April 15, 2005

Conte called unwilling to take abuse reports

Telegram & Gazette


The co-founder of VictimPower.org, a Web site created to ease the process for victims of sexual abuse to report the crimes, yesterday accused Worcester District Attorney John J. Conte of not cooperating with the effort.

Stephen H. Galebach, an Andover lawyer who spoke yesterday at theAbuse Tracker Press Club in Washington, said the Web site allows victims to have a dialog with police and prosecutors to report incidents of abuse. Victims can report abuse anonymously, but criminal charges cannot be filed until the victim divulges his or her identity.

Mr. Conte said the allegation his office isn’t cooperating is absurd. He said his office received one communication from VictimPower.org in January, the month the Web site went into operation, and that it concerned a 1954 case and involved a priest who is dead.

There was no way to proceed with such a case, the district attorney said, adding that the person who made the anonymous report is free to contact his office to talk further. He added that he has never told VictimPower representatives that he would not accept anonymous reports.

Mr. Galebach, a former legal adviser in the Reagan White House and former special assistant to U.S. Attorney Edwin Meese, said in an interview that his criticism was based on information he has received that the Worcester district attorney’s office flatly refuses to take reports on abuse cases from victims who do identify themselves.

The Worcester Police Department, Mr. Galebach added, has cooperated with the VictimPower effort.

“The problem is that police departments and the Department of Social Services can cooperate and collect information, but it’s no good when he gets to the prosecutorial level and they will not cooperate,” he said.

Mr. Galebach and Mr. Conte both provided copies of a Feb. 7 letter written to VictimPower by Assistant Worcester District Attorney Christopher P. Hodgens, which states that “anonymous reports are of little if any help.” He pointed out that courts do not allow cases involving anonymous victims to be prosecuted.

Mr. Galebach said VictimPower sees this as a refusal by Mr. Conte’s office to accept such communications. He stressed that the goal of establishing the Web site is to help victims feel more comfortable with and trust investigators and prosecutors.

Mr. Hodgens said “numerous victims” have spoken with law enforcement officers in Central Massachusetts and that state police attached to Mr. Conte’s office have interviewed more than 100 victims without revealing their identity to the public. “While not all cases can be prosecuted due to the statute of limitations, the courage of these victims in coming to us has enabled this office to bring a number of offenders to justice,” Mr. Hodgens said.

N. William Delker, senior assistant attorney general for New Hampshire, said at theAbuse Tracker Press Club session that anonymous tips “can help solve crime by putting the police on alert of illegal activity. What’s more, VictimPower.org enables victims of sexual abuse to realize that they are not alone.

“Hopefully by developing a confidential dialogue with law enforcement, victims can ultimately gain sufficient confidence in the system to come forward publicly and pursue cases against their perpetrators,” he said.

Peter Pollard, a Springfield-area resident who is an alleged sexual abuse victim and is active with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, commended law enforcement for the widespread cooperation. “Sexual predators shame their victims into silence. The single most important strategy for stopping sexual abuse is to provide a safe way for victims to speak out,” he said.

Mr. Galebach and his wife, Diane, who are Catholic and are active in their parish, said the site grew out of the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; but Mr. Galebach said he wanted the site to be used for victims to report sexual abuse by anyone.

In the first three months of operation, Mrs. Galebach said the Web site received 95 communications from anonymous sources, including 43 new cases and 52 follow-ups. Forty-one of the 43 new cases involved allegations of sexual abuse, 37 of them involving minors. Twenty-three of the communications involved allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests or nuns. Most incidents were more than 10 years old, but six alleged incidents were ongoing or happened in the last five years, the staff said.

VictimPower had high praise for law enforcement agencies in Texas and New Hampshire for their cooperation.

“Under the leadership of Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire has pioneered the best practices for serving the needs of abuse survivors,” Mrs. Galebach said.

Posted by kshaw at April 15, 2005 08:04 AM