Md. Family's 'Terrible Secret'
Author: Victoria Churchville, Washington Post Staff Writer
To her neighbors and most of her family, the girl growing up in rural Montgomery County was a happy, normal child -- the product of an idyllic country home. But instead, she said recently in court, her life was shadowed by terror in a household where her father forced himself sexually on her two to three times a week.
Hers is an ugly story -- one that the daughter, now 25 and a teacher in Gaithersburg, began to confront only last year, more than eight years after the abuse ended. But the story does not end with her; it involves her entire family in a web of alleged serial abuse, spanning 13 years and darkening the lives of three natural daughters, now grown women, and one adopted daughter, 15.
In the coming months, their stories will be brought out as charges by the three other daughters come to separate trials in Montgomery County in what psychologists and child protection experts said is a classic illustration of an outwardly happy family in which repeated sexual abuse of the children was the private norm.
In incest families, serial abuse is not uncommon, according to experts. Long-lasting relationships also are typical -- the average number of years a child is abused is seven, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources. Finally, a family tendency to deny the abuse is a hallmark in such families, experts said. The drama wending its way through Montgomery courtrooms is one being played out against a swelling local and national wave of cases of sexual abuse of children that is swamping social workers, law enforcement agencies and courts.
At least 100,000 children were sexually abused nationwide by their primary caretakers -- parents, grandparents, baby sitters -- in 1982, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the Health and Human Services' National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. But child protection experts nationally and locally estimate that the number of children sexually abused each year could be two to 10 times higher. National figures factoring in abuse by people outside the family are unavailable.
In Maryland, 490 suspected cases of sexual abuse of children by persons inside and outside the family were reported in 1978. By 1982, the number had ballooned to 1,040 -- a 120 percent increase, according to the Chesapeake Institute, a therapy center in Kensington that treats sexual abuse victims. In Montgomery, reported cases have increased 13-fold in the past five years -- from 36 in 1979 to 469 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to figures released by the county Sexual Assault Service. Child welfare experts say no one knows whether there are more cases of abuse now or whether the reporting of the cases has just increased.
In the case of the Gaithersburg woman, she was able to talk about her fears and isolation during an eight-day trial in which her father was convicted of sexually abusing her and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is maintaining his innocence and is appealing the conviction.
"I would say, 'Other fathers don't do these things,' " she recounted in her testimony about the attacks. "He threatened to kill me if I told anyone. I was so ashamed that he did these things to me. I was afraid people at school could read my mind."
The father, a successful computer operator, apparently was able to hide his alleged incestuous relationship with each daughter from the others, from their mother, from relatives and neighbors and from social workers who studied the family and allowed it to take in three foster daughters and to adopt a girl and boy from Costa Rica. The Costa Rican children were taken from their own original family because they had been sexually abused. None of the three foster daughters has alleged that the father abused her.
What is unusual in this case, if the charges of all four daughters are upheld in court, is the man's alleged dogged efforts to supply himself with girls of an age that attracted him and his use of violence and threats to force his daughters into sexual relations, according to the experts.
"Normally, incest fathers won't go outside the family," said Thomas S. Berg, a marriage and family counselor with the Chesapeake Institute. "When the daughters grow up and leave home, he'll stop. He's only attracted to his own children. It's the adoption an indication that he was looking to make children available to himself."
According to the testimony of the second daughter and documents filed in connection with the case of the 15-year-old adopted daughter, the father hit and threatened them when they were clumsy or tried to refuse his advances.
Most pedophiles cajole and bribe children, presenting sex as a secret game, according to Dr. Fred Berlin, chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital's Sexual Disorders Clinic. "It's rare that such an individual will push on in the face of clear distress by the child," Berlin said. "It sounds as if this is not just about incest but about raping children."
Each of the four daughters brought charges against the father in the past year and he has pleaded innocent to all of them. Only the charges by the second-oldest daughter have come to trial. A second trial, involving the adopted 15-year-old girl, is scheduled to begin next month. The daughters' allegations triggered a bitter divorce and custody battle between the man and his wife, a registered nurse.
During the August trial, the father testified that the charges were concocted by his wife and daughters and fueled by the value of the family's estate, estimated, according to financial statements filed in the couple's divorce case, at close to $400,000. The father, whose name is not being used in this story because it is shared by some of his daughters, also testified that an inoperable heart condition rendered him impotent, incapable of performing sexually with his wife of 29 years, much less of molesting his daughters.
