Was story on molestation worth the human cost?
This newspaper had to decide whether a story involving sex crimes was worth the possible result of revictimizing the victim.
By Stewart Lee Allen
Stewart Lee Allen was a reporter for the Hollister (CA) Free Lance.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 2 (February 1991), p. 2.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
If it had been Janet Tremain, the director of San Benito County’s Child Protection Services, who had failed to register as a child molester, there would have been no question about the situation’s newsworthiness.
But it was her husband, Gerald Tremain. Convicted in Oregon in 1984, he had not registered as a sex offender as is required by law when he moved with his family to California.
Was the crime which had taken place years earlier relevant? He had gone through probation and was supposedly rehabilitated. Was a news story worth the likely devastating effect on the family, especially the molested girl, Janet’s 14-year-old daughter?
Our newsroom at the Hollister Free Lance was split on the issue.
“This is the woman who is supposed to be protecting our county’s children,” was managing editor Wayne Norton’s argument. “The fact that she had a molestation going on in her own home makes it newsworthy just on the face of it.”
Executive editor Mark Paxton, however, felt the relevancy might lie more in Janet’s attitude toward the molestation. Did she attempt to cover it up?
Did she report it? Did her relationship to Gerald affect her job performance?
I tended to agree with Paxton that if Gerald’s crime had no impact on Janet’s job it was not worth an article. We all agreed, of course, that it was worth investigating.
Unfortunately, under Oregon’s expungement laws, all records of Gerald’s conviction had been closed. Off the record, I was told it had been unusually serious abuse. My source said Tremain had raped his daughter, then 7 years old, every Friday for about six months. Janet said she had no idea it was going on until an officer came to their door to tell her that Gerald had been arrested. The abuse had been reported by the girl’s teacher.
Janet had cooperated with the investigation, but she had also used her position in the Oregon Human Services Department to get lenient treatment for Gerald. I also learned that she had reunited the family as soon as possible. Some counselors told me this indicated an ongoing unhealthy relationship between the three; others disagreed. This sort of professional disagreement over Janet’s fitness for her job made it even harder for us to decide if a story was warranted.
About this time, I found out that the local grand jury was investigating Janet and CPS counselors for alleged unprofessional conduct which put abused children at risk. We decided the story was important and we ran it after interviewing people who said they could verify the incidents being investigated.
I also learned there had been two recent investigations of reports that Gerald once again was molesting his daughter, but our story about the grand jury investigation made no mention of this or Gerald’s prior conviction.
The day our story ran about the grand jury, Janet resigned. When I called, she said she had resigned because she thought we were about to do a story on her husband’s past. Her resignation, she believed, made it a non-story. Janet told me that her relationship to Gerald had not had a negative effect on her job performance; in fact, it had been the opposite.
Her daughter then got on the phone and demanded to know why what had happened seven years ago would matter now?
I explained that there were some people who believed that her mother’s marriage to Gerald was affecting her work. I also told her we had heard that the things that had happened in Oregon were still happening.
She was crying at this point which was difficult for me. I should point out that two days earlier a county official had warned me that the daughter was a potential suicide. However, others familiar with the situation had dismissed the description.
Janet’s last words to me were, “I hope you freeze in Hell.”
Our story the next day quoted Janet as saying she had resigned “for the good of the department.” In the third paragraph, we mentioned her fear of “publicity” about her husband’s conviction. We did not mention her fear of a newspaper article and her hope that the resignation would kill any story about Gerald.
In an attempt to protect the daughter, we identified Gerald’s victim only as a “relative.”
After the story was published, Paxton, our executive editor, regretted the use of “relative.” I had more qualms. Janet and the daughter both begged me not to write the story and I was unsure if it was really worth the havoc it must be causing them.
While it may sound horrible, there was a certain feeling of relief when Gerald was arrested a week later for molesting his daughter. The girl brought the initial accusations. Janet admitted to knowing about the situation but failed to report it, a crime for someone in her position.
In the arrest story we included information indicating Janet’s superior had allegedly failed to pass on reports of the recent molestation to other law agencies.
In the end, everyone was glad the newspaper printed what it knew. It had led to official action, resulting in Gerald’s arrest and an investigation into the alleged cover-up. That’s how the system is supposed to work.