05/09/2014 08:08 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

SVU Takes on Woody Allen, Child Sex Abuse and the Nature of Doubt

In this powerful episode, SVU captured in one hour much of the pain, controversy and ambiguity of the decades-long Woody Allen / Dylan Farrow child-sex abuse case. The show explored how hard these cases are to prosecute, and how the effects of abuse linger forever in a child's life.

Verdict: A


A director named Frank leaves his middle-aged actress wife, Katherine, and takes up with her barely-legal sister, Rose. In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, Frank and Katherine's little girl, Chelsea, tells her mother that Frank molested her. Mom takes her to a pediatrician, who loops in the police. Our detectives try to figure out whether Katherine is using Chelsea as a pawn in the divorce, or whether Frank is a serial pedophile. They conclude the latter, and charge him with sexually abusing Chelsea. Frank skips town in the middle of his trial, and, a la Roman Polanski, flies to Paris, where he publicly paws Rose. He is convicted despite his absence. Katherine takes a public victory lap, while Chelsea grimaces at the assembled paparazzi.

This story mirrored the Woody Allen scandal. In 1992, Allen left his wife, Mia Farrow, for Farrow's 20-year-old daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. The same year, Farrow's 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, reported that Allen molested her. Unlike tonight's show, Dylan's charges were never adjudicated in a criminal court. The DA declined to prosecute, noting how hard a trial would be on Dylan.

Allen sued Farrow for custody of Dylan, which he lost. You can read the judge's scathing condemnation of Allen's conduct. That judge concluded that "we will probably never know what occurred" that day.

As Natalie Shure of The Atlantic put it:

There is something inherently imbalanced about a child abuse case. The very secrecy that makes the truth "unknowable" is an instrument of the crime. With no witnesses or credible legal evidence, the "he said/she said" conundrum prevails. The assailant knows this, and he can use it to his advantage.

To this day, Dylan maintains that Allen abused her; to this day, Allen denies it -- most recently, in open letters published in the New York Times. Click here for "10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody-Allen Sex-Assault Allegation," in which the author rebuts several of the factual claims in Allen's letter.

Tonight's episode took several real details from the Allen/Farrow case and fictionalized them for this story (the attic in Farrow's case became a laundry room on SVU; the missing underwear in Farrow's case became missing tights; a gory Valentine Farrow gave Allen became a bloody statue). But the show also got some larger truths right. It showed the ambiguity in these cases, how hard it is to know exactly what happened. It showed how a family can be torn apart. And it deftly showed how the little girl whom this happened to will continue live in its shadow for the rest of her life.