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Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations: 10 things you should know

Comedian Bill Cosby has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two dozen women, in allegations that span five decades. While one civil suit against him has been public knowledge since 2005, it was largely ignored by fans and journalists. That changed when a comedian made reference to it in 2014 and the video went viral. Then, one after another, women from Cosby's past said publicly that he'd drugged and/or sexually assaulted them, or attempted to do so. The allegations, all of which Cosby has denied (although he has admitted in court documents to sexual relationships outside his marriage, and to giving sedative drugs to women before he had sex with them, he insists that his conduct was consensual) have tarnished his reputation. Meanwhile, the accusers' stories — often of events that took place decades ago — and the backlash against them have illustrated why so many women who are raped choose to remain silent.

There are a shocking number of sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby

Comedian Bill Cosby has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women over a period of several decades. The alleged victims tell similar stories, saying Cosby drugged them so that they were unable to fight off his attacks, or that they lost consciousness and awoke to discover or suspect he'd sexually assaulted them or was attempting to do so.

Several women came forward one after another in late 2014 and 2015, generating a widespread backlash against Cosby and discussion about why the story remained so quiet for so long.

While some allegations became public much earlier in a 2005 civil suit, those hadn't received wide attention. That changed when comedian Hannibal Buress used an October 2014 routine to draw public attention to the fact that Cosby was an accused rapist, and encouraging the audience to Google "Bill Cosby rape."

Inspired by that attention, a woman named Barbara Bowman wrote a November 2014 op-ed for the Washington Post, titled "Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?" A number of women came forward with similar stories in the following weeks and months.

Cosby, mostly speaking through a lawyer, has vehemently denied the allegations against him and even filed a counter-suit against one accuser. Still, the sheer volume and consistency of the allegations has tarnished the wholesome reputation he nurtured through The Cosby Show, and has stood in stark contrast to his later role as an outspoken social critic and philanthropist.

The inconsistency between his role as a public moralist and the conduct he was accused of was why, in July 2015, US District Court judge Eduardo Robreno unsealed a deposition from the 2005 lawsuit against Cosby, in which Cosby admitted to obtaining Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to have sex with and to giving at least one woman Benadryl before sex. Robreno wrote in his order,"The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist, and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter as to which the AP — and by extension the public — has a significant interest."

Then, in December 2015, Pennsylvania prosecutors charged Cosby with aggravated indecent assault, a first-degree felony — the first criminal charges against the comedian. The assault allegedly took place at Cosby's home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 2004.

Even before he was charged, Cosby had already suffered concrete consequences in the form of canceled engagements and syndication deals and severed professional relationships.

Meanwhile, the story has forced a conversation about rape culture that was larger than the specific allegations against Cosby or the veracity of his accusers' claims. In particular, many of the women's public statements highlighted the many forces that can keep sexual assault victims from coming forward, and the repercussions they face when they do.

The women's stories follow a similar, disturbing pattern

The dates of the alleged incidents span from the 1960s to the 2000s, but in many cases the women's stories often share the same basic narrative: Cosby offers a woman a cup of coffee or alcoholic beverage, after which he sexually assaults her while she is impaired or unconscious. In addition, a handful of other women have accused Cosby of drugging them without sexually assaulting them, or of inappropriate grabbing or kissing without drugging them.

The first public charges of assault came from Andrea Constand, who filed a 2005 civil suit against Cosby, as well as Tamara Green and Barbara Bowman, who provided testimony with similar charges. Eleven other anonymous women joined the suit with similar stories. The case settled out of court.

The women have told their stories of sexual assault in first-person pieces for magazines, interviews, and press conferences. Some have remained anonymous or only given their first names.

The women who have come forward include lawyers, waitresses, aspiring actresses, and fellow celebrities, such as models Janice Dickinson and Beverly Johnson. Some had dating relationships with Cosby, while others say they saw him as a mentor. Some accusers say they were in their teens when Cosby assaulted them, such as Renita Chaney Hill, who acted alongside Cosby on the children's program Picture Pages. That many of them say they saw Cosby as someone who was trustworthy, admirable, and professional is a reminder of the many seemingly safe situations that can lead to allegations of sexual assault, and that rape isn't something women can avoid by modifying their dress or avoiding "dangerous" situations.

