Accusers to be unmasked at Penn State trial
The young men who accuse former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky of molesting them have been allowed to remain anonymous through months of intense news coverage and water-cooler conversation about the scandal.
That’s about to change.
When they take the witness stand in a packed Pennsylvania courtroom as early as next week, the alleged victims will be forced to state their names for the record — traumatizing them all over again, their lawyers and victims’ advocates argue, especially given the very real possibility their identities will become common knowledge via social media and the wider Internet.
Most traditional media organizations, including The Associated Press, have longstanding policies against using the names of alleged victims of sexual assault, viewing the crime as so intensely personal and the potential effect of public disclosure so traumatic for the accuser that withholding the identity outweighs the public’s right to know.
But in this anything-goes age of social media and citizen journalists, when anyone with a smartphone can tweet or blog, old media standards may no longer make much difference.
Anyone lucky enough to grab one of the 85 courtroom seats reserved for the public could sit in for the day, jot down some of the accusers’ names, leave and disseminate them to the world.
“Most of us want to have some control over who we share intimate details of our lives with,” said Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “To have that out there on the Internet, you’ve totally lost control, and it’s a scary thing.”
Sandusky, 68, faces 52 counts accusing him of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years. Prosecutors say the retired coach befriended boys he met through The Second Mile, the charity he founded for youngsters in 1977, then attacked them, in some cases in his home or inside university athletic facilities. He has denied the allegations.
Most of the accusers are now in their 20s. Up to now, they have been identified in court papers only as “Victim 1,” ”Victim 2″ and so on.
Five of the eight alleged victims who could be called to the stand asked Judge John Cleland for permission to testify under pseudonyms, saying through their lawyers that exposing their names would subject them to shame, ridicule and harassment.
An attorney for the accuser known as Victim 4 submitted an affidavit from his psychologist that said public disclosure could trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and interfere with the young man’s treatment and recovery.
And a coalition of advocacy groups argued that removing the cloak of anonymity would have a chilling effect on victims’ willingness to report abuse. Most childhood sexual abuse already goes unreported because young victims fear they will be ridiculed or disbelieved, the groups noted in a brief submitted to the judge.
But the judge said there is no authority in Pennsylvania law to allow the alleged victims to remain anonymous. While state law shields the identities of child victims of sexual assault, it affords no explicit protection to adult accusers even if the abuse took place when they were children.
Cleland also said there is a public policy consideration at stake.
“Courts are not customarily in the business of withholding information,” he wrote. “Secrecy is thought to be inconsistent with the openness required to assure the public that the law is being administered fairly and applied faithfully.” With rare exception, Cleland said, all citizens have a duty to testify publicly, “no matter how personally unpleasant.”
In the wake of that ruling, victims’ organizations pleaded with the public and the media Thursday to exercise restraint.
“Victims everywhere should know that their privacy will be respected when they come forward to reveal intimate details of sexual abuse. They participate in the criminal justice process in an effort to do the right thing and testify about their experiences; they should not have to worry about being publicly targeted when doing so,” said Baker’s group and others said in a statement.
John Giugliano, a clinical social worker and associate professor at Widener University, said victims of childhood sexual abuse can suffer anew when their names are publicized because the most humiliating episode of their lives is suddenly open to public inspection and judgment. Common symptoms of abuse — depression, anxiety, substance abuse, difficulty connecting with others — can flare up or become more severe, he said.
Beth Docherty, who was 15 when her music teacher raped her, said she was grateful her name wasn’t released. Even with the court’s protection, though, a newspaper account contained just enough detail about her identity — that she played flute — that it became known within her school. She said the teacher’s supporters sent her hate mail and broke her windows.
Docherty, now 43 and president of the board of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, sees parallels with the Sandusky case. Just as she was blamed for reporting her attacker, Docherty said, some Penn State fans have blamed the accusers for football coach Joe Paterno’s firing last fall, just months before his death from cancer.
“You’ve gone through this horrible thing, and you have people who don’t know you blaming you, saying you caused this icon to be brought down. It stays with you. It affects you for a long time,” she said. “Having that identity kept from the public is a little bit of a comfort, so I feel for them. It’s going to be really traumatic, and I give them a lot of credit to still go through with it and not crush and crumble under all the pressure.”
If the victims’ names do become public knowledge during trial, it probably won’t be the result of reporting by the traditional media.
“We have a firm and longstanding policy not to publish the names of victims of sexual crimes without their consent,” Lawrence Beaupre, executive editor of Times-Shamrock Communications, a media conglomerate that publishes The Times-Tribune in Scranton and several other newspapers and has sent a reporter to the trial.
More than 80 media outlets have been credentialed to cover the trial, from broadcast networks and major newspapers to Internet portals, independent journalists and tiny online news operations, some of which told AP that they, too, plan to withhold the accusers’ names.
At the same time, the issue of whether to shield victims of sex crimes from exposure has launched countless newsroom arguments. Is it fair to the alleged perpetrators to allow accusers to remain anonymous, especially in cases where the charge has turned out to be false? Is such a policy inadvertently perpetuating the notion that victims of sexual abuse have something to be ashamed about?
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics does not include a blanket prohibition on using the names of sexual abuse victims; it merely advises news organizations to “be cautious” about identifying them.
Kevin Z. Smith, SPJ’s past president and chairman of its ethics committee, said it is his personal belief that media organizations should reconsider their stand against naming.
“We shouldn’t stigmatize victims of sexual assault,” he said. “I don’t think as a society we do ourselves a favor by ostracizing these people, and I don’t think the press does a helpful job by perpetuating that by saying, ‘We are going to protect you.'”
Even Giugliano, the social worker, said there can be a benefit to testifying in open court. Some victims find it liberating to confront their abuser, she said.
“There can be a very positive effect through all of this, a release of shame, having their voice heard and their day in court, a feeling of being vindicated,” Giugliano said. “Those things can have a very positive, empowering effect.”
But he said that decision should be left to the individual and his therapist.
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