Catholic World News News Feature
New approach to curb abuse, aid victims January 07, 2005
An American non-profit group has harnessed the power of modern technology in a radical new effort to curb child abuse.
At a January 6 press conference outside Boston, a group called "It Works" unveiled a new web site, VictimPower, which will open a confidential channel of communication between abuse victims and authorities.
The VictimPower initiative is designed to encourage victims to report abuse, by protecting their anonymity unless or until they are ready to come forward. At the same time, the web site will provide a way to hold authorities accountable for their response to complaints, and construct a thorough data base that could guide investigators in tracing abusers.
The VictimPower site was designed-- and will be operated-- by a team of students from universities scattered across the US. Although the site was originally conceived as a response to the sex-abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, the technology can be used to respond to any sort of abuse.
The VictimPower web site assists an abuse victim in registering his complaint, guiding him through a series of questions that help to identify the authorities-- in the Church, in law-enforcement, or elsewhere-- who should take an interest in his report. The web site allows the victim to check back and see what response these authorities have made; it also allows the authorities to ask him further questions, without compromising his anonymity.
"VictimPower is new hope for victims," said Diane Galebach, the director of It Works Association and leader in developing the site. She explained that many abuse victims are reluctant to come forward. The new web site allows them to report abuse without divulging their identity.
To protect the anonymity of victims, VictimPower enlisted the help of a leading internet-security expert, David Ross, whose achievements include designing the software that routes US mail and establishing the online authentication system for the US Treasury. With his guidance, the VictimPower web site was designed so that, as he explained, "any identifying information linking the victim to his report is destroyed at the conclusion of his session." The victim's anonymity is therefore complete, he observed, even if computer hackers or overzealous prosecutors seek to learn his identity. Ross observed simply: "What does not exist cannot be hacked and cannot be subpoenaed."
This guarantee of anonymity is crucial, Ross continued, because many victims of abuse have lost their trust in the system that should hear their complaints. He observed: "These victims have been abused by people in authority-– in their church, school, or other organization."
As a result of their fears, many abuse victims never report the crimes against them. Kathleen McChesney, who recently resigned from her position as head of the US bishops' office investigating abuse complaints, told reporters that she was "saddened by the fact that there are many victims still out there who are reluctant to come forward."
Stephen Galebach, a Massachusetts lawyer who also advised the VictimPower development, could readily understand McChesney's regrets. During the 1980s, Galebach had worked in the US Justice Department, specializing in the prosecution of child molesters; he was a leading figure in the passage of the Child Protection Act of 1984. He, too, had known the frustration that prosecutors feel when they realize that many crimes are going unreported.
But Galebach saw another dimension to the problem. When abuse victims are not ready or willing to press their complaints, authorities can be free to dismiss them. Like his wife Diane, Stephen Galebach argued that victims deserve better treatment. "In the past, for anonymous complaints, accountability had been impossible," he said. "Victims who need anonymity should get something better than a black hole to drop complaints into."
The VictimPower web site allows victims to lodge complaints, and evaluate responses from the appropriate authorities. By logging these responses and evaluations, the system will produce a record of how the authorities reacted to complaints. The site's designers hope that in time, their records will help victims gain confidence in those authorities who respond energetically, while putting pressure on those who fail to respond.
The site also allows for the construction of a central database of abuse complaints, so that law-enforcement officials may be able to recognize patterns of abuse and networks of known abusers.