A comedian's reference to the allegations against Cosby emboldened additional women to come forward

Several of the allegations against Cosby have been public for more than a decade after a 2005 civil suit. But for many years, the claims received little attention, and Cosby received little public scrutiny as the result of them. Mark Whitaker's September 2014 biography of Cosby completely ignored the charges.

That changed in October 2014, when comedian Hannibal Buress referenced the 2005 sexual assault allegations against Cosby in his stand-up routine. Buress made the case that Cosby was a hypocrite for being an outspoken critic of African-American culture when he had himself been accused of rape by multiple women. The jokes brought new attention to the allegations and to Cosby.

Buress's routine and its reception inspired Barbara Bowman, who'd been a witness in Constand's 2005 suit and spoken to People magazine about her allegations against Cosby in 2006. In November, she published a Washington Post op-ed titled "Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?" Her point: "Only after a man … called Bill Cosby a rapist in a comedy act last month did the public outcry begin in earnest."

Over the next year, dozens of other women went public with sexual assault allegations against Cosby. Some of them were among the previously anonymous Jane Doe witnesses in Constand's suit, while others had never spoken publicly about their claims before. Many of these new accusers said they were inspired by other women's bravery in breaking their silence about assaults that they said took place decades ago.

At this point, the impression that Cosby was guilty began to solidify. A Cosby meme generator launched in November 2014 by Cosby's PR team backfired on him, as social media users used it to mock him for being an alleged rapist.

It's also reasonable to assume that Cosby's accusers were encouraged by the public reaction to the 2014 conversation around Cosby's allegations, in which women were generally supported for speaking out rather than shamed or questioned, and most of the public scrutiny was directed at Cosby. Still, the fact that they found this reaction surprising — and that their expectation of public hostility kept them quiet for so long — shows much larger issues with rape culture.

In some ways, their years and decades of silence are just as their eventual decisions to speak out, as the time that passed shows the degree to which women assume they will be scrutinized or condemned for coming forward about sexual assault, and that perpetrators will go unpunished.

For about a decade, the allegations against Cosby were largely ignored

The sexual misconduct allegations against Cosby went largely undiscussed for many years because most of his accusers chose to remain anonymous or silent and the media gave the issue little coverage. A handful of allegations in a civil suit that settled out of court were easier to dismiss by Cosby fans and by journalists than a series of explicit public narratives delivered straight to the public from alleged victims.

Still, the fact that the allegations were ignored for so long — by journalists, by the networks that aired The Cosby Show, and by the audiences that enjoyed his comedy and welcomed his social criticism — reveals a larger societal problem whereby we give accused the benefit of the doubt in cases of rape and doubt or discount the stories of victims.

In fact, several of Cosby's accusers have said they didn't speak out sooner because of fear of not being believed or because they felt Cosby's influence and power would overshadow their stories. Due to stubborn myths about sexual assault, women's rape claims are frequently treated with skepticism, and accusers are often blamed for their own victimization, so it's no surprise they hesitated to come forward.

In retrospect, many people simply chose not to pay much attention to the claims against Cosby. One theory is that it was difficult for the public to square Cosby's wholesome image with the allegations against him, and so Americans collectively avoided grappling with the allegations. Rebecca Traister argued in the New Republic that both The Cosby Show's depiction of a middle-class black family and Cosby's second act as a social critic of African-American culture "made white people feel good about race," and served to inoculate Cosby from criticism.

The fact that Cosby enjoyed so many years of his career without having to face much public scrutiny on this topic is another reminder of the dynamics of rape culture: Women worry that they'll be ignored if they come forward, especially if their attacker is a powerful man — and they're often right.

Cosby has denied the allegations and questioned the motives of his accusers

Cosby, often speaking through his legal team, has consistently denied all of the sexual assault allegations against him and frequently suggested that they are absurd or manufactured specifically to harm him.

