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Penn State Scandal Hits Nerve

For almost two decades, lawyers at the Bridgeport firm of Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney have taken seriously the complaints of child sexual abuse plaintiffs. The firm took on the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport and Hartford's St. Francis Hospital, winning millions in damages. Now, the details of a long-running grand jury investigation have rocked Penn State University with a stunning child sexual abuse scandal. Public opinion and awareness has markedly changed since the late Paul Tremont, a founding partner, filed his first suits against pedophile priests in 1993. "It was a very unwelcoming climate for these kinds of cases," says partner Cynthia Robinson, who has focused her practice on child sexual abuse cases.

Her firm's efforts have been instrumental in changing public perception -- from disbelieving hostility to sympathy and outrage. Robinson predicts that more Penn State victims will be coming forward, as the story builds. She recently spoke with Law Tribune Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey THE LAW TRIBUNE: Until fairly recently, people didn't believe that child sex abuse was occurring in some of our most respected institutions. CYNTHIA ROBINSON: Now, it's hard to imagine, but in the late 20th Century, society was not really ready to hear about these cases. It was really important at that point for it to be covered in the media. We litigated these cases for years. We were in court a lot, over motions for protective orders, motions to compel. And as a result, the media had access to what was going on in these cases. LAW TRIBUNE: What made people start paying attention? ROBINSON: A startling fact about childhood sex abuse victims is that, for the most part, they feel that they were the only one. They have no sense of the serial behavior of pedophiles, and often they feel guilty and ashamed for what happened, which is why they don't report it. So, significantly, when these things appear in the newspaper and the media, it makes them come out, because now they see that they were not the only ones, and they start questioning what happened to them, in a different way. I predict that because of the publicity from the Penn State sexual scandal, that we probably will be seeing other childhood sex abuse victims coming forward. This will be empowering for them. LAW TRIBUNE: Early media reports are just one step. Reaching some ultimate verdict, criminal or civil, is a much longer process. ROBINSON: Which is why I think bringing these things to court basically evens the field for everyone, because there are rules and there are procedures that you have to go through, but you have to balance that against the ability of a powerful institution to be dismissive, and cover up these claims. They basically believe that secrecy, intimidation and fear will stop this from being known to the public. From that standpoint it's important that victims be able to voice their stories, whether they can bring a case or not. I don't think it's worrisome that the media has coverage of this, because there are protections [against defamation] in the system. In the Penn State scandal, we see that the alleged perpetrator, [former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky] has been interviewed on television. LAW TRIBUNE: With his lawyer's assent! That shocked a lot of defense lawyers. Did it surprise you? ROBINSON: Absolutely. Because any statement that he makes in any forum can be used at a later time. The media is open to everyone, in that regard. What we have in this case, that we didn't have in our clergy abuse cases, is a grand jury report. That's important, because it gives a lot of well-founded information. It will be really helpful going forward for those cases, with hard facts dating back to the 1990s. LAW TRIBUNE: In the early cases, the first reflex was to attack the victim, it seemed. ROBINSON: Which is why it's important that other victims come forward. Not that it makes it more true, but it can give more credibility to the claim, if it's eight people making the claim, versus one person making the claim, as we initially saw with the Penn State case. LAW TRIBUNE: Was the civil discovery process critical to your lawsuits? ROBINSON: Absolutely. Getting documentation regarding what the church knew, and when they knew it, was essential. Fortunately, we were able to get some of that documentation from our own clients, who had written letters of complaint years previously, regarding certain priests. I think most chilling for us, when we brought our first case for two plaintiffs, once it got in the paper we were meeting with brothers, sisters in the same family in the same neighborhood, all telling us the same stories about the same priest, not knowing that their relatives had been similarly abused. That just shows how important media coverage can be. Despite all the complaints made about the priest, the only time the priest was suspended was once we actually filed the lawsuit. It didn't happen voluntarily before that time. LAW TRIBUNE: Why do you think the Penn State scandal has had such a powerful effect on people? ROBINSON: I think it has a lot to do with the fact of the incredible reputation that Penn State enjoyed, over so many years. And the position that coach [Joseph] Paterno [had], being so widely respected. And he's now connected with this. In many ways I think that people can relate more to this kind of scandal than other kinds of sex abuse scandals. And, when we first learned of this case, we learned that there was actual notice [to Penn State] of this problem for many years. In other cases, we hear about the allegations and the claims, but we don't hear the supporting evidence. In this case, it all came out at the same time. And it's not coming from the victim. It's coming from an independent grand jury -- and I think that gives it so much more credibility. LAW TRIBUNE: Is there anything on the positive side here? ROBINSON: I think that media attention has been essential to changing public perspective. It's why, in the United States, we've come so much further in terms of getting to the root of these kinds of problems. In Europe and in other parts of the world, it's taken a lot longer because of restrictions on press and media coverage as it relates to sex abuse of children.• Related Links

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