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Penn State Abuse Case Highlights Changes in Media, Legal Attitudes

As the Penn State sexual assault scandal continues to unfold, the story takes place against a media and legal backdrop that has evolved considerably in light of previous sex abuse cases. Plaintiffs attorneys and legal experts who have worked with victims of sexual abuse note the sea change in the way such cases have been covered and litigated. And the changes in how the media and the public discuss these topics have had a significant impact on how judges and juries think and act. "Thirty years ago if you brought a case against a revered institution"--be it Penn State, the Catholic Church or the Boy Scouts, says trial attorney Raymond Boucher--"the jury would look at you with a jaundiced eye." Over the past three decades, the media, too, have become less jaundiced, says Boucher, a partner at Kiesel Boucher & Larson and the lead attorney for plaintiffs who brought clergy sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles--which garnered one of the largest settlements of its kind with the church in 2007. Cindy Robinson's Connecticut firm, Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney, was among the first to start litigating clergy

sexual abuse claims in Connecticut, beginning in 1993. "Clearly the media's response and the public's response were much different, they was much less accepting of these kinds of claims," she says, looking back on those early days.But as her firm litigated cases throughout the 1990s, she says a reporter for the Connecticut Post "followed our cases very diligently," generating a lot of attention in the Bridgeport, CT, area, she says.The public saw that "these were real claims," Robinson explains. Which is all the more important because public knowledge is also key to tackling problems at institutions--be they religious or educational--that "bet on the fact that these things can be kept a secret."Litigation, she says, "evens the field for everyone," while media coverage "destroys that veil of secrecy" at institutions. Getting a hold of documents and testimony in these types of cases, as the Connecticut Post reporter did, is no small feat, she says.The Boston Globe did just that in the early 2000s. Media coverage of the sexual abuse claims against the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston--a bellwether case--expanded awareness of institutional failures and cover-ups "exponentially," says Robinson.Boucher highlight's the Globe's reporting on the scandal as "phenomenal," and also points to the Los Angeles Times' coverage of similar scandals involving the Catholic Church in San Diego and Los Angeles.At present, with Penn State, sports reporters are covering the story "in an incredibly responsible, forthright fashion," Boucher says.Media coverage has demonstrated more understanding of the sexual abuse claims being leveled at those institutions. "There's an acceptance of the problem," he says. "You see that evolution."With more public awareness of the "widespread problem of childhood sexual abuse," Boucher says he also senses "greater latitude" among judges and jurors when it comes to exploring and proving institutional cover-ups.As a jury consultant, Julie Blackman pays close attention to what the media are saying in a given case. A social psychologist with a specialty in intimate violence, she has served as an expert witness, worked with plaintiffs attorneys in a clergy sexual abuse case, and is now vice president and managing director at DOAR Litigation Consulting.Media portrayals of sexual abuse claims are not monolithic and vary from case to case, she says. But she says there is a marked change in the intensity of reaction to sexual abuse claims today."Not only do we take it more seriously, but we react more vigorously," she says. The firing of football coach Joe Paterno--a revered figure in college football history and at Penn State--"is pretty dramatic," she says. "It really is, in many ways respects, a sea change to see people in positions of power step down because, on their watch, a man was sexually molesting boys."  Both Robinson and Blackman agree that media coverage maintains a public conversation about a topic many are reluctant to face. "I think there's a natural inclination to ignore things that are hard. And dealing with sexual abuse is hard," Blackman says. "People just wish it weren't true."by Catherine Dunn, Corporate Counsel

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