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Editorial: Sex abuse cases require urgency, follow-up

Jun. 25, 2011 @ 10:25 PM

Perhaps it seemed too far-fetched.

After all, Foster "Pete" Bowen had served the Huntington Police Department for 25 years, achieving the ranks of captain and deputy chief by the time he retired in the early 1980s. How could it be possible that such a longtime member of the law-enforcement community committed such despicable acts as described to a Cabell County sheriff's deputy in the summer of 2005? Who would believe that the retired police officer had molested boys for years?

Apparently, that deputy didn't -- at least not enough so to do anything about it. Nor were his superiors spurred to any substantive action after they learned of the allegations made by two brothers who had finally ratcheted up enough courage to tell police about the abuse they had endured.

Now we all know, however, that the allegations have been deemed true by a Cabell County jury that in April convicted Bowen of 34 counts of sexual assault and abuse involving seven victims over a period of 22 years. On Thursday, Bowen, 81, was sentenced to 302 years in prison.

At least five boys were molested by Bowen in the period between 2005, when Shane and Justin Wilburn first told the deputy they had been abused, and Bowen's eventual arrest in August 2010, according to court documents and testimony at Bowen's trial. The arrest came shortly after Shane Wilburn and another victim's parents contacted the Barboursville police chief, who alerted West Virginia State Police. State police conducted the investigation that resulted in charges against Bowen last year.

Kim Wolfe, sheriff at the time and now Huntington mayor, former Chief Deputy Jim Scheidler and the deputy who interviewed the Wilburns in 2005, Mike McCallister, defended their handling of the 2005 interview with the Willburn brothers.

But in their recollections of that period, detailed by reporter Curtis Johnson in last Sunday's The Herald-Dispatch, it appeared very little action took place. McCallister didn't file a report. The deputy said he did not pursue any further investigation because the Wilburns were unwilling to provided either a written or recorded statement and never returned.

As far as Wolfe, Scheidler and others who became aware of the Wilburns' allegations, the only action they can recount is that they occasionally communicated with McCallister or with each other to learn if the Wilburns had returned to provide a written or recorded statement.

The Wilburns say they believed they provided enough information for an investigation to occur, but none did at that time.

Wolfe said this month that applying hindsight is unfair at this point. Yet hindsight -- assessing whether a matter was handled properly to learn any worthwhile lessons -- is justified. While it may have not been apparent to the sheriff's department then, we hope it has become clear now that handling complaints from sexual abuse victims requires more than what was provided to the Wilburns in 2005.

Eugene O'Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor who now teaches law and police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, N.Y., notes that child molestation and sex crime cases are usually problematic from the start. Offenders go to great lengths to manipulate fear and control over their victims, making allegations difficult to investigate and corroborate. Because of that, police have to go to extra lengths, providing support to those making the allegations and perhaps counseling. They must follow up aggressively to determine if the complaint has merit. And police agencies should have a protocol about documenting complaints when they occur, not simply leaving it up to an officer's discretion about whether to write a report.

They also must act with urgency, O'Donnell and others noted, because most sex offenders' nature is to continue offending, as was the case with Bowen.

None of that happened in 2005. We trust that our police agencies by now have gotten the message that cases such as Bowen's warrant their full attention, no matter who the suspect is.

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