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Experts: Penn State case gives abuse victims courage to speak

Since the child sex-abuse scandal broke at Penn State 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 hotlines, and contacting attorneys.

Since the child sex-abuse scandal broke at Penn State 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 hotlines, 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 allegations came to light, its online hotline providing confidential support for victims ( 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 the last few 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.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), based in Chicago, reported that in the last six weeks, it had been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from survivors, many breaking their silence for the first time.

"The real enemy in the child safety struggle is surely," said David Clohessy, SNAP's executive director. "Surely, after all those lawsuits, surely after all those priests were ousted, no day-care center or athletic program or school or church or scouting group would ignore or conceal child sex crimes anymore."

Penn State gave the lie to that assumption, which helped survivors in several ways.

"Whenever high-profile predators in a particular occupation or setting are exposed, especially in rapid succession, some victims abused in the same setting or by the same type of perpetrator come forward out of hope," Clohessy said.

Since the 1980s, revelations about pedophile priests have prompted other victims to speak up over time. But now - with the frenzied media focus on former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was arrested Nov. 5, followed by the firing of Syracuse University associate basketball coach Bernie Fine - the reaction has been sudden, dramatic, and on a much larger scale.

"Millions of people are Catholics, but millions of others are parents of kids who have been in sports. . . . The odds are very, very high you've had a son or daughter who would have found Jerry Sandusky or Bernie Fine or their local equivalent an absolute magnet."

Hamilton, too, 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.' "

Hamilton testified this month before the Pennsylvania legislature, which is considering several bills to strengthen requirements to report suspected abuse. She is also one of the lawyers in a civil case filed by the 11th victim who alleged Sandusky sexually assaulted him.

One of the major reasons victims keep their abuse secret is fear, Clohessy said. Fear that they will not be believed. Fear that they will be seen as complicit. Fear that they will be judged harshly.

"While it's extraordinarily hard for any child-sex-abuse victim to come forward, there's another layer of complexity and shame when it's same-gender abuse. It doesn't surprise us at all that in the macho world of athletics, victims are especially slow to come forward," he said.

Penn State's experience has made disclosure easier for victims. The scandal also seems to have tipped public opinion, 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, 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."

Few victims who have only recently found the courage to seek help are ready to speak publicly. "It's still too raw," said Katherine Hull, director of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which refers victims to local agencies and therapists.

Healing is as gradual as it is painful, said Charles Crawford, who filed a suit in late November against the Boston Red Sox.

In the 1980s, when Crawford was a teenager working as a clubhouse attendant, he said, he was sexually assaulted by the clubhouse manager, Donald Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick, who died in 2005, admitted being a pedophile, pleaded guilty in a 2002 case in Florida, and was the subject of a $3.15 million lawsuit that the team settled in 2003.

"Penn State definitely made me know I wasn't alone," Crawford said, "that other kids that had great opportunities like I did were abused and that there are dangerous people around."

Some victims never recover.

"When I heard about Penn State, I figured, 'What else is new?' " said James Meunier, 70, who was abused as a child by a priest in Massachusetts and who told no one about it for most of his life.

"I'm a firm believer in, let's see what really comes out of all this. Are these victims making it up? Is it real? I don't know. I'm in my own shoes, and I only know what happened to me. Some people could make that up for money. I don't put anything past anybody. I don't trust anybody."