand what it means to be victimized, demoralized, and silenced in the face of sexual assault. We stand with you because we all deserve to feel safe and to be safe. Be Strong. Be Brave,” their letter read in part.
A couple months prior to that, Benacquisto sponsored a Senate bill to eliminate child marriage in Florida. Under the bill, the legal age of marriage in Florida would be 18 with no exceptions.
The bill is especially well timed, considering the heightened attention to sexual misconduct by powerful men, most recently by former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore.
Dozens of people have corroborated the stories of women who said that Moore, while a district attorney in his 30s, preyed on high school girls in the local mall and in other places. The allegations against Moore, which he has vigorously denied, have split his party.
Many, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, have asked Moore to quit his race for the U.S. Senate. But political leaders in his home state of Alabama have continued to back Moore, either by believing his denials, or saying that there’s nothing wrong with a man in his 30s making sexual advances on high school girls.
Alabama state auditor Jim Ziegler said Moore had done nothing immoral, while giving a Biblical justification for Moore’s behavior.
“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” Ziegler said. “They became the parents of Jesus.”
But Moore’s behavior is bound to make it easier for Benacquisto’s bill to become law. For there’s never been a time when so many people have been more attuned to the narrative of adult men preying on girls who are still minors.
“There’s a light that’s being shined in a dark place now,” Johnson said. “And I figure it’s much better me helping somebody out than having a pity party.”