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Two experts testify about characteristics of child sexual abuse and its effects in Vickers trial

The people called two expert witnesses this afternoon in the Sean Vickers' trial to testify about child sexual abuse -- a pediatrician and a forensic interviewer.

Both established that the perpetrator who sexually abuses children is usually a relative or someone the victim knows well. A victim often doesn't report the abuse right away, sometimes never. Reasons for this include fear, guilt, threat of retribution, not wanting to be viewed as abnormal, et al. And obvious signs of sex abuse are overwhelmingly absent.

Dr. Jack Coyne, a pediatrician with an office in Batavia, helped establish the Child Advocacy Center here and in Erie County. He explained that these facilities provide a place for children to be examined and interviewed in a more comfortable environment than a hospital or police station.

"We help them know they are OK, their bodies are OK, Coyne said.

He testified that only 3 to 5 percent of all reported cases of child sexual abuse in the nation reveal definitive, physical proof that sex acts occurred. Examinations rarely detect lesions, for example. Unless there is pregnancy, the presence of a sexually transmitted disease, or obvious signs of rape, the objective aspects (physical facts) of these exams turn up nothing. It is in the subjective interviewing process that a sexual abuse diagnosis is most often determined, Coyne said, noting that half of all the sex abuse cases he's handled involve children under age 7.

He explained the seemingly illogical statistics by saying that, because the perpetrator is usually known, this person takes care not to be found out, to leave no evidence. Fondling was an example. Then he graphically detailed how sex acts can be performed without leaving physical clues and noted studies that show that orifices of the body are "very vascular" and can bleed lightly but then heal very quickly without scarring.

In the 2 to 3 percent of child sex abuse cases involving complete strangers, they don't care about injuries. Yet even then, Coyne said, the body heals swiftly and a couple weeks or months later, it's not unusual for physical evidence of a crime to be absent.

In April 2013, Coyne said he examined three children in this case (a 9-year-old boy and twin boys who are his cousins).

District Attorney Lawrence Friedman asked, if the objective part of the exam was normal, does that rule out sex abuse?

"Not at all," the doctor replied, adding that the key is whether the assessment is consistent with the history as described by the child.

Defense attorney Jerry Ader asked if it is correct that for each of the children's exams in this case, the objective findings provided no evidence of abuse.

Coyne said a doctor cannot divorce objective findings from the subjective ones.

In this case, Ader said, your findings don't prove sexual abuse occurred, to which the doctor concurred.

Under questioning by Friedman, the doctor reinterated the statistic that in only 3 to 5 percent of all cases of child sexual abuse is there objective -- factual -- physical proof.

Next on the witness stand was Katherine Colgan, who works at the Batavia CAC as a forensic interviewer of abused children. She has degrees in Education and Criminal Justice and said she has conducted thousands of victim interviews. She said she is a trained expert in the characteristics displayed by sexually abused children.

And they share several characteristics:

Secrecy -- They tend to keep their secret a long time because they are fearful of hurting their family and a person beloved by the family;

Fear -- There may have been a threat by the perpetrator to leave the family or perhaps the promise of safety for a sibling ("If you don't tell, I won't molest your little sister.");

Guilt -- For the acts that occurred; for the impact telling might have on the family;

Helplessness -- They are taught they must listen to whatever an adult tells them to do, obey;

Entrapment -- Because they feel helpless and that there is no way out;

Disassociation -- These are coping mechanisms they develop to exist in an abusive situation.

Adults, who might expect a child to come forward immediately and to be outraged, may be puzzled by the delay in reporting the abuse or that the disclosure was made in a mild, unconvincing manner.

She used the term "flat affect," a clinical term for a demeanor void of expression or emotion. Or, conversely, the child may giggle inappropriately, or "test the waters" of people's reactions by means of "incremental disclosure."

"Most abused children simply say 'I want the abuse to stop,' " Colgan said. "They aren't seeking revenge or punishment for the perpetrator. They just want it to stop."

Another response of these children is an attempt to rectract their accusations ("None of that happened. I made it up.") possibly because of external pressures or their concern about breaking the family apart.

"If they are not getting the support of the non-offending parent, they are more likely to recant or to not even reveal their secret in the first place," Colgan said.

Ader offered a simpler explanation. Could the reason for trying to recant the allegation or the delay in coming forward be that it simply was not true? That they were lying?

Yes, Colgan said, that could be the case.

As for incremental disclosure, Ader asked, could a reason for that be that the child is getting lots of attention, treats?

"It's possible," Colgan said.

How about peer pressure, Ader asked, could that be a factor?

Colgan said peer pressure works both ways, either to support telling the secret or to stifle it.

Friedman said earlier discussion had brought out that it's possible for the abused to still love the abuser and continue to spend time with that person. How is that?

Colgan said a published study in 1983 of this phenomena has now become commonly accepted as characteristic of sexually abused children.

The prosecution rested its case; the jury filed out, whereupon Ader made a motion to dismiss all the charges due to a dearth of evidence to sustain charges of a course of conduct of sexual abuse.

At that point, what at first portended to be a brief meeting on points of law and considerations for the jury, morphed into a confusing, arcane, back-and-forth exploration of the minutae of law, which at times resulted in oddly humorous moments and the scratching of heads.

Judge Robert C. Noonan ordered the lawyers to return to the courtroom at 9 in the morning to resume the discussion and the jurors are expected to return to their seats at 10 a.m.

The defense also rested its case.

Beforehand, the judge asked Vickers if he had agreed not to take the stand and testify on his own behalf. Vickers, standing, said softly, that yes he had agreed not to testify.

Gary Spencer
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"The defense also rested its case." Did the defense present a defense?

Gary Spencer
Gary Spencer's picture
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Joined: Feb 18 2009

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Tim Miller
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"Your honor - the defendants were play-acting as priests"

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