LAST YEAR, it seemed as though you couldn’t pick up a daily newspaper without reading at least one article detailing yet another instance of sexual violence. There were, of course, the relentless revelations of child molestation at the hands of Catholic clergy. What started as one case of clergy sexual abuse committed by one now-defrocked Boston priest erupted into a 12-month-long scandal involving scores of sexually deviant clergymen, from which the Boston archdiocese has yet to recover. Yet interspersed with coverage of the crisis rocking the Catholic Church were other, equally horrifying reports of sexual assault. In the past 18 months, we’ve heard about high-school athletes who gang-raped girls in Canton and Braintree. We’ve heard about Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy, who, in addition to releasing four rapists, reportedly advised a 14-year-old statutory-rape victim to just "get over it." We’ve heard about violent attacks against women near the Ashmont T station, in Dorchester. A serial rapist in the North End. A sex offender who murdered a woman at a South Shore rest stop. A middle-school coach who preyed on little boys.
Incidents like these have called attention to the pervasive problem of sexual violence in Massachusetts. Sexual assault has so dominated the headlines in recent times that, says Gina Scaramella, of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), in Cambridge, "It feels like one public awakening after another has occurred."
Naturally, victims’-rights advocates have worked hard to harness this surge in public attention. As early as February 2002, advocates called on then-governor Jane Swift to declare a sexual-abuse "state of emergency." In response, two months later, Swift set up a Task Force on Sexual Assault and Abuse, which organized five public hearings throughout the past year. Last October, the group disbanded after issuing an 85-page report that outlines as many as 43 recommendations for improving state-funded services for rape victims. This month, on May 7, Governor Mitt Romney followed up on his predecessor’s lead and unveiled a new Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence to address the problem. Says Catherine Greene, the director of the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence’s umbrella organization Jane Doe Inc., "This marks an historic moment for the movement. Sexual violence has finally taken its rightful place as a government responsibility."
Given all this, it’s shocking to consider that in late April, the House Ways and Means Committee — led by chairman John Rogers, with the guidance of House Speaker Tom Finneran — released a budget proposal that would wipe out funding for sexual-assault programs altogether. This, even after the governor’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2004 had maintained current funding for such initiatives to the tune of $2.4 million. Despite intense lobbying by victims’-rights advocates, who put forth an innovative revenue scheme to salvage the programs, the final House budget has left them hanging. As it stands, the House slashed spending for rape-crisis centers across Massachusetts by 70 percent, or $1.7 million — a crippling cut that, advocates say, would decimate the lifeline that the state extends to victims. To date, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) contracts with 21 rape-crisis centers to provide an array of rape-prevention programs and direct services to victims. And because state funding accounts for up to 50 percent of most centers’ budgets — along with private donations and federal grants — advocates estimate that at least 13 of the 21 centers would have to shut down next fiscal year. With all the heightened awareness surrounding sexual assault, how could this happen?
THE TIMING of the House Ways and Means FY ’04 budget proposal, which recommended zero dollars for sexual-assault programs, couldn’t have been more ironic. News that the House committee had eviscerated the programs broke on April 23, just as Sexual Assault Awareness Month was winding down. Victims’ advocates had spent the month busily working to combat the daily reality of rape. Editorials penned by advocates had appeared in the Boston Globe, while articles featuring area rape-crisis centers filled the pages of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Advocates had hosted fundraisers. They had even pushed Governor Romney to establish the new Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence.
By April 23, they had reason to celebrate. That evening, 40 advocates, survivors, and their supporters convened at a Boston bar to take stock of their month-long campaign and to hear a speech delivered by State Senator Cheryl Jacques of Needham, who’s fought to augment rape victims’ privacy rights. The event, sponsored by the group Socialized Toward Abolishing Rape, benefited Rape Crisis Services of Greater Lowell (RCSGL). Elizabeth Cohen, the Lowell center’s director, was enjoying the festivities when a friend who works at a state-funded domestic-violence program approached her.
"He came up to me and said, ‘Have you heard the bad news?’" Cohen recalls. House Ways and Means, he told her, had wiped out "our" funding. "I thought he was talking about his funding, not mine," Cohen says, explaining that House Ways and Means had also eliminated funding for domestic-violence programs that target underserved populations, such as gay men and immigrants. Sexual-assault advocates, she adds, "never saw this [cut] coming. We were totally blind-sided."
