High-profile sex abuse cases give victims courage to speak, experts say
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PHILADELPHIA -- Since the child sex-abuse scandal broke at Penn State University in November, victims of sexual abuse -- many of whom had remained silent about their suffering for years -- have been speaking up across the country, seeking counseling, calling hot lines and contacting attorneys.
An unprecedented increase in reports of abuse seems to have been inspired by the fall from grace of the university's revered football coach, Joe Paterno, and the school's president, Graham B. Spanier.
"If the powerful come down, the powerless really do feel they have a shot," said Marci A. Hamilton, a lawyer from Bucks County and author of "Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children."
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reported that in November, after the Penn State scandal broke, its online hot line providing confidential support for victims ( www.online.rainn.org ) had the busiest month since it started in 2006. The average of 2,500 sessions a month jumped to 3,100.
Jeff Herman, a lawyer in Miami who represents victims of sexual abuse, says his website, which ordinarily receives 5,000 hits a month, got 15,000 in November.
In recent weeks, two Pennsylvania politicians have come forward as victims.
During testimony Dec. 5 before the state Committee on Children and Youth, Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, D-Phila., said that when she was a child, she endured eight years of sexual abuse by two uncles.
Four days later, at a debate among Pennsylvania Republicans hoping to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, Vietnam veteran Dave Christian said he had been abused sexually when he was 7. Shortly after, a second candidate, retired Army Sgt. Robert Mansfield, said the issue was personal for him as well, but he would not elaborate.
Ms. Hamilton said that in the Catholic priest cases, hardly any bishops lost their job for covering up abuse. "That sends a message to victims," she said. "It's all about power. Part of what's going on is Penn State's response. Regardless of what they did before the grand jury [report] came out, they have said that 'we believe the survivors enough to fire Joe Paterno, our legendary football coach.' "
Since the Penn State scandal broke, disclosure has become easier. The scandal also seems to have tipped public opinion, Ms. Hamilton said: "There is this sense that something needs to be done and needs to be done now."
During a recent television appearance with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Ms. Hamilton was asked, "So what should we do?"
When she replied, "Get rid of the statute of limitations," she said, "the entire audience started applauding. I was amazed. ... We weren't seeing this kind of tone in the public before Penn State. Now most people have the view: Protect the kids or else. That's new."
First Published December 25, 2011 12:00 am