January 12, 2005

Site safe place to report sex abuse

Telegram & Gazette

By Kathleen A. Shaw Telegram & Gazette Staff

A new Web site went online last week as a safe place for sexual abuse victims to report anonymously to police what happened to them.

VictimPower.org is the work of an Andover family, a technological adviser from Washington state and a group of college and university students who assisted as part of a college project.

A dozen students from Georgetown University, Harvard University, Boston University, Azusa Pacific of Los Angeles, John Carroll College of Maryland, St. Anselm College of Vermont, Montgomery College of Maryland and Duquesne University of Pittsburgh did the legwork to assemble contact information of all police departments, prosecutors and other agencies in 50 states.

Two leaders in development of the site are lawyer Stephen H. Galebach and his wife, Diane Galebach, of Andover. Devout Catholics and the parents of 10 children, they became concerned about victims after discovering the full extent of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Mr. Galebach, who has a law practice in Andover, was a legal policy adviser for five years in the Reagan White House and was senior special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Reagan administration. He is legal adviser for the site, which is operated by a nonprofit organization called It Works.

The site in its first week — it was launched Thursday — has been a success, he said. About 800 people have signed on as users and some of the reports being made to police and prosecutors are “of a serious nature.” The VictimPower site has the capacity for two-way anonymous communication and the program blocks the e-mail address of the person making the report. Police and prosecutors can go back to the informant to get additional information without knowing the identity of the person with whom they are communicating, he said.

A user signing on from Worcester can communicate anonymously with the office of District Attorney John J. Conte, the Worcester Police Department and the Catholic Diocese of Worcester or the headquarters of many Protestant denominations. They can also make reports involving non-church-related abuse or harassment.

Mr. Galebach said the students found all the contact information for the 50 states but they could expand the service to include foreign countries if they can find students or other people to work on locating the contact information.

The new site was praised by David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “I’m confident that some victims now trapped in silence, shame and self-blame will use this new vehicle to unburden themselves of the horrific secrets they carry and hopefully achieve some measure of justice and prevention,” he said.

Sgt. Gary J. Quitadamo, spokesman for the Worcester Police Department, said it is not opposed to the Web site, but said police need a victim before they can prosecute. The Web site could prove valuable to law enforcement if it gives people a place to communicate until they are ready to come forward and identify themselves to police or the district attorney. He acknowledged that abuse victims sometimes have a difficult time beginning to make themselves known to law enforcement.

Anonymous information can prove valuable, Sgt. Quitadamo said, if police are able to take that information and build a case against an alleged perpetrator. “We take it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

The Worcester Police Department accepts information at wpd@ci.Worcester.ma.us and has an anonymous tip line at (508) 799-8655. Police would also work with the office of Mr. Conte on these cases, he said.

The Web site designers said that although empowering victims is their first aim, they believe the site will benefit prosecutors and church and school authorities. They believe law enforcement and district attorneys will hear from people they would not hear from if victims had to identify themselves.

“During my time in the Reagan administration, I worked closely with key players in the law enforcement community on crimes involving sexual abuse and exploitation,” Mr. Galebach said. He was the White House “lead” in working for passage of the Child Protection Act of 1984, a bill that toughened federal laws dealing with the production and distribution of pornographic materials involving children.“VictimPower has tremendous potential to help law enforcement and victims. Two-way communication with an anonymous victim or witness is a powerful tool, possible today with technology that none of us could have imagined in the 1980s,” he said. Hot lines can offer confidentiality, he said, but the “total anonymity” of the Web site is different.

“Courts can order that a whistleblower’s identity be disclosed. But VictimPower does not know the identity of the users,” he said.

Mrs. Galebach said the Web site is “new hope for victims.”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to separate the shame of what happened to me, from me, my person?” she said. She conceived the idea for the Web site and assembled the team to produce it.

Much of the technical help came from David Ross, founder of RAF Technology of Redmond, Wash. He invented the software that reads and routes U.S. first class mail and designed the authentication system now used by the U.S. Treasury Department for its online e-commerce Web site www.pay.gov.

“With VictimPower.org victims can easily find out the proper legal, church, school and other authorities for them to communicate with. Once they have determined the best authorities, the victims can report anonymously what has happened to them and what they have witnessed,” Mr. Ross said.

“This anonymity cannot be broken by an overzealous prosecutor or unscrupulous hacker, because any identifying information linking the victim to his report is destroyed at the conclusion of his session,” he said. “What does not exist cannot be hacked and cannot be subpoenaed.”

Posted by kshaw at January 12, 2005 05:44 AM