Sexual Abuse

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Sexual Abuse

Illegal sex acts performed against a minor by a parent, guardian, relative, or acquaintance.

Sexual abuse is a general term for any type of sexual activity inflicted on a child by someone with whom the child is acquainted. It is considered an especially heinous crime because the abuser occupies a position of trust. Until the 1970s the prevalence of sexual abuse was seriously underestimated. Growing awareness of the problem led legislatures to enact reporting requirements, which mandate that any professional person (doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker) who knows or has reason to believe that a child is being abused report this information to the local Welfare agency or law enforcement department. Statistics vary widely about the level of sexual abuse, but most researchers agree that it occurs at a higher rate than previously believed. Experts on the subject estimate that more than 130,000 children a year are sexually abused in the United States.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse are prosecuted under state Criminal Law statutes that have been toughened for sexual assaults on minors. The prosecution of reported sexual abuse has required children to testify in court about the abuse. Children are often unwilling to testify against the abuser, who may be a family member and may exert control over their victim. To relieve these pressures, courts have allowed the use of closed-circuit television to protect the child witness from the trauma of testifying in court before the defendant, expanded the Hearsay evidence exception to allow testimony about what the child said if the child lacks a motive to lie or if the child uses sexual terminology unexpected of a child, and made rules that suspended the Statute of Limitations until the abusive conduct is discovered.

During the 1980s a rash of sexual abuse cases involving day care centers drew national attention. The McMartin preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, which began in 1984, accused a group of day care employees of sexual abuse and bizarre rituals of animal sacrifice. Though none of the defendants was ever convicted, similar allegations around the United States resulted in 113 convictions.

A difference of opinion exists within the legal and medical communities over the truthfulness of child witness testimony in sexual abuse cases. Prosecutors and some health professionals argue that children do not lie. Defense attorneys and social researchers contend that faulty interviewing by parents, psychologists, and law enforcement can lead children to make up stories. Leading questions and demands that a child reveal abuse can press the child into making false statements in order to please the questioner.

The debate over child witnesses has led many law enforcement agencies to develop standard investigatory protocols that seek to prevent contamination of the child's testimony. Interviews are routinely videotaped to document the interview process.

Apart from criminal remedies, in the 1980s Child Abuse victims gained the ability to sue their abusers for damages. Before that time, civil remedies were available only for child victims who filed claims soon after attaining the age of majority. State courts and legislatures accepted the concept of repressed memory, in which traumatic episodes are repressed by the victim for many years. As of 2003, in more than 23 states, adults who "recover" their memories of childhood sexual abuse, either spontaneously or through psychiatric and psychological counseling, may bring a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator. These states have rewritten their laws to start the statute of limitations from the time the victim knows or has reason to know that sexual abuse occurred.

During the 1980s and 1990s, many lawsuits were filed using these new laws. Adults successfully sued a number of Roman Catholic priests for sexual abuse that the victims had endured many years before. Health professionals argued that the victims needed the lawsuits as much for therapeutic as legal reasons. Confronting the abuser and holding the abuser accountable for the actions is a significant step for the victim, who often feels shame, guilt, and responsibility for the abuse.

However, a controversy arose over the validity of recovered memories. The dispute centers on memories that are coaxed or brought forth through the efforts of therapists. Some experts in law and mental health question the veracity of these memories and challenge their use as the evidentiary basis for lawsuits over conduct that allegedly occurred years, and sometimes decades, in the past. They contend that these are "implanted memories," brought about by hypnosis, truth serums, and therapists' suggestive remarks. They are also troubled that therapists may be allowed to testify as expert witnesses, when there is no Scientific Evidence to support their theories regarding recovered memories.

Child Testimony in Day Care CEnter Sexual Abuse Cases

Between 1983 and 1991, a series of cases involving allegations of sexual abuse by day care center workers drew national attention. During this period, investigations of suspected sexual abuse of preschool children by their teachers took place in more than 100 U.S. cities. Many persons were convicted of crimes, but others were either acquitted or had their convictions overturned on appeal. The key issue in these cases was whether the children involved had told the truth or whether their testimony had been tainted by the way they were interviewed by parents, social workers, and psychologists. Though this type of multiple victim, multiple offender sexual abuse charge has disappeared, the issue of the credibility of children discussing sexual matters and sexual abuse remains a charged issue.

The most famous case involved the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. In 1984 authorities charged Virginia McMartin, age 76; her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey; her grandson Raymond Buckey; a granddaughter; and three female teachers with sexually abusing 120 children. The children reported violent rituals where rabbits were mutilated and the children were forced to touch corpses. Eventually prosecutors dropped charges for lack of evidence against everyone except Peggy Buckey and her son Raymond. They went on trial in 1987.

In January 1990, after the longest (two-and-a-half years) and most expensive ($15 million) criminal trial in U.S. history, Peggy and Raymond Buckey were acquitted on 52 counts of Child Molestation. The jury deadlocked on 12 counts of molestation against Raymond Buckey and on one count of conspiracy against both defendants. The charge against Peggy Buckey was dismissed, but Raymond was retried on 8 of the 13 counts. In July 1990 his second trial ended in a mistrial, and the case was finally dismissed.

The McMartin preschool case revealed troubling questions about the way the investigation had been conducted and how evidence had been obtained from young children. The initial allegation of abuse was made by a mother later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. She accused Raymond Buckey of molesting her son. The police investigated and declined to file charges because of lack of evidence. The Manhattan police chief then sent a letter to the 200 parents of past or present McMartin pre-school students and alleged that Buckey may have molested their children. Parents were urged to question their children about any sexual abuse.

