Earlier this week, a horrifying story about a woman’s rape on Philadelphia public transit went viral. Police said that the woman’s assault was witnessed by passengers who filmed the attack instead of intervening or calling the police. “I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman,” said Timothy Bernhardt, the superintendent of the Upper Darby Township Police Department. The story ran everywhere CNN to the New York Times to Fox News. There’s just one problem. There’s no evidence that’s what happened.
“That is simply not true — it did not happen,” said District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer of Delaware County. Stollsteimer says security footage doesn’t back up the police narrative of “calloused” passengers declining to get involved in a woman’s attack. Instead, footage shows that while a “handful” of passengers may have been on the car at the time of the assault, it’s not clear they were aware of what was happening. Two passengers may have took footage, one of whom then “probably” called the police.
“This is the El, guys. We’ve all ridden it,” Stollsteimer said. “People get off and on at every single stop. That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know a rape is occurring.”
“People in this region are not in my experience, so inhuman — callous human beings that they’re going to sit there and just watch this happen,” he continued.
Police have arrested Fiston Ngoy and charged him with sexually assaulting and raping a passenger.
The story bears striking similarity to the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. At the time, the New York Times reported that at least 38 people witnessed Genovese’s murder in a parking lot outside her apartment complex, but none bothered to intervene. The incident gave rise to what’s known as “Genovese syndrome” or the Bystander Effect — the idea that most people can’t be counted on to help others in duress.
But the Genovese story also turned out to be untrue. It’s not clear exactly how many people witnessed Genovese’s attack but it was far fewer than originally reported, and at least a few of them called the police. And instead of being calloused, bystanders were horrified. One elderly woman went into the street and cradled Genovese in her arms while she died.
The Times retracted its story in 2016, saying it had “grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived.” But, like the story in Philadelphia, the lie had already sunk so deeply into the public consciousness that there is little the truth could do to displace it.
Stories like this do harm to our faith in our fellow human beings. We start thinking of the people around us as inherently cold-hearted, uncaring creatures who can’t be bothered to get involved in anything that doesn’t concern them. This, of course, flies in the face of actual lived experience, which tells us most people are pretty nice and would help us if we were in trouble. We were made in the image of God, and although we’re fallen, that spark hasn’t been totally extinguished. Part of loving your neighbor means giving them at least a base amount of respect to trust that they would care if someone else was being murdered.
As always, any news story that sounds unbelievable should be questioned. Reporters can make mistakes. Police statements can be self-serving. And “bystanders” can often be counted on to help people out.