Imagine living with the inextinguishable memory of being victimized by horrific child sexual abuse. Now imagine that images of the abuse are circling the world on the Internet, sought out by countless addicts of child pornography.
That’s what Vicky, now grown, has faced since her father repeatedly raped, sodomized and bound her, videotaping it all the while, starting when she was a small child. Her father ultimately was convicted and imprisoned.
Last month, a Utah man, Michael Loren Dunn, was found guilty in federal court of possession of child pornography, including images of Vicky (a pseudonym to protect her privacy).
In a relatively new tactic in Utah, Vicky is asking the court to order Dunn to pay her restitution for the years of therapy she has needed and lost income from the months and years she was unable to work.
Among those leading that charge is Paul Cassell, a former federal judge and now a professor at the University of Utah law school who is donating his time on Vicky’s case.
I learned about the issue in Emily Bazelon’s story in the Jan. 27 New York Times Magazine. During an investigation of Vicky’s father, who had gone missing, Vicky appeared on television to ask the public for tips. Later, police found online pictures of Vicky and showed them to her and her mother. For Vicky, Bazelon wrote, learning that “so many men had witnessed and taken pleasure from her abuse has been excruciating.”
As Cassell put it, “What’s so pernicious about child pornography is [Vicky] discovers it’s ongoing. Now to discover there are thousands of people out there, and any day she’s going to bump into somebody who’s seen her.
“People have stalked her on social media and figured out her real name. She had to take down her MySpace page,” he said. “Guys would call up saying, ‘Hey, I saw what you did with your dad. I’m sure you want to do it with me.’ ”
Episodes such as that, he added, “really set back all the efforts at therapy.”
And of having a working life.
Vicky, terrified that someone would make the connection between her and the videotape, left jobs and colleges, at times retreating to her mother’s home. She would drop therapy, then return, but her symptoms — anxiety, dissociation, panic attacks, shame — persisted.
Cassell is joined in the legal proceedings by Carol Hepburn, Vicky’s attorney, and James Marsh, a children’s rights lawyer in New York.
Last year, after federal appeals courts produced diverse rulings on whether, and how much, restitution should be paid to victims of online child pornography, the three focused on a case in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Last October, that court ruled in favor of another woman, Amy, who also sought restitution. The court also accepted the theory of joint and several liability, meaning that attorneys can go after any offender, but particularly target the wealthy ones.
Still, Cassell said, the U.S. Department of Justice and defense attorneys oppose his and his colleagues’ position.
“The government says we should be able to collect small amounts, not the large amount,” he said. “So we’ve had to wrangle. … It’s been very challenging litigation, but rewarding” to fight for victims.
Some would question whether restitution is fair to an offender’s family, but Cassell said he and his colleagues would use normal criminal-collection procedures.
“We can go after Dunn’s assets, but not after the assets of others,” he said. “Of course, that may cause harm to those connected with Dunn. But Dunn should have thought about that before he committed the crime.”
Besides, he said, “restitution is one of the most important things we can do for a victim. The principle we’re working on is that a victim who’s harmed from a crime ought to be able to emerge from that event not having any losses at all. The defendant is the one who ought to be made good for what happened.
“The government,” Cassell added, “condemns victims to hand-to-hand combat in literally hundreds and hundreds of cases all over the country trying to get restitution.”
Vicky’s is a test case in Utah for setting the principles, Cassell said. “We’re going to litigate this to the max.”
Both Vicky and Amy have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution, some in large sums, but most trickling in after hundreds of court orders. But they are a distinct minority; The Times reported that few other victims of redistributed child pornography even know they might have that option.
I’m with Cassell. I know more than I want to about the scourge of child sexual abuse, and I believe those who create or view child porn should be punished to the greatest extent of the law and pay restitution for their crimes.
Their victims deserve it.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @pegmcentee.