Sandusky victims at mercy of social media
By Debra Erdley
Published: Thursday, June 7, 2012, 8:22 p.m.
The young men who accuse former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky of molesting them have been allowed to remain anonymous through months of intense news coverage.
That's about to change.
When they take the witness stand in a packed Centre County courtroom as early as next week, the alleged victims will state their names for the record -- traumatizing them all over again, their lawyers and victims' advocates argue, especially given the possibility their identities will become common knowledge.
Officials are taking one step to shield the accusers from public scrutiny. Tarps will be erected over a walkway at the back of the courthouse in Bellefonte so prosecutors can drive up and let the young men out in an enclosure that will block them from public view as they enter.
James Koval, a spokesman for the state court administrator's office, said prosecutors requested the special arrangement.
Most traditional media organizations have longstanding policies against using the names of alleged victims of sexual assault. But in this anything-goes age of social media and citizen journalists, old standards may no longer make much difference.
Anyone who gets one of the 85 courtroom seats reserved for the public could disseminate names to the world.
"Most of us want to have some control over who we share intimate details of our lives with," said Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "To have that out there on the Internet, you've totally lost control, and it's a scary thing."
Sandusky, 68, faces 52 counts accusing him of sexually abusing 10 boys over a span of 15 years. Prosecutors say the retired coach befriended boys he met through The Second Mile, the charity he founded for youngsters in 1977. He has denied the allegations.
Most of the accusers are in their 20s. Until now, they have been identified in court papers as "Victim 1," "Victim 2" and so on.
Five of the eight accusers asked Judge John Cleland for permission to testify under pseudonyms. An attorney for Victim 4 submitted an affidavit from his psychologist that said public disclosure could trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and interfere with his treatment and recovery.
Advocacy groups argued that removing the cloak of anonymity would have a chilling effect on victims' willingness to report abuse.
But the judge said there is no authority in Pennsylvania law to allow the alleged victims to remain anonymous. Although state law shields the identities of child victims of sexual assault, it affords no explicit protection to adult accusers, even if the abuse took place when they were children.
Victims' organizations pleaded with the public and the media on Thursday to exercise restraint.
"Victims everywhere should know that their privacy will be respected when they come forward to reveal intimate details of sexual abuse," Baker's group and others said in a statement.
Beth Docherty, who was 15 when her music teacher raped her, said she was grateful her name wasn't released. Even with the court's protection, though, a newspaper account contained enough detail about her identity -- that she played flute -- that it became known within her school. She said the teacher's supporters sent her hate mail and broke her windows.
Docherty, now 43 and president of the board of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, sees parallels with the Sandusky case. Just as she was blamed for reporting her attacker, Docherty said, some Penn State fans have blamed the accusers for football coach Joe Paterno's firing last fall, just months before his death from cancer.
"You've gone through this horrible thing, and you have people who don't know you blaming you, saying you caused this icon to be brought down. It stays with you," she said.
More than 80 media outlets have been credentialed to cover the trial, from broadcast networks and major newspapers to Internet portals, independent journalists and tiny online news operations, some of which told The Associated Press that they plan to withhold the accusers' names.
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