The letter caused a panic. Hundreds of children were given medical exams and interviewed by a group of psychologists at a counseling center. During these interviews, children were asked leading and suggestive questions and were rewarded for giving the "right" answers. Children reported bizarre events, including being taken into subterranean passages at the school where animal sacrifices were performed. No passages nor any traces of animal sacrifices were found at the school. Several children reported that they were taken on airplanes and molested.

At trial the jurors had difficulty distinguishing between fact and fantasy in the children's accounts. The prosecution argued that children seldom lie about abuse but that they are often reluctant to disclose what has happened to them. Therefore, the prosecution said, a therapist interviewing a child will often use suggestive questioning, prompting, and manipulation to encourage the child to disclose the truth about sexual abuse. As for the bizarre tales, they were simply the children's way of dealing with what had happened to them. The jurors did not accept these explanations, expressing concern that the children's testimony had been influenced by adults. The videotapes of the interviews showed therapists asking leading questions and the children appearing to try to provide answers that would please the interviewers.

Prosecutors and many therapists contend that children rarely lie about sexual abuse and that the implanting of false memories through leading and suggestive questions is unlikely. They worry that refusing to believe children's testimony victimizes the children a second time and sends a message that society does not want to hear about sexual abuse.

Others are more skeptical. About 20 studies have shown that suggestive questioning about events that never happened can contaminate young children's memories with fantasies. When police, social workers, therapists, and prosecutors conduct multiple interviews, details they provide in their questions and statements are likely to find their way into the statements of children. Children will use their imagination and confabulate stories that are richly detailed but are a mix of fact and fantasy. This is not to say that children are not to be believed. Children rarely lie when they spontaneously disclose abuse on their own or when a person seeks the complete story with the least probing or leading yes-no questions.

The McMartin preschool outcome has forced investigators to learn better ways of asking children questions. Many interviewers are trained to gain a child's trust, evaluate the child's ability to remember and give details of past events, and let the child tell what happened in her own words. Interviews are generally videotaped to allow both the prosecution and the defense to evaluate the investigator's methods.

Further readings

DeBenedictis, Don J. 1990. "McMartin Preschool's Lessons: Abuse Case Plagued by Botched Investigation, Too Many Counts." ABA Journal 76 (April).

Goldberg, Marion Zenn. 1990. "Child Witnesses: Lessons Learned from the McMartin Trials." Trial 26 (October).

Moss, Debra Cassens. 1987. "Are the Children Lying?" ABA Journal 73 (May).

A 1994 California lawsuit by Gary Ramona was the first case in the United States in which an alleged abuser won a large damages award against the therapist who had treated his child. Ramona's daughter Holly had filed suit, accusing her father of sexually molesting her when she was a child. As a result of the lawsuit and the charges, Ramona's wife divorced him and he lost his high-paying job. He argued that Holly's recollections were the result of the psychiatrist's giving her the hypnotic drug sodium amytal and then eliciting from her confabulations, or false but coherent memories spliced together from true events, that convinced Holly that she had been abused by her father. The jury agreed with the father, awarding him $500,000. The jury concluded that the recovered memories were unreliable and that the methods used to elicit them were improper.

The issue of sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests generated substantial interest beginning in 2000 when the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to 22 plaintiffs who alleged that they had been abused by Father Maurice Grammond. The victims, ranging in age from 39 to 71, initially sued for $44 million. They claimed that the then 80-year-old Grammond had abused them and that neither Portland's archbishop nor the archdiocese took any action, such as warning parishioners, even though there had been complaints about the priest's behavior. The archdiocese apologized publicly and agreed to head a task force that would examine how abuse complaints were being handled and how to make the process work better.

A little more than a year later, in February 2002, a former priest in the Boston archdiocese, John Geoghan, was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for molesting a 10-year-old boy. Geoghan, who had been defrocked in 1998, allegedly abused 130 children over a 30-year period. The Geoghan case opened up a much larger issue when it was revealed that the Boston archdiocese had allowed Geoghan to remain in positions that gave him access to children. Boston's cardinal, Bernard F. Law, was singled out because he was responsible for allowing Geoghan to keep ministering to children. Law said that he knew of Geoghan's problems and believed that he had been successfully treated for them. When the case of another Boston priest, Paul Shanley, came to light in April—and when the press found out that Cardinal Law had given Shanley a recommendation when he transferred to a west coast diocese even though he knew about Shanley's proclivities—the archdiocese of Boston was thrown into turmoil. To add to the difficulty, the archdiocese had agreed to settle with several of Geoghan's victims but the number of alleged victims continued to increase. The archdiocese eventually said that it had to back out of the settlement agreement due to lack of adequate funds. Facing increasing outrage and no longer able to carry out his duties effectively, Law gave his resignation to Pope John Paul II in December 2002. In August 2003 John Geoghan was killed in prison by a fellow prison inmate.

Further readings

Berry, Jason and Andrew M. Greeley. 2000. Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Conte, Jon R., ed. 2002. Critical Issues in Child Sexual Abuse: Historical, Legal, and Psychological Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Lazo, Joy. 1995. "True or False: Expert Testimony on Repressed Memory." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 28.

Mason, Mary Ann. 1995. "The Child Sex Abuse Syndrome." Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 1.

Wazir, Rekha, and Nico van Oudenhoven. 1998. Child Sexual Abuse: What Can Governments Do? A Comparative Investigation into Policy Instruments Used in Belgium, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Boston: Kluwer Law International.


Children's Rights; Infants.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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