updated 1/18/2007 7:56:41 PM ET 2007-01-19T00:56:41

The topic was sensitive — the sexual abuse of a kidnapped boy — yet it was broached in the most public of settings. On Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, the parents of Shawn Hornbeck disclosed for the first time their belief that he was sexually molested by his captor.

The revelation, in a show airing Thursday, raised anew the thorny problem of identifying sexual assault victims and dramatically demonstrated how the line between public and private has been redrawn in this 24-hour media world.

For Winfrey, it was a powerful interview and a scoop. For some experts on child abductions and molestation, there were qualms.

“This is a time to get to know one another and build new memories and heal, and they should be leaving these kids alone,” said Patty Wetterling, who became a prominent child-protection activist after her still-missing son, Jacob, was abducted in Minnesota in 1989.

Until the Winfrey show, there had been no public mention by any of the principals in the case of sexual abuse — even though it is a common motive for child abductions.

The alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, pleaded not guilty Thursday in Union, Mo., to charges of kidnapping another boy, 13-year-old Ben Ownby, who was found last week along with Shawn in Devlin’s apartment four days after disappearing. Devlin — who has not been charged with sexual abuse — is to enter a plea later in connection with Shawn’s abduction.

Parents suspect sex abuse
On “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Shawn’s parents, Craig and Pam Akers, said their 15-year-old son hasn’t told them directly but they believe he was sexually abused during the more than four years he was missing.

“OK, I’m going to go there and ask you, what do you think happened? Do you think he was sexually abused?” Winfrey asked the parents. Both nodded and said yes.

Rona Fields, a Washington, D.C., psychologist specializing in traumatized children, said she was troubled at how and where the issue was broached.

“It’s not something I would think a 15-year-old boy would want to have broadcast all over the country,” Fields said. “This impacts on the whole rest of his life, and it makes me cringe to think people would be so careless.”

The communications staff for Winfrey’s show responded with a statement noting that the show had been pre-taped on a closed set with no audience present.

“Oprah, who has years of experience interviewing children who have survived trauma, respectfully posed questions first to his parents and aunt — and then to Shawn with his family present — so that they could share their message of hope with other families who have missing children,” the statement said. “As with all guests. ... it was their prerogative not to answer any questions posed to them.”

Media disclosure issues
While it is a policy of The Associated Press, and many other news organizations, not to identify alleged victims of sexual abuse in most cases, Shawn’s case has been widely publicized and his name is well-known. Also, the family has gone public, conducting several interviews.

John Butler, news director of St. Louis radio station KMOX, noted that — as in other child-abduction cases — the media initially was doing a public service by reporting the names of missing youths and could not suddenly withdraw them from public access.

“The name was already out there,” Butler said. “If we look at it from damage to the child, the damage has already been done.”

Similar dilemmas have arisen in previous abduction cases, including two in 2003. Utah teen Elizabeth Smart’s name was so widely known that there was no turning back by the media after disclosure that she had been sexually abused during her nine months of captivity.

However, many news organizations — after initially identifying a missing 9-year-old San Jose, Calif., girl — did stop using the name after it became known that she had been sexually assaulted.

Case-by-case approach
“Each case has to be looked at carefully based on all the facts you’re aware of,” said Dick Rogers, reader’s representative for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The facts regarding the 9-year-old dictated restraint, while this one (the Missouri case) seems different. You hope every newsroom slows down enough to talk about it and do the right thing.”

University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor, an expert on crimes against children, said the media should strive for sensitivity even in cases where an abused kidnap victim’s name has been publicized.

“In abduction cases where the identity is already well known, it seems to me that special considerations ought to apply about trying to ensure the maximum amount of confidentiality,” he said. “We should not start from the presumption that, because we are so personally involved in this case from having followed it, we’re entitled to know everything.”

Kelly McBride, an expert on journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute, said the media should be willing to identify adult sexual assault victims if those individuals want to speak out on the record.

“When a victim’s parents want to talk about that, I have a few more reservations,” she said. “I don’t know that anyone can make that decision for anyone else.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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