There’s No “Normal” Way For A Clergy Abuse Or Sexual Assault Victim To Act

This post is cross-posted on the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.

As Ralph Cipriano reported, the defense attorney for Father Brennan spent a lot of time cross-examining the prosecution’s chief witness against Father Brennan by going into the alleged victim’s reaction to the molestation, including why the alleged victim — an adolescent boy at the time — did not call out to his mother afterwards, why the alleged victim took a subsequent motorcycle ride with Father Brennan, and why the alleged victim didn’t report the assault to authorities sooner.

Father Brennan’s attorney, coincidentally named William Brennan, has an important job to do — safeguarding his client’s constitutional rights and challenging the testimony of his accuser — so I don’t fault him for going into those issues, but these types of questions raise a common problem in both criminal sexual assault prosecutions and civil sexual abuse lawsuits:  the persistence of rape myths in society and in the courts. The term “rape myths” was coined by psychologists as a means of describing false attitudes and beliefs that serve to deny allegations of sexual abuse and to thwart accountability for abusers.

Some of these rape myths are easy to spot.  For example, many people will thoughtlessly say a victim “asked for it” by wearing the wrong clothes or by drinking alcohol, or they assume that victims are lying for attention or to cover up an affair.  Myths like these are so pernicious and pervasive that the people perpetuating them don’t realize it. Thus, even people acting in good faith can end up applying rape myths to treat allegations of sexual abuse differently from other allegations of criminal conduct and to demand more proof from sexual abuse survivors (such as corroborating evidence in addition to testimony) than they do from other crime victims.

The testimony by Father Brennan’s alleged victim, and by many of the alleged clergy abuse victims, raises one of the more common rape myths: that a victim of rape, sexual assault, or molestation will resist an attacker forcefully, will cry out for help during the attack, and will immediately report the assault to others.  

We saw that myth at work nearly two years ago, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (the federal appellate court for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) reinstated a civil rights lawsuit brought by a sexual assault victim against a township police department.  In that case, a cashier at a convenience store was sexually assaulted and robbed at gunpoint, but when she reported the crime to the police, the detective in charge immediately assumed that she had fabricated the incident to cover up her own theft of cash from the store. The detective didn’t give the victim the same fair consideration he would have given victims of other crimes, in part because of his stereotypical views about how she “should” have acted after the assault.  Even though that same detective was also part of a task force investigating a serial rapist with a string of identical convenience store robberies and assaults, the detective never connected the two in his mind, and so eventually arrested the victim on charges of theft and making a false police report. The prosecution was only dropped after the real assailant (a serial offender) was captured and confessed to the crime.

That case demonstrates more than just problems in the police department, though, because the federal district court that first heard the case dismissed it without a jury trial, finding that the detective undoubtedly had sufficient probable cause to arrest the sexual assault victim. The Women’s Law Project (WLP), based in Pennsylvania, organized an amicus effort, representing a number of sexual assault victim advocacy groups, to urge the Third Circuit to reverse that decision, which it did.  The Third Circuit reinstated the victim’s lawsuit, finding that a jury could believe sufficient facts to show the detective did not have adequate probable cause for the arrest.

More recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the appeal of a case in which three male college students were convicted of sexually assaulting a female student. A jury convicted all three men of sexual assault and indecent assault, and the trial judge allowed the convictions to stand, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court — which only read the briefs and transcripts of the case and never saw any witnesses testify — overturned the convictions.  The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that, although the victim’s testimony was internally consistent and although the jury believed her testimony enough to convict the three men, the Superior Court felt that she shouldn’t be believed because she had initially invited the men (who were friends of a friend) to hang out in her room, she had not sufficiently resisted, nor had she “instantaneously” reported the incident to the authorities (she reported the assault within an hour, but that apparently wasn’t fast enough).  Sexual assault advocates are hoping the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will reverse the Superior Court and reinstate the convictions. (The WLP has also filed an amicus brief in the case)

In the bigger picture, these cases aren’t just about if the township identified above should be sued or if those three men should be convicted.  Rather, it’s a broader issue about the roles of trial judges and juries in assessing the credibility of witnesses and the need to ensure that cases are decided by their facts and not by suppositions, prejudices, or stereotypes like rape myths. The overwhelming psychological, sociological, and criminological evidence showing that there is no “normal” way for a rape or sexual assault victim to act, and that a wide range of reactions — including freezing up during the assault and not telling anyone for months or even years — are all seen in genuine victims.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is unique as being the only state that does not allow prosecutors or plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases to bring in expert witnesses to talk about the fact that there is no “normal” reaction to a sexual assault and that the actions by Father Brennan’s alleged victim (such as not crying out, not reporting the assault immediately, and seeing his assailant again later in a social situation) are in fact consistent with those of a genuine victim.

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  • MB

    Thank you for highlighting such an important issue on your blog! Your readers may be interested to know that there is a bill pending in the Pennsylvania General Assembly (HB 1264) to permit expert testimony in sexual assault criminal trials. It is now in the State Senate, and I urge those who live in Pennsylvania to contact their legislators to get it passed.

    The text and history of the bill is available on the PA General Assembly website: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billinfo/BillInfo.cfm?syear=2011&sind=0&body=H&type=B&bn=1264