Giving a voice to childhood sex abuse victims

On the heels of the con­vic­tion of a high-rank­ing Cath­ol­ic church of­fi­cial, vet­er­an at­tor­neys and a vic­tims' ad­voc­ate en­cour­age child­hood sexu­al ab­use vic­tims to speak up.

Phil­adelphia Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams says Wil­li­am Lynn’s 3-6 year sen­ten­cing is ap­pro­pri­ate and en­cour­ages oth­er vic­tims of sexu­al mo­lesta­tion to step for­ward,Tues­day, Ju­ly 24, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

Be si­lent no more.

Child­hood sexu­al ab­use vic­tims should come for­ward and tell their stor­ies, Phil­adelphia’s dis­trict at­tor­ney, Seth Wil­li­ams, said on Tues­day. Wil­li­ams was fresh off the con­vic­tion and sen­ten­cing of Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn, the first high-rank­ing Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church of­fi­cial to be ordered to pris­on for pro­tect­ing pred­at­or priests.

Wil­li­ams prom­ised that if the crimes against chil­dren were com­mit­ted with­in the stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions, they will be pro­sec­uted. Wil­li­ams made the plea for more re­port­ing in a news con­fer­ence held out­side the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter where Lynn, 61, had just been sen­tenced to three to six years in pris­on for shield­ing a priest who had mo­les­ted a child.

Vet­er­an at­tor­neys and a vic­tims’ ad­voc­ate offered an even more ag­gress­ive view in in­ter­views later in the week. They said vic­tims shouldn’t worry about the stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions, or even about gath­er­ing evid­ence against their ab­users.

“When you’re in pain and have lived in pain for years and you’re ready to dis­close [how you were ab­used], al­most any ac­tion beats no ac­tion at all,” said Dav­id Clo­hessy, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Sur­viv­ors Net­work of those Ab­used by Priests. “What’s im­port­ant it that you speak up, not that you speak up per­fectly or thor­oughly.”

The stat­ute of lim­it­a­tions, the law that lays out a dead­line for when cer­tain crimes may be pro­sec­uted, is com­plic­ated for sex crimes, said James Car­penter, chief of the Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Fam­ily Vi­ol­ence and Sexu­al As­sault unit. 

In gen­er­al, vic­tims have up to age 50 in crim­in­al cases and up to age 30 in civil cases.

The stat­ute has been amended, Car­penter said, so wheth­er their ab­use can be pro­sec­uted is something vic­tims should let the DA’s of­fice fig­ure out. Re­port the ab­use; call the po­lice, he said. 

Fur­ther, even if a crime is too old to yield an ar­rest, the mo­lester named might already be the sub­ject of a cur­rent pro­sec­u­tion and whatever in­form­a­tion an­oth­er vic­tim dis­closes might help that case, Car­penter said. 

“Per­pet­rat­ors typ­ic­ally have many vic­tims,” said Marci Hamilton, an at­tor­ney who rep­res­ents vic­tims in eight civil cases against the Phil­adelphia Arch­diocese. “Every re­port can help with cor­rob­or­a­tion in oth­ers cases.”

“Don’t wait,” Clo­hessy said. Po­lice might tell a vic­tim they’ve had many com­plaints about a par­tic­u­lar mo­lester.

It’s very rare that a mo­lester has only one vic­tim, Car­penter said. The av­er­age seri­al pe­do­phile might have ab­used 80 to 100 chil­dren.

Adults who were mo­les­ted when they were chil­dren should put aside any mis­giv­ings about re­port­ing their ab­use be­cause they don’t re­call ex­act dates or don’t have a lot of in­form­a­tion to give pro­sec­utors, Clo­hessy said.

“Pro­sec­utors un­der­stand that vic­tims are suf­fer­ing, nervous and fear­ful of be­ing dis­be­lieved,” Clo­hessy said in a phone in­ter­view from his of­fice in St. Louis. “So, they’re not put off by a vic­tim say­ing ‘I don’t re­mem­ber what year it was.’ ”

Sexu­al-ab­use in­vest­ig­at­ors are trained in in­ter­view­ing people who have sur­vived that ab­use, Hamilton said. 

“If the sur­viv­or has doc­u­ment­a­tion re­gard­ing dates or loc­a­tions, that can be help­ful, but this is not ne­ces­sary,” she said.

Is dis­ap­point­ment pos­sible? Yes. Charges have to be proved bey­ond a reas­on­able doubt, Hamilton said. 

“Some­times, dis­trict at­tor­neys will de­term­ine that, al­though they be­lieve the sur­viv­or, there is not enough evid­ence to press crim­in­al charges,” she said. And, some­times, jur­ies don’t con­vict.

Still, Hamilton said, vic­tims should re­port their ab­users.

“Child sex ab­users don’t stop ab­us­ing simply be­cause they age. Some ab­use chil­dren in­to their 70s and 80s,” she said. “So any sur­viv­or who comes for­ward, even years after the ab­use, can stop the per­pet­rat­or from harm­ing an­oth­er child.”

People who were sexu­ally ab­used when they were chil­dren of­ten don’t come for­ward to re­port what happened to them un­til they are in their twen­ties or older, Car­penter said.

They have chil­dren them­selves, he said, and when they con­sider the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of their own chil­dren, they real­ize they want to re­port the people who ab­used them.

They feel guilty, Car­penter said. “The real­ity is that it’s not right for them to carry that guilt.”

Pennsylvania’s le­gis­lature, he said, re­cently ap­proved le­gis­la­tion that will al­low at­tor­neys to call ex­pert wit­nesses to testi­fy about the be­ha­vi­or of the vic­tims of child ab­use.

“We are the last state to have this,” he said.

Pro­sec­utors en­counter many mis­con­cep­tions about sexu­al ab­use of chil­dren, he said.

For ex­ample, mo­lesters don’t look like mon­sters, and “they’re not stu­pid,” he said.

People also ex­pect to see evid­ence of phys­ic­al in­jury to chil­dren who are raped or sod­om­ized, he said, but that’s not al­ways true. Only in a small per­cent­age of cases in which a young girl is raped is the hy­men dam­aged, he said.

Also, “a lay per­son would ex­pect if a nine-year-old is raped, he’s go­ing to tell some­body,” but that isn’t al­ways go­ing to hap­pen either, Car­penter said.

Most vic­tims know their ab­users, Car­penter said. They might trust their mo­lesters and don’t real­ize what is hap­pen­ing to them is wrong, so they don’t tell any­one. Or, per­haps, they are afraid of not be­ing be­lieved.

And chil­dren who re­port ab­use while they’re be­ing ab­used some­times take their stor­ies back, he said.

“Kids will re­cant be­cause they want things to go back to nor­mal,” he said. 

Par­ents don’t want to be­lieve their chil­dren are be­ing mo­les­ted, and that helps the mo­lesters, he said.

“It’s hard to ima­gine that your hus­band or your boy­friend is do­ing something in your house,” Car­penter said. “These guys rely on this.”••

Are you a vic­tim 

of sexu­al ab­use?

Call 911, or call the Phil­adelphia Po­lice De­part­ment’s Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit at 215-685-3251, or the Child Ab­use Unit at 215-685-3268.

Reach re­port­er John Loftus at 215 354-3110 or jlot­

You can reach at

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