Thursday, May 02, 2002

Abuse victims find empathetic response

More come forward to report crimes

By Richelle Thompson,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Across the country and in the Tristate, increasing numbers of people are coming forward to report abuse by priests and even nuns.

        Twenty new cases alleging such abuse have been reported in the last month in Hamilton County alone, according to Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen.

        Two more have surfaced since last weekend, including allegations against a priest who's taken leave for the rest of the school year from Elder High School.

        The sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic church has created a new environment for victims like Steve and Bill Dasenbrock. Instead of allegations being ignored or dismissed, victims have the ready ear of prosecutors, more empathy from the community and — from some church leaders — apologies for the abuse.

        More than a decade ago, the Dasenbrocks faced a long, lonely battle after accusing their parish priest of sexual abuse.

        Today, they receive letters and calls of support, hailing them as heroes who had the courage to break the silence.

        “This is a perfect time for victims who have been carrying this around,” says their mother, Micky Dasenbrock of Mount Washington. “There's much more support from the community, and the church is finally being forced to deal with the issue. It's not something they can sweep under the carpet and have it go away.”

        And it's not just victims of clergy who are coming forward. Twice as many victims are calling Connections: A Safe Place, an abuse center for women in Batavia. Many of these victims have been abused by family members or friends.

        “As we're beginning to talk about it, some victims may have the courage to speak about it,” says director Rebecca Born. “They may be sensing for the first time that finally somebody is going to listen.”

        At the same time, advocates and law enforcement officials say they'll closely examine each case. With sex abuse as a major topic, they fear people looking for publicity or settlement money may make false accusations.

        “We have to look at things with a skeptical eye,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen. “You have to be so careful about false accusations. But if (the claims) are true, they're horrible.”

        Mr. Allen assigned his chief assistant prosecutor to the cases, along with three retired police officers. In addition, his office is reviewing documents subpoenaed from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati about other allegations, including those against the “fewer than five” priests still in active service despite a history of sexual misconduct.

        For some cases though, there isn't much Mr. Allen can do.

        Elizabeth Anderson, a 47-year-old mother who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., told The Enquirer she was abused 40 years ago by nuns at a Catholic grade school in Cincinnati. She also reported the allegations to the Hamilton County prosecutor's office.

        Although Mr. Allen says she has “a compelling story,” it's unlikely his office can take action.

        “Getting behind the statute of limitations would be virtually impossible,” he says. Still, “we're looking into all the allegations relayed to us, regardless of age.”

        Nevertheless, Mrs. Anderson says it's a relief to have someone listen and take her accusations seriously.

        “Even though something happened 40 years ago, it still matters to us as victims. Now it also matters to prosecutors and the public,” she says. “You carry that around with you all those years. To finally be able to speak out and have people want to hear it is a wonderful thing and a healing thing.”

        This sense of catharsis is important for victims, says Ms. Born. During the abuse, they lost their voice by someone overpowering and controlling their body. It's vital to create an environment where they feel they'll be believed.

        Until this week, Chip Sandlan had never talked publicly about his experience on Christmas Eve, 1983. A 13-year-old boy, he was asleep at the rectory of Guardian Angels parish in Mount Washington when he says he was fondled by a priest, George Cooley.

        He told his parents, but the family decided not to report it to the police after Mr. Cooley apologized and promised to get help. It wasn't until the early 1990s that the Sandlans contacted authorities and filed suit against the archdiocese, which they settled for an undisclosed amount.

        “It's taken me a long time to get to the point where I could talk about it,” says Mr. Sandlan, 31 and an actor who lives in New York City.

        He decided to talk to The Enquirer to put pressure on church leaders to make substantive changes. But he also figures his voice may let others know they're not alone and perhaps embolden them to talk about the abuse. After all these years of keeping quiet, Mr. Sandlan says, “It feels good to talk about it.”

        The publicity may also have another effect, says Dr. Stuart Bassman. a psychologist with offices in Clifton and Anderson Township. He specializes in counseling sexual abuse victims and perpetrators.

        “If you know that people are too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about something, it's fertile ground for people to exploit,” he says. “With all that's coming out now, it's going to be harder for the perpetrator to get away with it.”

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