Victim of child pornography sues her exploiters
By John P. Martin, Inquirer Staff Writer
Masha Allen was once called the Internet's "most famous little girl" - for the most horrific of reasons.
A Russian orphan, Allen was adopted at age 5 by a Pittsburgh businessman who sexually abused and exploited her online for years. Her widely circulated images came to personify the darkest corners of the Internet.
After being rescued in 2003, Allen took her story public. Congress was so moved that it passed a law in her name, giving child pornography victims the right to recoup damages from anyone caught with their images.
Now 20, Allen seeks to do just that.
In a federal class-action lawsuit filed Friday in Philadelphia, Allen names the adoptive father, Matthew A. Mancuso, and 13 other men convicted of possessing or transmitting her photos. From each she seeks at least $150,000, the minimum payout under Masha's Law.
"It sort of brings things full circle in that sense, for her to get the justice that she went out there and helped other people get," said Leighton Moore, one of her lawyers.
Mancuso and the others are just the first defendants in what could grow to be an unusual suit worth more than $100 million - at least on paper.
Most class claims are brought by an aggrieved group of plaintiffs against a common defendant, such as customers who buy the same defective tires or clients who follow the same negligent advice from a financial company.
Allen's claim works in reverse, targeting as a defendant anyone who illegally accessed the child images of her, a class that could grow every day.
Like all child pornography victims, Allen gets a notice from the U.S. Justice Department every time it charges someone with illegally possessing a pornographic photo of her. She has already received "well over 2,000" such notifications, her lawsuit said.
Winning the claim and collecting on it are different matters, which lawyers say is one reason there have been relatively few Masha's Law suits since the statute was enacted in 2006. Men convicted of possessing pornography tend to be defendants whose lives and finances are already in ruins by the time their criminal cases are over.
"These are the types of people who aren't motivated to settle - or even defend - a lawsuit," said Steven J. Kelly, a Baltimore lawyer who filed a Masha's Law claim in May against more than 80 men on behalf of two Maryland sisters, ages 7 and 9.
Allen's Atlanta-based lawyer acknowledged that collecting judgments from inmates or ex-convicts could be a challenge. Moore said the first 14 defendants in her case were named because they were professionals - including a doctor and lawyers - who appear to have assets worth targeting.
Mancuso, 55, was divorced and independently wealthy when he arranged to adopt the girl 15 years ago. As pornographic photos of her, including some taken at a hotel near Disney World, spread online, law enforcement agencies scrambled to find the girl.
Mancuso was identified as a predator in an online sting by an undercover officer. FBI agents found the girl in his home during the 2003 raid.
He pleaded guilty to producing child pornography and was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison. Mancuso was also ordered by his sentencing judge to put $200,000 in a trust fund for Allen, which he did.
He is scheduled to be freed from a Massachusetts prison in 2017, but then begin serving a state prison term in Pennsylvania for child rape.
The other named defendants are in prison, serving terms for crimes related to child pornography.
After being rescued, Allen moved to Georgia with a new adoptive mother. She also became a visible and vocal advocate of the law that bears her name. Besides testifying before Congress, the preteen girl gave a wave of television interviews and submitted victim impact statements in other criminal cases.
But the abuse - and the worldwide publication of it - irrevocably damaged her, her lawsuit said. And it will continue to do so because she knows most child pornography purveyors are not caught.
"Every stranger's glance, held too long, is a source of humiliation and pain," the suit says.
Allen now lives in Pennsylvania under another name. Moore declined to discuss any aspects of her current life.
"That was a lot of publicity for a young girl," he said. "She wants to have a more private life - for reasons that ought to be clear."