Sight Unseen

Carole Abbott was an expert witness in child sex-abuse cases. What she witnessed at home was a different matter.

In the unhappy and shameful world of sexual abuse, the case brought by Denver cops in the first week of November last year barely rated at all. It began with a private complaint to friends -- known as an "outcry" among professionals in the field.

Late last summer, the now-22-year-old woman had confided to two co-workers that her stepfather had been behaving toward her in a troubling way. He had begun giving her massages that crossed the line between familial and inappropriate, she told them, and he had bought her intimate undergarments. What was most unsettling, though, was that she'd discovered her stepfather had been using a camera concealed behind a heating vent to secretly videotape her in her bedroom.

The alarmed co-workers went to their boss, who contacted the police soon after. On November 5, after a four-month investigation, Paul Abbott, 68 years old, was formally charged with three counts of third-degree sexual assault, including one charge of incest.

All occurrences of sexual abuse are tragic, yet inasmuch as there can be such a thing, the Abbott case seems to be a relatively minor one. There apparently were no actual sexual relations between the woman and her stepfather or any incident that reasonably could be called a physical attack. In fact, what makes the Abbott case unusually tragic was not what the young woman's stepfather allegedly did to her. It was what her mother did not do for her.

After the young woman's boss contacted the police, the case was handed over to a Denver detective named William Wickersham. The more he dug into the case, the more Wickersham became convinced that the girl's biological mother, Carole Abbott, had been complicit in the matter. For example, she had known about the secret videotaping for months but inexplicably had done nothing to stop it. To the contrary, when the young woman came into possession of one of the tapes, the mother reportedly urged her daughter to destroy it and to say nothing of the incident to anyone.

There were more instances in which Carole Abbott seemed to will herself blind. She apparently had been aware of her husband buying the young woman underwear from Victoria's Secret. At times, Wickersham's investigation revealed, she'd even been present in the same room when Paul Abbott had asked his stepdaughter to remove her bra so he could provide a more thorough massage to the young woman's torso. On the day her husband was charged with sex crimes, Carole Abbott was also charged with being an accessory to the crime.

Many sexual-abuse cases are pocked with inconsistencies and layered with blankets of gray. To someone who knew nothing about her background, Carole Abbott might be excused -- or at least understood -- as a woman struggling to balance her allegiance to her daughter against her love for her husband. But Carole Abbott, of all people, should have known better.

Abbott, now 48, has spent her entire professional life as a social worker. Although she worked as a therapist early on in her career in Iowa, where she'd received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work, she soon began to specialize in cases of sexual abuse. Throughout the 1980s, she served on various Iowa state and local councils related to the detection and treatment of abuse. Later she helped develop programs to teach law-enforcement workers and social-service agents how to report and investigate instances of abuse of children and dependent adults.

In late 1997 Carole Abbott moved to Colorado and began working at a nonprofit agency called Children's Advocacy and Family Resources Inc., more commonly known by its trade name, Sungate. The eight-year-old organization states that its mission is "to provide a safe, child-friendly place for children and families to meet with representatives from law enforcement and social services when reports of child abuse are investigated."

Abbott's job at Sungate was as a forensic interviewer -- a professional trained to question young victims of reported sexual abuse in an effort to find out what crime, if any, really occurred. The job is a difficult one under the best of circumstances. Gathering factual information from children, many of them frightened and distrustful, is a delicate balancing act. The interviewer must be friendly but thorough. She must take care not to plant ideas in the child's head, or to unwittingly lead him into "remembering" events that did not occur. Too often, the job is immeasurably sad.

The baffling failure of Carole Abbott to recognize and act on an alleged instance of sexual abuse within her own family and home, despite her lengthy training and daily work, is a private tragedy. She has been fired from her job. Her daughter has since moved out of the family's house, and only the Abbotts themselves (who, through their attorney, declined comment for this story) know how they will rebuild their family, if that is even possible.

Yet the gulf between what Carole Abbott pledged to fight in her professional life but somehow tolerated at home has also caused a public mess that is just now starting to be untangled. Abbott worked for Sungate for just under two years. During that time, she conducted hundreds of interviews with children suspected of being victims of sexual abuse.

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