Freedom from sexual abuse

AN 18-year-old Long Island, N.Y., high school student, Cheryl Pierson, was recently convicted of conspiring to kill her father. She pleaded guilty to manslaughter, was sentenced to six months in jail, and is eligible for parole in about half that time.

In February 1986 Cheryl paid a classmate, Sean Pica, $400 to do the shooting. Sean was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison. He could be paroled after eight years.

Was justice served?

This case is far from simple. Cheryl claimed that her father had repeatedly abused her sexually. She had no one to confide in. And furthermore she couldn't bear to talk about this terrible thing. Her mother had died the year before after a long illness.

Cheryl said she decided to find a way to kill her father because she was becoming increasingly worried that he would also start to molest her younger sister.

Suffolk County Judge Harvey W. Sherman stated that his decision was a very difficult one to reach. After a two-week hearing that focused on whether the allegations of sexual abuse would sustain a plea of justifiable self-defense, Judge Sherman wrote:

``This court cannot countenance a planned homicide, albeit planned and carried out by teen-agers suffering emotional distress.

``Society has the right to condemn and a duty to punish such conduct and a term of incarceration is warranted....

``This court must encourage victims of domestic violence to seek other alternatives than the path taken by Cheryl Pierson.''

The sentence was admittedly very light. Prosecutor Edward C. Jablonski Jr. had asked that Cheryl be tried as an adult and, if convicted, be given a long prison term. He said he didn't believe that the six-month sentence would send a message to anybody.

Legal authorities will doubtless debate the outcome of the Cheryl Pierson trial for a long time to come.

Understandably the case has attracted the attention of social workers, psychiatrists, and child specialists the nation over.

It has brought to the surface a discussion about a subject that is still largely taboo even in today's sophisticated society: incest.

Many authorities insist that a youngster who is molested by a member of his or her own family becomes so anguished and confused that ``telling'' is often out of the question. Some juveniles have claimed that the abusing relative convinced them that no wrong or harm was being done. And guilt and shame on the part of the youngster often were the major influence to keep silent.

Is the dilemma so deep that the only alternatives are to endure the unconscionable behavior - or kill to end it?

If we have any faith in the ultimate civility of society, these two alternatives must be flatly rejected.

In most instances of molestation, there is extended family, friends, neighbors, clergy, or teachers to confide in. And the situation is confronted, and resolved, often in the privacy of the family unit.

With repentance and counseling, sex abusers have been known to reform. Prayer and spiritual catharsis have also led to awakening and rehabilitation.

In the past decade, reported instances of sexual abuse have increased twentyfold. Much of it occurs within the family.

Professionals have sought out underlying reasons for such antisocial behavior. And courts have attempted to draw legal guidelines for adjudicating molestation cases, particularly those involving very young children.

Credibility of testimony is sometimes difficult to assess but is often a key factor in determining guilt and innocence.

This is all productive - but more is needed. And that ``more'' is something that cannot be resolved by courts and social workers.

It involves an awareness of self-esteem by all concerned parties. It involves the embracing of identity that transcends the physical or biological. And it involves expanding the concept of family to more than a social unit but to one of mutual love, respect, trust, and understanding.

Cheryl Pierson says she cared for her father very much - despite her allegations against him. She wrote a eulogy for him the day he was buried.

Her story ended in tragedy. For others in perhaps similar situations, there should be hope and lessons to be learned from this saga.

Justice embraces both principle and compassion. If practiced in its highest sense, it should lead to healing.

A Thursday column

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