High-profile abuse cases inspire some victims to report

Jessica Schladebeck

Many victims of sexual violence do not report the abuse for fear they will not be believed, and that fear is only exacerbated when the abuser is a well-known individual or authority figure.

FILE - In this Friday, Nov. 21, 2014, file photo, comedian Bill Cosby performs at the Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts, in Melbourne, Fla. On Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, Cosby filed counterclaims in federal court in Springfield, Mass., against seven women who are suing him for defamation, accusing them of making false accusations of sexual misconduct for financial gain. That same day,  Boston University trustees voted to revoke an honorary degree awarded to Cosby during its May 2014 commencement. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Approximately 60 percent of adult rapes are not reported to the police and 90 percent of child rape goes unreported, said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

"The No. 1 reason people don't report sexual abuse is that they don't trust the people around them to respond appropriately," she said. "They're afraid of being blamed, afraid that people will think they somehow participated, that they're lying — there all these different variation of the same thing."

Houser said the perpetuation of misinformation in regards to sexual assault is one of the reasons for society's inadequate responses.

Cosby: Actor and comedian Bill Cosby was charged Wednesday with sexually assaulting former Temple University employee Andrea Constand at his Pennsylvania home 12 years ago. While there have been many accusations against Cosby, these are the first criminal charge — a felony charge of aggravated indecent assault — brought against the entertainer.

Cosby during his arraignment Wednesday afternoon did not enter a plea, and bail was set at $1 million. A preliminary hearing has been set for January 14.

Houser said that in the midst of high-profile cases like Cosby's, there is small but noticeable increase in the number of those coming forward with their own stories of abuse.

"I think that we often see a little bit of a jump happen when there's public cases," Houser said. "There are some survivors living in silence with their secrets, and they do feel emboldened to come forward."

Those scenarios — which include an authority figure or someone well-known, like Cosby, who had previously been revered for his family-friendly body of work — can be especially difficult for the victims, she said.

Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer at PCAR

"More than 50 women have come forward" in connection with Cosby, Houser said. "That number has enabled the public in large to be supportive, and created a general tendency to believe the survivors."

Constand waited nearly a year before reporting the abuse and many of Cosby's alleged victims waited decades before coming forward.

That's not uncommon, Houser said, in fact, it's the opposite.

"Delayed disclosure is the norm," she said. "I think with these high profile cases people are really starting to see that."

Changing tone: Houser said within the last several years, there has been a noticeable change in how people view sexual violence.

"In the past five years there has been a groundswell of people coming forward," she said. "We've been addressing it in the military with congressional hearings, and there have been a number of college students who have gone public and are holding schools accountable when they don't take the appropriate action.

"There have been so many high-profile cases, so many high-profile pieces of this issue, I do think the public's understanding is starting to shift. Sexual violence is a serious and widespread problem, we're really talking about 20 percent of the population — that's absolutely widespread."

This shift in view has led to educating the public on prevention and is fostering a more supportive environment for the survivors of sexual abuse.

In York: There are several local organizations that help victims through the process of reporting abuse and get them help they need.

Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape partners with 50 crisis center across the state, one of which is in York County.

The YWCA of York's Victim Assistance Center provides crisis intervention, information, counseling and support to victims of sexual violence or other violent crimes. The center helps victims of all ages.

"Navigating these systems can be very overwhelming," Houser said, adding there is also help and information available for family and friends of victims.

The victim assistance center has a 24-hour hotline which can be reached at  (717) 854-3131 or 1-800-422-3204. More information and a list of resources is also available on the YWCA's website.

The York County Children's Advocacy Center and the York County Office of Children Youth & Families also provide assistance to abused children.

Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.