By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Today, the age of consent in the U.S. depends on the state. Most set the age at 16. In Colorado, it's 15. In Hawaii, it's 14.
There have been efforts to try to set a national standard. "In the mid-'90s," says one researcher, South Carolina law professor Charles Phipps, "Congress was trying to say the states need to more aggressively prosecute statutory rape and raise the age of consent so we don't have more unwed teens having babies." It was both a money issue and a family-values issue. "The issue really ought to be protecting children. We need to draw a bright line to say anything under that is a crime. The easiest bright line would be 18."
But if Steve Simmons had met Sam Manzie on a sandy beach in, say, Honolulu, there would have been no crime. So why didn't Simmons go live in a place that lets you have sex with boys? "I had my life here," Simmons says. "I had not been involved with anyone else. I had gone through a year of depression. My business was getting ready to fold. That's when Sam came along."
The picture Simmons paints is that both he and Sam were vulnerable. And Simmons argues that he should be off the hook in any case because Sam has voiced no regrets about what happened between them.
Experts in child sexual abuse, especially those on the prosecution side, have heard that line before. After all, many battered wives wind up refusing to press charges against their murderous husbands. "If we were never going to prosecute because victims don't want to pursue it, we wouldn't be prosecuting many cases," says Victor Vieth, director for the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse.
"With adolescent victims," Phipps chimes in, "it's very common, especially with boys. Embarrassment. They might have legitimate affection for the person, but they don't want all their friends to know, don't want to have their names in the papers."
Most states don't differentiate between homosexual and heterosexual statutory-rape. "The states at this point are gender-neutral. The crime is adult versus child," says Phipps. But public perception isn't. Would Jerry Seinfeld still have been called the nation's most eligible bachelor if he had gone out with a 16-year-old peach-fuzzed boy instead of the 16-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein? What if Elvis had struck up a relationship with a 14-year-old boy instead of a girl named Priscilla? Would he have wound up on a stamp?
Adding to the further demonization of Simmons is that Suffolk County is charging him with sodomy. But that turns out to be just a matter of semantics. A state anti-sodomy law, referring to anal sex, was overturned by the New York State Court of Appeals in 1980. In the law under which Simmons is being prosecuted, "sodomy" means any sexual contact with anyone incapacitated or under the age of 17.
By that definition, Simmons was secretly breaking the law with Sam Manzie back in the fall of 1996. Out in the open, the rest of young Sam's life was deteriorating.
'He's meant to be afraid of me, not his parents or the police.'
Sam's grades began to slip at school and, during one five-week period in early '97, he retreated to his bed, apparently in a deep depression. The Christian Brothers Academy told the Manzies that Sam had to have therapy if they wanted him to continue there in the fall of '97.
A psychiatrist told Nick and Dolores that their son needed intensive help. He underwent counselingfive days a week, five-and-a-half hours a dayat the Shoreline Behavioral Health Center in Toms River. According to several accounts of this period, Sam's sexual activities weren't knownuntil, during one of his sessions, he told a counselor about the sexual relationship with Simmons. The counselor, under New Jersey law, reported it to state social-service authorities.
Of course, Sam's parents found out from the authorities. Then the cops came in, like gangbusters, with recording equipment and elaborate plans to catch Simmons in the act. Cops and prosecutors contend that Sam, at that stage, wanted to "get" Simmons. Detective Nobel, the lead investigator in the case, won't talk, but Assistant District Attorney Marc Fleidner calls the process "a standard investigation."
"He came to us with his parents and said we were fully on board to cooperatethat's the fact," Fleidner says. "Our policy is to never force a sexual-assault victim. There was obviously a change of heart."
The use of victims to catch perpetrators is hotly debated outside law-enforcement circles, but even the system's own advocates of the strategy acknowledge that there's no way to ensure that the victims are up to the task. "I don't think there's a bright-line rule: 'How mature is this kid? Are we confident this kid will do it?' " says Vieth. "Every human being is different."
By all published accounts, the Manzies were immediately convinced that Simmons had poisoned the soul of their child during the on-again, off-again contact during the previous year. Psychologist Charles McCaghy, though not writing specifically about Sam Manzie's case, is one of some experts in the field who see things in not quite so knee-jerk a fashion. In his dissertation Child Molesters, McCaghy wrote that "a great step will be made toward peace of mind and proper handling of the situation when parents also recognize that an incident of molesting is not likely to be traumatic for a child unless the parents themselves make it so."