When he was asked about the accusations in a November 15, 2014, interview on NPR's Weekend Edition, he remained silent, shaking his head in response to questions. Later that month, John P. Schmitt, a lawyer for Cosby, made the following statement, which is typical of Cosby's team's responses:

Over the past several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Bill Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.

Also in November 2014, the Associated Press released footage of Cosby asking reporters to "scuttle" a portion of an interview where he refuses to respond to a question about the allegations.

Not long after, Cosby told Florida Today, "I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn't have to answer to innuendos. People should fact check. People shouldn't have to go through that and shouldn't answer to innuendos."

In a December 2014 statement to the New York Post's Page Six, he said he expected the black media to "remain neutral," urging African-American publications to "uphold the standards of excellence in journalism" in reporting on the allegations against him.

The only accuser with whom Cosby admits having had sex is Andrea Constand, but he insisted that it was consensual. His lawyer told CNN in 2005 that her rape allegations were "utterly preposterous" and "plainly bizarre."

"Looking back on it, I realize that words and actions can be misinterpreted by another person, and unless you're a supreme being, you can't predict what another individual will do," Cosby told the National Enquirer in March 2005. But he hinted that Constand was trying to "exploit" him because of his celebrity.

In December 2014, Cosby filed a lawsuit against accuser Judy Huth, saying she used the threat of a civil suit against him to extort him, and calling her allegations of a 1974 assault at the Playboy mansion when she was 15 years old "meritless and unsupported."

In July 2015, the Associated Press obtained court documents that included Bill Cosby's 2005 testimony that he obtained Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to women he wanted to have sex with. Cosby, testifying under oath in the lawsuit filed by Temple University employee Andrea Constand, admitted giving the drug to at least one woman, the AP reported. He also admitted to giving his accuser Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy medication that can cause drowsiness.

In a statement to ABC News regarding the documents, an attorney for Cosby said, "The only reason Mr. Cosby settled was because it would have been embarrassing in those days to put all those women on the stand and his family had no clue. That would have been very hurtful."

Later in July 2015, in additional court documents from Constand's suit against Cosby made available to the public, he does admit to giving drugs to women, saying "the same as any person would, say, have a drink," but he claims to have only given them Quaaludes with their knowledge. When asked, however, if Therese Serignese, a woman he is accused of assaulting in 1976, could consent to having sex with him after he gave her the drugs, he said, "I don't know."

To many observers, his responses have served to illustrate the character assassination that women risk when and if they go public with sexual assault allegations.

The sexual assault allegations have severely tarnished Cosby's reputation

Cosby has faced significant commercial and professional consequences over the allegations, costing him his Netflix special, a planned NBC show, and The Cosby Show's TV Land syndication deal, all of which were canceled after the wave of 2014 allegations.

In addition, several theaters, including the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the Virginia Theater in Illinois, and the Tarrytown Music Hall in New York, have canceled scheduled Cosby appearances.

The Navy stripped him of his honorary chief petty officer designation, and Spelman College suspended the Cosby Chair for the Humanities, which was established in the 1980s thanks in part to a $20 million donation by Cosby and his wife, Camille.

A vandal wrote "rapist" multiple times on Cosby's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Mark Whitaker, author of the recent Cosby biography, apologized for omitting the sexual assault allegations from the book, promising to pursue them "at the appropriate time."

He resigned from the board of trustees at Temple University in early 2015.

As MSNBC's Chris Hayes tweeted after Beverly Johnson came forward with her allegations in December 2014, it "feels like we've achieved 'first line in the obituary' status on the Cosby story."

It seemed very unlikely that Cosby would face criminal prosecution

It seemed very unlikely that Cosby would face criminal charges prior to the criminal charges filed in Pennsylvania in December 2015.

As Vox's Amanda Taub explained, statutes of limitations often prevent charges for crimes that took place too many years ago, and there were difficulties obtaining physical evidence.

But in December 2015, Pennsylvania prosecutors pressed charges for aggravated indecent assault for an alleged sexual assault that reportedly took place in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 2004, just meeting the 12-year statute of limitation in the state.

