Child porn victims seek restitution
Damage claims target convicted purveyors
The woman, now in her twenties, lives in relative anonymity on the West Coast, but to child pornography collectors worldwide she will always be known as “Vicky,” a little girl raped by her father in a series of videos illegally disseminated online thousands of times during more than a decade.
Now the woman and a small but growing number of other child pornography victims are seeking restitution from those who collected or traded pictures and videos depicting their abuse, filing claims for damages against convicted child pornographers in Massachusetts and around the country. In court papers, victims describe living with the knowledge that their images can never be cleansed from the Internet.
“Many people somewhere are watching the most terrifying moments of my life and taking grotesque pleasure in them,” the woman said in court statement provided by her Seattle attorney, Carol Hepburn. “They are being entertained by my shame and pain.”
Since 2008, six federal child pornography cases in Massachusetts have resulted in defendants being ordered to pay restitution, according to the US attorney’s office in Boston.
The amounts range between $2,000 and $2.5 million, and more than a dozen local cases are pending as courts across the country grapple with questions about whether victims deserve restitution and, if so, how much.
The recent restitution efforts come as the scourge of child pornography has accelerated during the last decade, aided by improved technology and the Web’s promise of anonymity.
While most sexually exploited children go unidentified, nearly 5,000 nationwide have been located during the last 10 years by law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The Virginia nonprofit manages a database to aid prosecutors and help identify exploited children.
The woman described as Vicky declined to speak to the Globe for this story.
Her body builder father is serving a 50-year prison term, but that does not provide much comfort. In court filings, the woman described how she suffers from nightmares and panic attacks — mostly because graphic evidence of what he did to her still circulates online.
Some men have even stalked and solicited her after becoming obsessed with the so-called Vicky series.
Pictures and videos from the series have been found in the files of about 2,600 defendants nationwide — including about two dozen cases in Massachusetts — Hepburn’s staff said. On behalf of the victim, she wants convicted pornographers to pay a total of $1.3 million. Hepburn said the money will compensate for therapy, lost wages, and other damages. In the last three years, she has collected several hundred thousand dollars by filing motions in 350 cases.
Payments, in increments as small as $25, come from convicts’ assets and family members, or through tax seizures. Some will probably never pay up because they are destitute or have been deported, Hepburn said.
Hepburn said her client also is using the courtroom as a stage to tell her story, speaking openly about a crime that often paralyzes victims with shame and fear.
“She really wanted to do all she could for victims,’’ Hepburn said. “So many of these girls and boys don’t want to come forward.”
But critics say restitution orders unfairly punish those who haven’t physically abused children or even produced illicit pornography. And attorney Jonathan Turley, a law professor from George Washington University, said it’s not practical to require payments every time a victim’s picture pops up on someone’s computer.
“If everyone is entitled to restitution, no one will get it,” Turley said. “Inevitably, this is going to be a challenge both logistically and financially for the courts as more restitution demands arise.”
New York attorney James R. Marsh, a pioneer in the restitution effort, said more victims do not seek damages because they are afraid and embarrassed.
His client, identified in court documents as Amy, was molested repeatedly by her uncle from the age of 4. Images of those attacks have been located on the computers of more than 1,600 defendants.
Marsh seeks $3.4 million in lost wages, medical costs, and other damages on behalf of his client. He said he has prevailed in more than 170 rulings totaling about half that amount since 2008.
Amy, in her 20s and living in rural Pennsylvania, declined to talk to the Globe.
In court papers, she said it is difficult for her to concentrate, study, or keep a job.
“I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me, and that I will be humiliated all over again,” she said in a victim impact statement.
“It’s hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my abuser, and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment for it.”
The woman who as a child was depicted in the Vicky series did not know until years after the attacks stopped that her father uploaded and distributed proof of his crimes.
After reporting him to police in 2005, he fled the country. She made an appearance on the syndicated television program “America’s Most Wanted” — revealing her identity — in hopes of generating leads for a worldwide manhunt.
A Toronto police detective saw the show and recognized the teen as the unidentified victim in the Vicky series.
The Globe does not name victims of sexual abuse.
“My world came crashing down the day I learned that pictures of me being sexually abused had been circulated on the Internet,’’ she said in court documents.
“Since then, little has changed except my understanding that the distribution of these pictures grows bigger and bigger by the day and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Each time her images are found in a pornography collection or are introduced as part of a court proceeding, she is notified through the FBI’s Child Pornography Victim Assistance Program, launched in 2006.
Victims can opt to have notices sent to them, although the agency warns they “may start to receive a large number of notifications.”
Vicky’s family, overwhelmed by the volume of reports, eventually decided to stop getting notifications.
“The pain and gut-wrenching reminder of receiving enough notices to overflow a 55-gallon drum is more than my family can take,’’ her stepfather said, according to court records.
T. Patrick Kearney, one of the many men who possessed and distributed Vicky images, in 2010 pleaded guilty in US District Court in Worcester to child pornography-related charges.
Kearney, a North Grafton resident, was sentenced to nine years in federal prison and ordered to pay $3,800 in damages for possessing and distributing Vicky videos.
Kearney appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, arguing Vicky was not his victim — he hadn’t physically abused her himself.
Even if she were, he contended, his contribution to her suffering was inconsequential because so many others viewed and traded the same images.
The appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision, and two month ago Kearney requested a review from the US Supreme Court, which has not said whether it will hear the case.
Hepburn said she expects the Supreme Court to address the issue soon. She wants the top court to rule that victims be fully recompensed for their losses.
She’s also eager to have more public understanding about the effects of child pornography on victims.
“I can’t tell you how many times we have to educate people, to say, ‘Hey, these are real kids. They have real damages,’’ she said.
“My client’s images are a viral thing online. She can never put that back in the box.”