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Spotlight Report

Sex abuse victims prompted to emerge

Church scandal seen as catalyst

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 7/22/2002

Publicity from the clergy sexual abuse scandal has encouraged other sexual abuse victims to step forward, with most making allegations against family members, according to victims' advocates and prosecutors.

Specialists say most of the sexual abuse of children is committed by relatives or caregivers, and prosecutors say the increase in reporting continues to bear out that trend.

At the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, counselors said they saw an 80 percent increase in calls in January and February, when the initial reports of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston Archdiocese appeared in the Globe, touching off a tidal wave of publicity. Since that time, the increase in calls has slowed only slightly - 336 calls in March compared with 241 last year, 326 calls in April versus 210 last year, and 240 calls in May compared with 206 last year.

Susan Vickers, director of the Victims Rights Law Center, said there is anecdotal evidence that many of the additional reports have been prompted by the clergy abuse scandal.

''I don't know how many of the people coming out are making that direct link, but some are. People often don't know why they are coming forward,'' she said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said his office has also seen an increase in sexual abuse reports, especially of adults who allege they were abused as children.

''I surmise that when all the publicity about the abuse by Catholic clergy came out, people got in touch with their own feelings,'' said Conley. ''There was suddenly a climate in which there was nothing to be ashamed about. Two or three or four years ago, I don't think you would have seen grown men crying about abuse that occured when they were kids. I think the climate is now that you can come forward more comfortably.''

In all of 2001, Suffolk County officials got reports from 20 adults making allegations about abuse they suffered as children. In the first six months of this year, there have been 16 such cases. ''In nearly all of these cases, the allegations are made against biological relatives. One is a stepparent, another nonfamily. But it's almost all in family,'' said David Procopio, a spokesman for Conley.

While some other prosecutors reported a spike in cases, which they attribute to the attention paid the clergy abuse scandal, others said they see no change.

In Middlesex County, there has been a 20 percent rise in reports of sexual abuse this year over last, but District Attorney Martha Coakley said 140 of the 200 extra cases this year involve complaints against priests. Still, Coakley said those 60 extra cases of nonclergy abuse suggest ''people are coming forward because of the priest cases.''

Essex County District Attorney Kevin M. Burke said he has seen no surge in reports.

''The bulk of our sexual abuse reports have always come from DSS and are almost always family related,'' said Burke. ''We get several hundred each year.''

Berkshire County District Attorney Gerard D. Downing said he has seen no increase, nor has Gerald T. FitzGerald, trial counsel for Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. FitzGerald said Bristol County saw a spike a decade ago, when the case of former priest James Porter, a notorious pedophile, attracted widespread attention.

''We saw a big jump then, but not this time,'' said FitzGerald. ''I think the people that would have come out now already came out back then.''

Jenny Rabbitt, a victim witness advocate in the Suffolk County child abuse unit, said the publicity surrounding the clergy abuse scandal has empowered victims to step forward after years of suffering in silence.

''We've seen an increase in reports, not overwhelming in absolute numbers, but the increase coincides with the reports of clergy abuse,'' she said. ''In part, it's an increased public awareness. Some of the issues are the same. It's a trusted adult, whether a family member, a teacher, or a coach. It's almost always an adult who the child knew and trusted.''

She said the victims of family members are facing the same emotional minefields as those abused by clergy.

''Guilt, shame, self-blame, whether you're a survivor of clergy abuse or other forms of abuse, are the same issues,'' she said.

Rabbitt said the attention paid to the clergy scandal has helped ease the isolation of many other victims. ''I think it helps adult survivors to realize they are not alone,'' she said.

But Rabbitt said prosecutors face similar statute-of-limitations hurdles in prosecuting the increase in reports of long-ago abuse. ''We do have some active investigations. Not every adult case is time barred,'' she said.

While interviewing victims, Rabbitt has noticed another trend. ''With clergy cases, we tend to see serial predators,'' she said. ''With the other cases, you don't see the same number of victims.''

As with prosecutors, some lawyers who represent victims of sexual abuse say they have see a huge increase in reports over the last six months, while others notice no difference.

Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who now represents victims, said, ''I've noticed an increase, and I also noticed an increase back in the early '90s, after the Porter case.

''In an atmosphere like this, with so many credible allegations against a powerful group, the credibility tide rises, especially for those victimized by powerful people, like doctors or lawyers. We've never made people comfortable with the idea of coming forward and speaking out against men in positions of authority, including husbands, doctors, therapists, lawyers, priests, teachers. We've taught victims that they are most likely to be seen as credible if there are more of them. It shouldn't be that way, strength in numbers, but that's our society,'' she said.

Lawyer Jeffrey A. Newman said he's seen a slight rise in reports on other authority figures, including a woman who said reading stories about priests emboldened her to come forward and make a complaint against her physician.

Lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who represents 86 alleged victims of the serial pedophile and former priest John J. Geoghan, said his office has been deluged with people who say they were inspired by the stories of those who suffered at the hands of priests.

''We've had loads come forward with allegations .... And it's not just about sexual abuse,'' he said. ''I've been getting calls from people who have been beaten up by the system, divorced, hurt by courts. The underdogs are calling.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 7/22/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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