Still, sexual assault cases are difficult for prosecutors to win, often due to the lack of physical evidence. For instance, Andrea Constand attempted to pursue a criminal case against Cosby in 2005. The prosecutor for Montgomery County at the time, Bruce Castor, told CNN in a 2014 interview that he believed her allegations were credible, but he still declined to charge Cosby because he wasn't able to corroborate Constand's claims with blood tests or a rape kit.

The case in which Cosby testified in 2005 that he gave at least one woman a Quaalude with the intent of having sex with her, and the plaintiff — a Temple University employee — three Benadryl tablets before having sex with her, ultimately settled out of court. He also admitted in a deposition in that case that he gave drugs to women, saying "the same as any person would, say, have a drink," but he claims to have only given them Quaaludes with their knowledge. When asked, however, if Therese Serignese, a woman he is accused of assaulting in 1976, could consent to having sex with him after he gave her the drugs, he said, "I don't know."

Additional civil suits may be unlikely. The statutes of limitations are often even shorter — as short as one or two years — meaning that few of the allegations against Cosby likely occurred recently enough.

There are ways to get around the statute of limitations, but they are few. In California, for instance, lawsuits arising out of childhood sexual abuse can be filed within three years of the date when the victim discovers that the sexual abuse has caused a psychological injury or illness. Judy Huth alleges that Cosby molested her when she was 15, and has filed a lawsuit claiming that it's been less than three years since she discovered that her psychological injuries were the result of Cosby's actions.

It's incredibly unlikely that Cosby's accusers are simply seeking publicity

It's very unlikely that Cosby's accusers are simply seeking publicity.

One of the biggest myths about sexual assault is that false reports are rampant. This misconception is part of why women who tell their stories are so likely to have their motives questioned — as is happening now. In actuality, between 2 and 8 percent of rape allegations are proven false, according to various studies and interpretations of FBI data — not a very high percentage, and certainly not high enough to support the widespread skepticism that tends to surround rape allegations.

But really, even if the number were much higher, it wouldn't be a good reason to assume that any individual victim was lying about her experience. After all, people have lied about having their cars stolen plenty of times, but this doesn't lead us to question everyone whose car is stolen the way we do with rape victims.

Plus, Cosby himself admitted under oath in a 2005 lawsuit that he purchased Quaaludes to give to women who he wanted to have sex with, and said that he gave one woman Benadryl before having sex with her.

But — even without Cosby's admission — the bottom line is that it makes sense to approach individual rape allegations based on their particular facts. And here, people who question whether Cosby's accusers are simply seeking publicity are forgetting that making a false rape accusation is not a good way to get fame or fortune. One Twitter user put this well:

List of people who built a career on false rape allegations... pic.twitter.com/zVhQ09qRD4

— D’Banjilo (@FreedomReeves) November 22, 2014

It doesn't make a difference whether you keep watching The Cosby Show

If you believe the allegations against Cosby, can you still watch The Cosby Show? It depends. Some will be turned off by his tarnished reputation, while others will choose to separate real life from everything they loved about the Huxtables. There's not really a right answer. It just depends on who you are and what you value.

It's impossible to erase The Cosby Show from TV history. It's simply too vital to everything that's come since and too important to the medium as a whole. What's more, the show was about far more than just Cosby's performance.

It was a feminist landmark in its depiction of the cool, collected Clair Huxtable, and Phylicia Rashad's amazing performance shouldn't be diminished just because of the man she shares screen time with. Similarly, its groundbreaking portrayal of a warm, loving, affluent black family can't easily be scrubbed from history, nor can its affectionate portrayal of childhood at all its stages.

Separating art from the artist — or condemning art made by terrible people — is never a zero-sum game. You can find Cosby's alleged actions so appalling that you can't watch his show at all. You can also find his alleged actions appalling, yet find that they don't impact your ability to watch anything he's ever done — or even appreciate his standup.

If your concern is that Cosby will profit from the continued airings of The Cosby Show on networks that have not yet canceled it, you don't have much to worry about. While Cosby likely gets continued residuals (small profit percentages paid to various creative personnel who worked on a TV show) from syndicated reruns of the show, the vast majority of the money he makes on any syndication or streaming deals came upfront and was already paid. So, for instance, the money Hulu paid to Carsey-Werner to license the program in 2011 was most likely paid to him then.