The House committee’s proposal took advocates by surprise because it erased the funding for sexual-assault programs entirely, rather than making substantial cuts. To make matters worse, many vital programs were decimated when House Ways and Means hammered away at the DPH’s line item, for which the Romney administration had included $11 million in its budget proposal. Known as 4513-1000, the line item pays for the department’s Division of Family and Community Health. It includes allocations for everything from family-planning services to gay-and-lesbian-suicide prevention to the poison-control hot line to rape-crisis centers. Simply put, the House had placed dozens of critical, lifesaving initiatives on the Beacon Hill chopping block.
In retrospect, the $11 million line item must have seemed like an easy target for lawmakers looking to save money. But advocates had figured their programs would be fairly safe. After all, the Romney administration, which has aggressively slashed health and human services in its attempts to balance the budget, had spared the $11 million to maintain current funding for the DPH division. Last fiscal year, the House had supported these initiatives despite a deepening deficit. And while the budget crisis has intensified since then, so has the demand for victims’ services. The Church scandal has lured more people out of the shadows — people victimized not just by priests, but by relatives, friends, acquaintances. Throughout 2002, the state’s 21 rape-crisis centers responded to a total of 13,397 hot-line calls — a spike of 3257 over 2001. They provided counseling and support services to 2726 people, up from 1728 the year before.
"Exactly when victims were most likely to come forward, legislators decided to defund these programs," notes Susan Gallagher, a Medford resident and outspoken member of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. In the wake of the Church scandal, the victims’ organization has joined with directors of the rape-crisis centers to bolster services for those abused by priests. "Advocates have extended their arms to us," she adds. "To have that hand cut off now is a real blow."
After the initial sting delivered by the House committee’s budget had subsided, however, advocates, survivors, and their legislative allies swung into action. They did the things that most grassroots activists do: they mobilized supporters and inundated House members with phone calls, faxes, and e-mails urging them to restore their programs. But they took a different tack as well.
Rather than try to draw money away from other human-services programs, advocates at Jane Doe, a statewide coalition of 60 organizations dedicated to ending domestic and sexual violence, devised a surprisingly simple mechanism to raise new revenues for their own programs. Currently, fines are levied against criminal defendants to help pay for government-funded services for victims of crime, such as homicide, assault, and rape. Advocates thought that the state could increase fees and set up a permanent trust fund for these services, one that would ensure funding for these programs even in tight fiscal times in the future. "We thought if we raised the pool of available revenues for victim services," explains Nancy Scannell, the legislative director at Jane Doe, "it would allow more to be put toward these programs" in FY ’04. Scannell and colleagues drafted a proposal to impose a $5 monthly fee on more than 170,000 people on parole and probation in Massachusetts — thus generating an estimated $3.2 million per year. Those who had committed sexual offenses would be charged an additional $100 fine. At a time when the state budget is hemorrhaging red ink, the thinking went, it only seemed fair to ask the people whose actions harmed society to give something back.
"The solution had appeal," says David Linsky, a Natick representative who filed the advocates’ revenue proposal as an amendment to the House budget on April 25. "We needed to find money for these programs somewhere, and people who commit the crimes should help pay the societal costs associated with them."
Tom Golden, a Lowell rep who helped push the solution, agrees: "I’ve no qualms about punishing criminals by making them pay some type of reparation to victims."
Evidently, the House leadership didn’t either. When Linsky presented his amendment to Ways and Means on April 25, John Rogers, the committee’s chairman, embraced the revenue scheme — indeed, according to Linsky, the chairman calculated that it could yield an additional $400,000 on top of the advocates’ estimate of $3.2 million, thus bringing in as much as $3.6 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The committee adopted his amendment, and on May 1 it became the only measure proposing new revenues that House members would pass. Yet in redrafting the Linsky amendment, the committee left out one crucial detail. Linsky had specified that "no less than" $2.4 million from the parolee and probationer fees be appropriated "for rape prevention and victim services" — which would have ensured that rape-crisis centers would actually receive the funding that advocates had worked so hard to generate. But the committee deleted this language and diverted the new revenues to the general fund instead.