April 17, 2005

Conte isn’t interested in help

Telegram & Gazette

Dianne Williamson


Kiss-offs come in many forms but they’re still kiss-offs, even if they’re unstintingly polite and bear the seal of the Worcester district attorney.

A well-meaning nonprofit group recently received a royal kiss-off as it tried to open channels of communication between victims of abuse and law enforcement authorities. And if we require another reminder that District Attorney John J. Conte has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, we need look no further than his cool reception to VictimPower.

VictimPower.org is a novel approach to aiding victims of sexual abuse. Aware that victims are often hesitant or fearful to come forward, at least initially, the Web site offers them a safe place to make an anonymous report, while at the same time providing police or district attorneys with information that could aid them in investigations. Unlike anonymous phone tips, it also enables victims to communicate back and forth with law enforcement while remaining anonymous as long as they wish — or until they become comfortable enough to identify themselves.

The Web site went online in January and organizers held a conference last week at theAbuse Tracker Press Club in Washington, D.C., to announce results for the first quarter. They were positive overall, with a 73 percent response rate from law enforcement agencies to 95 complaints transmitted through VictimPower. Singled out for exceptional cooperation were agencies from several states, including New Hampshire, where the attorney general’s office responded to nine communications within 24 hours.

“Anonymous complaints can solve crimes,” said N. William Delker, senior assistant attorney general for New Hampshire, who said he once prosecuted a priest for a “slew” of sex crimes based on an initial anonymous tip. “And VictimPower isn’t anonymous in the traditional sense. It enables us to have a dialogue with the victim and it gives the victim the confidence to come forward, which is the goal.”

In January, VictimPower sent a complaint of sexual abuse at an area church to District Attorney John J. Conte. Mr. Conte has since claimed that he never told VictimPower that he wouldn’t accept anonymous reports. But perhaps we should let the letter from his office to VictimPower speak for itself:

“While this office appreciates your trying to assist us in prosecuting such cases, you should be aware that anonymous reports are of little if any help,” wrote Assistant District Attorney Christopher P. Hodgens on Feb. 7. “Courts do not allow us to prosecute cases with anonymous victims … Your support of victims is admirable. The District Attorney’s Office urges you to encourage all victims to speak directly with law enforcement agencies.”

In others words: Get lost. Thanks, but no thanks. When it comes to new and novel approaches to fight crime that threaten his sacred turf, our district attorney takes a pass.

After VictimPower singled Mr. Conte out last week as being particularly uncooperative with its efforts, the secretive septuagenarian told a reporter that the complaint from VictimPower involved a 1954 case and a priest who has since died. But, if that’s so, why not share that information with VictimPower to put the alleged victim at ease? Why the brush-off and the clear indication that VictimPower’s help isn’t needed in Worcester County?

Stephen H. Galebach of Andover, who helped develop the Web site, is a former legal policy adviser and senior special assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in the Reagan White House. Last week, he said VictimPower sent Mr. Conte’s office a request that he reconsider his stance. The office never responded, Mr. Galebach said.

“I’d say the district attorney’s office is behind the times,” he said. “There’s a clear, modern movement in law enforcement toward accepting anonymous complaints. But we expect it will take some time for some agencies to catch on.”

Wendy J. Murphy, a law professor and victims’ rights advocate, was harsher in her assessment.

“It’s almost embarrassing for someone in law enforcement to say they find no value in anonymous sources,” she said. “The worst criminals are often the best at intimidation and coercion, which is why reports have to be anonymous. The district attorney should know that. Law enforcement accepts anonymous tips all the time in homicides and violent crimes, but I guess sexual violence and crimes against women and children aren’t important enough to him.”

Our district attorney is very big on statistics, especially misleading ones about conviction rates that make him look good but neglect to highlight the many cases he plea bargains, rejects outright or fails to solve. So it’s welcome news that VictimPower is keeping track of law enforcement’s response rates to its complaints, and plans to make a report that should lead to open, public discussion about accountability.

“Our obligation in law enforcement is to be responsible and responsive to the public,” said Mr. Delker. “It’s puzzling to me that someone would refuse this type of help. Frankly, I just don’t see the justification.”

Dianne Williamson can be reached via e-mail at dwilliamson@telegram.com.

Posted by kshaw at April 17, 2005 08:35 AM