The allegations against Cosby span five decades

These are some of the key events, in the order in which they occurred, based largely on Vulture's thorough timeline of the allegations and related events:

1960s:

  • Cosby drugs and assaults Joan Tarshis multiple times, according to her 2014 piece for Hollywood Elsewhere.
  • Cosby grabs and kisses Carla Ferrigno, according to her 2014 statement to RumorFix.
  • Cosby slips something into Kristina Ruehli's drink before attempting to force her to perform oral sex, according to her 2014 statement to Philadelphia Magazine.
  • Cosby drugs and rapes 21-year-old Cindra Ladd, according to her January 2015 essay for the Huffington Post.

  • Cosby drugs and sexually assaults model Linda Brown, according to her 2015 statement at a press conference organized by attorney Gloria Allred.

1970s:

  • Cosby rapes actress Louisa Moritz in a Tonight Show green room, according to her 2014 statement to TMZ.
  • Cosby drugs and sexually assaults Tamara Green, according to her 2005 Today Show interview.
  • Cosby attempts to drug Linda Joy Traitz according to her 2014 Facebook post.
  • Cosby drugs and rapes Therese Serignese, according to her 2014 statement to the Huffington Post. He says in 2005 court documents made public in July 2015 that he does not know whether she consented to having sex with him after he gave her Quaaludes.
  • Cosby drugs and sexually assaults Playboy Playmate Victoria Valentino and her friend, according to Valentino's 2014 statement to the Washington Post.
  • Cosby assaults 15-year-old Judy Huth at the Playboy Mansion, according to her 2014 statement to the Los Angeles Times. This claim later provides the basis of her 2014 civil suit against Cosby, and his suit against her for extortion.
  • Cosby drugs and rapes a woman named Patricia (who withheld her last name for privacy), one of the anonymous witnesses in Andrea Constand's eventual 2005 lawsuit, according to her 2015 interview with BuzzFeed News.

1980s:

  • Cosby drugs Beth Ferrier, according to her 2005 statement to the Philadelphia Daily News.
  • Cosby drugs and rapes supermodel Janice Dickinson, according to her 2014 Entertainment Tonight interview.
  • Cosby drugs Renita Chaney Hill, who appeared with Cosby on the children's program Picture Pages, on multiple occasions and kisses and touches her on at least one occasion, according to Hill's 2014 interview with CBS Pittsburgh.
  • Cosby drugs model Jewel Allison, places her hand on his penis, and kisses her, according to her 2014 statement to the New York Daily News.
  • Cosby drugs supermodel Beverly Johnson, according to her 2014 essay for Vanity Fair.
  • A 21-year-old aspiring model identified only as "Lisa" accepts two drinks from Cosby, blacks out after he strokes her hair, and doesn't recall anything else until she wakes up at home two days later, according to her 2014 interview with Dr. Phil.

  • Cosby drugs and sexually assaults model Lise-Lotte Lublin, according to her 2015 statement at a press conference organized by Gloria Allred.

  • For the second time, Cosby drugs and rapes a woman named Patricia (who withheld her last name for privacy), one of the anonymous witnesses in Andrea Constand's 2005 suit, according to her 2015 interview with BuzzFeed News.

  • Model Heidi Thomas wakes up in Cosby's bed to find him "forcing himself in [her] mouth," after accepting a glass of wine from the comedian that she says made her feel "foggy," according to her 2015 interview with CNN.

1990s:

  • Cosby asks model Angela Leslie to act intoxicated and forces her to masturbate him, according to her 2014 statement to the Daily News.

2004:

  • Cosby sexually assaults Andrea Constand, according to her 2005 lawsuit.

