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Home > Research Articles > Calls to sex abuse hotlines rise sharply; experts cite falling 'barriers' High-profile cases thought to be a factor


Monday, April 14, 2003


Calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline are up 24% for the first three months this year compared with the same period last year, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports.

The hotline, which directs callers to more than 1,000 local centers around the country, is reporting the numbers today.

It attributes the increase to news coverage of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church as well as other high-profile incidents, including reported sexual assaults in the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The church scandal ''brought a lot of attention to rape and sexual assaults,'' says Jamie Zuieback, spokeswoman for the network.

Counselors expected calls to level off, but they have continued to climb -- perhaps because of other news, including the kidnapping of Salt Lake City teen Elizabeth Smart; the child sex scandal surrounding film director Roman Polanski; and allegations of rape at the Air Force Academy. TV shows focusing on sexual abuse also prompt people to call, she says.

''All of this media attention helps contribute to the public's understanding of rape as a serious and violent crime,'' Zuieback says.

''One of the biggest barriers to reporting is people feeling ashamed, people feeling that nothing will be done. Attitudes are starting to change.'' The media coverage, she says, ''makes it easier for somebody to pick up the phone, make the call and get help.''

Counselors across the country also are seeing higher numbers.

''The caseload has definitely increased,'' says Nancee Brown of the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, Ill. ''I'm hoping it's because more people are wanting to report it and not keep the secret.''

Not all the cases being reported are new; some may be childhood incidents the victim has kept secret for years.

Angie Johnson Smith of the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault in Tucson says calls have been up 15% to 20% over the past year and a half.

''It used to be that people would just whisper about rape because it was shameful. Now it's treated as a straightforward story. There's less stigma attached generally.''

Jeri Elster of Los Angeles became a victim's rights advocate after she was raped in 1992. The system today is far from perfect, she says, but it's a lot better than 10 years ago, when people often expected rape victims to keep quiet.

''A lot of people will not get brave until they figure that they're not alone and somebody's going to listen to them,'' she says.

Though more people may be coming forward to report sexual crimes, the Department of Justice estimates that sexual assault and rape of victims 12 and older actually decreased by 56% from 1993 through 2001. That number is consistent with other types of violent crime, which has decreased about 50 percent during the same period, the department says.

Researchers also estimate that new cases of child sexual abuse are down 40% from 1992 because of better prevention, reporting and prosecution.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.