GBMC, doctor suspected nothing amiss Satisfactory explanations of sex crime prove elusive

October 31, 1990|By Jean Marbella

It's become a cliche whenever a monstrous crime is revealed. Someone will always say: "He's the last person you would think would do something like that."

This time, the speaker is attorney Bill Porter and the subject is his client, a 43-year-old Baltimore man who pleaded guilty Monday to repeatedly raping his three daughters during much of their adolescent years, resulting in at least five pregnancies that ended in abortions. His 43-year-old wife also pleaded guilty to rape for her complicity in the abuse.

"That's one of the reasons why it's so hard to detect," said Dr. Fred Berlin, director of the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "You can't look at someone and know they have this problem. This is such a private aspect of someone's life."

And that is why incest, for all the talk-show sensationalism that has enveloped the subject in recent years, remains shrouded in secrecy and often goes unreported for years or forever, experts in the field said. Additionally, little is known about such offenders and what turns parents into people capable of one of the most stomach-turning of crimes -- sex with their own children.

"I don't know that there is a satisfactory explanation," said Dr. Berlin, whose clinic treats people with sexual deviations such as pedophilia and exhibitionism. "This is not in any way typical of the kinds of persons we see in our program. I don't recall any case this extreme, where the husband and wife were in collusion and so many children were involved and the children repeatedly became pregnant. These folks had convinced themselves that this is how close families live."

Most commonly, experts said, parents who commit incest were themselves victimized as youngsters. In the recent case, the father -- whose name is being withheld to protect his children's identity -- claimed to have been sexually abused as a teen-ager.

"One or both parents may have been victims of sexual abuse as children, so their own frameworks might have been distorted," said Gayle O'Callaghan, a Lutherville psychologist who has treated families in which incest has taken place.

Ms. O'Callaghan said such families share some common strains.

"Certainly, this family seems to have matched some of those characteristics -- being very isolated, very private and not talking to outsiders about the family, very moralistic or religious, with a mother who was not protective of her children or not assertive," Ms. O'Callaghan said. "Sometimes, these people have been raised in a very rigid religious background where sexual expression was not freely available. Sometimes, the family is under extreme stress, financial stress maybe, and there will be a complete breakdown in values."

Not much is known about this particular family -- the couple described themselves as religious, the family was on public assistance and the daughters were not allowed to have friends or to participate in extracurricular school activities. The abuse was believed to have been kept secret from even close relatives.

"It was just as much a surprise to me as anyone else," the man's mother said in a telephone interview yesterday. She refused to say any more about the situation.

Baltimore police Detective Lynette Nevins, who investigated the case, declined to speak about it specifically, but said that incest often is a way parents who feel powerless elsewhere in their lives can exert some control.

Speaking about incest in general, she said, "It appears that it's not a sexual issue, it's more of a power or control issue. Somewhere in their life, certain stresses come into play, and they cannot deal with them."

Detective Nevins said that, surprisingly, incestuous parents do seem to love their children. "They do have feelings for their children, they do love them," she said. "I think when you're looking at an incestuous type of offense, in most cases, the person has remorse and realizes what he did was wrong. In most cases, they can't help what they're doing."

Mr. Porter, the convicted man's attorney, agreed.

"It wasn't like he didn't care for his daughters," he said. "I don't think he realizes the magnitude of the trauma that this causes. He thought, 'Well, it was daddy.' He took pride in their accomplishments. He loved those daughters to death."

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