2005:

  • Andrea Constand tells Canadian authorities that Cosby sexually assaulted her in 2004.
  • Tamara Green says in a Today Show interview that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in the 1970s.
  • Authorities decline to bring criminal charges against Cosby based on Constand's claims.
  • Constand files a civil complaint against Cosby. Thirteen women with similar stories serve as anonymous Jane Doe witnesses.
  • Beth Ferrier, one of the Jane Does in the case, tells the Philadelphia Daily News that Cosby drugged her while they were in a relationship in the 1980s, and she woke up to find "my clothes were a mess. My bra was undone. My top was untucked."
  • Cosby drugs and sexually assaults Barbara Bowman, according to her 2005 Philadelphia Magazine interview.
  • According to court documents obtained by the Associated Press in 2015, Cosby testifies in a suit that will ultimately settle out of court that he bought Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to women he wanted to have sex with, and that he gave Benadryl to Constand, the plaintiff in the suit, before having sex with her. He says he gave drugs to women "the same as any person would, say, have a drink," but he claims to have only given them Quaaludes with their knowledge. When asked, however, if Therese Serignese, a woman he is accused of assaulting in 1976, could consent to having sex with him after he gave her the drugs, he says, "I don't know."

2006:

  • Barbara Bowman, another Jane Doe witness from Cosby's lawsuit, gives two interviews to Philadelphia Magazine alleging that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2005.
  • Cosby settles Andrea Constand's civil suit on undisclosed terms.

2008:

  • After accepting a drink from Cosby at the Playboy Mansion in 2008, 18-year-old Chloe Goins wakes up naked to find him licking her feet, with his pants around his ankles, according to her 2014 interview with the Daily Mail.

2014:

2015:

  • Cindra Ladd, a Hollywood film executive and charity activist, writes in a January 27 essay for the Huffington Post that Cosby drugged and raped her in 1969, when she was 21 years old.
  • At a Los Angeles press conference organized by Gloria Allred, two women speak out against Cosby: former model Linda Brown accuses him of drugging and sexually assaulting her at a Toronto hotel in 1969, when she was 20 years old. After she accepted a drink from him, "he flipped me over and sexually assaulted me," she says. At the same press conference, model Lise-Lotte Lublin accuses Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting her at a Las Vegas hotel in 1989, when she was 23 years old. She says she remembers regaining consciousness at home after accepting a drink from Cosby.
  • Former model Heidi Thomas tells CNN that in 1984, she woke up in Cosby's bed to find him "forcing himself in [her] mouth," after accepting a glass of wine from the comedian that she says made her feel "foggy."

  • A woman named Patricia (who withheld her last name for privacy), one of the formerly anonymous witnesses in Andrea Constand's 2005 suit against Cosby, tells BuzzFeed News that Cosby drugged and raped her in once 1978 (when she says woke up naked at Cosby's home after he asked her to "pretend to be an elegant queen with oatmeal dripping all over her face") and again in 1980 (when she says she woke up "very sick and knew that someone had penetrated me" after spending the evening with Cosby).

  • In another press conference organized by Allred, Sunni Wells and Margie Shapiro accused Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were teens working in California.

  • At yet another press conference organized by Allred, three more women accused Cosby of sexual assault during the 1970s and 1980s: Janice Baker-Kinney, Marcella Tate, and Autumn Burns.

  • Writer Sammie Mays and actress Lili Bernard said, at a press conference set up by Allred, that Cosby assaulted them during the 1980s and 1990s.

  • The Associated Press reported on a 2005 deposition in which Cosby said he had purchased Quaaludes, a type of sedative, with the intent of giving them to women he planned to have sex with. Cosby didn't admit that he gave the sedative to women without their permission.

  • Thirty-five Bill Cosby accusers appeared on the New York magazine cover.

  • More accusers come out in a press conference with Allred: actress Linda Ridgeway Whitedeer, former flight attendant Colleen Harris, and actress Eden Tirl.

  • Three more accusers speak out in yet another press conference with Allred: waitress Sharon Van Ert, model Pamela Abeyta, and model Lisa Christie.

  • Two more women speak out: an actress who identifies herself only as Dottye, and comedian Donna Barrett.

  • Pennsylvania prosecutors charge Cosby for an alleged sexual assault with aggravated indecent assault, a first-degree felony — the first criminal charges against the comedian. The assault allegedly took place at Cosby's home near Philadelphia in 2004.

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