In telephone calls made last month and last week from the county jail to The Washington Post, the man again proclaimed his innocence and talked of a family conspiracy against him. He said it was led by his wife, whom he said resented his devotion to children and his desire, born of his Catholic faith, to have more children than his Protestant wife wanted.
"I stayed home with the children. I cleaned house. I cooked. I grocery-shopped," he said. "My wife wouldn't. She is a supervisor -- that's what she likes to do. I think she supervised the girls into all this. They're absolute lies, vicious, insidious lies."
Except for the father, members of the immediate family have declined interviews pending the outcome of the remaining trials. But from interviews with their relatives and neighbors, psychologists and psychiatrists who treat incest victims and offenders, and from examinations of court documents and testimony, emerges a compelling picture of family members isolated from one another and from the outside world by what prosecutor Barry Hamilton in court labeled a "terrible secret."
According to the second-oldest daughter's testimony in the trial, her father in 1970 began forcing the fifth-grader at a Catholic parochial school into various intimacies with him two to three times a week in their Wheaton home.
As the father worked his way up from a printer to a computer operator in Gaithersburg, the family moved from suburban Wheaton to rural Upper Montgomery's horse country, where they built a four-bedroom house nestled amid hillside pastures. In that serene setting, the abuse continued, stopping in 1976 toward the end of her junior year in high school, the woman testified.
The eldest daughter, a 26-year-old waitress who is studying public accounting, alleges that her father began an incestuous relationship with her while the family lived in Wheaton in 1971, according to documents filed in her case. She alleges that the abuse continued until 1973, then stopped as abruptly as it began. The state has charged the father with rape, incest and unnatural and perverted acts in that case, because Maryland child abuse laws, strengthened in 1973, did not cover sexual abuse at the time the eldest daughter says her father abused her.
According to court documents, the man's youngest natural daughter -- now 21, married and working in commercial art -- alleges that in 1975 the man began a similar pattern of sexual abuse with her. She said that her father abused her through 1978.
Court documents and the testimony of the first trial are mute about what moved the daughters and their mother late last year to topple the wall of silence built of fear and to share their experiences for the first time with one another.
The second daughter testified at the trial that she never told her mother or sisters about her relationship with her father because of her fear, shame and overwhelming desire to keep peace in the family. "I guess when you put it all together, you don't complain. I didn't want to hurt my mother because she tried so hard to keep everything peaceful. I thought of myself as isolated," she testified.
The daughter's reticence about the episodes with her father, until eight years after they ended, may represent "hiding," a common defensive reaction among women who were sexually violated as children, according to Dr. Judith E. Sprei, a Laurel psychologist who specializes in treating what she calls "incest survivors."
Sprei speculated that the Gaithersburg woman may have sought a safe haven from her father in an early and asexual marriage at age 20 to her high school boyfriend. In court testimony, the daughter described the marriage: "We were just like brother and sister." The young couple never consummated their marriage and it ended in divorce three years later, according to testimony. For the past two years the woman has lived with a man in what she described in court as a romantic, loving relationship.
Although the woman testified that she has not sought therapy, Sprei said her decision to leave an asexual marriage, her ability to get involved in a positive romantic relationship, and most importantly, the woman's decision to testify against her father, although painful, may trigger a healing process.
"If she had enough guts to do what she's doing, she's not hiding completely. Potentially, it the court case can be very good for her -- it shows that she's got some power and can stand up and be believed," Sprei said. "She's not helpless when it comes to her father anymore."
Child protection experts often refer to sexual abuse of children as "the hidden crime," because unlike physical battering, its wounds remain invisible. The smooth facade wards off suspicion and help.
"It quite often is someone who one would not suspect because he looks like a good family member; he may be active in the church, active in the community," Sprei said.
"In fact, that's what makes it so confusing for the child -- there's such a difference between how people see the father in the community and even within the family and how he is secretly with her," Sprei added.
"It was a big shock to all of us," said an uncle of the Gaithersburg woman when asked about the charges in that recent court case.
The family's neighbors echo the shock. "I don't know how I could have lived here and not know what their problems were over there," said the family's next-door neighbor of 14 years. "In the beginning, they were very, very friendly, pleasant and outgoing. Then suddenly, the father didn't want his kids to be with our kids. I didn't know why. He kept them pretty close at hand. Now that is one person's discipline versus another's . . . . "
She said that since the father left the house, the older daughters have returned home for visits -- something they had not done in years.
The neighbor said the mother, who married the man while he was serving in the Marine Corps in Kentucky in 1955, and the adopted daughter are seeking to rebuild their lives. "But she says she's doing lousy," the neighbor added. "She said, 'How could you be married for 29 years and not know a man?' "