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Seeking Validation After Abuse's Scars

By Donna Britt
Friday, October 7, 2005

On Wednesday, Burke software sales executive Rita Etter and a pal were in the middle of a night of chicken fajitas and chitchat when Etter's friend lifted a crimson-filled wineglass to her lips.

One whiff of its contents and Etter -- who hadn't moved -- was gone.

To the early 1970s, to the basement of the brick-and-stone house next door to her Arlington childhood home. Once again, she was a skinny, trusting 8-year-old; with her was the kind, thirtysomething neighbor who played catch with her and asked for her help in creating a backyard pond.

A married, churchgoing insurance agent, he was the family friend who filled some of the blanks left by her absent father and prescription-drugaddicted mother.

Noticing a glass of pink liquid on his desk, the 8-year-old Rita asked, "What's in it?"

"Do you want to taste it?" he asked. Sticking out his tongue, he told her to do the same.

He rubbed their tongues together.

At that moment, "everything changed." More than three decades since that moment, remembering it "feels like last night," says Etter, 41.

Last May, Etter told Arlington police about what happened in the basement, and about other abuses. Charged with three felony counts of "indecent liberties" with a child, the neighbor -- who is remarried and living in Annandale -- responded with an Alford plea, which stops short of admitting guilt but acknowledges that the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict if the case went to trial.

"It's the coward's way out," says Arlington police Detective Diane Guenther, an investigator in Etter's case. "It's the same as guilty. But he doesn't have to say it."

Seated in a suburban restaurant, Etter has to say it. No one wants to believe that such things happen. Too many parents -- whose suddenly withdrawn daughters have started asking odd questions, whose unusually belligerent sons refuse to see a certain relative -- fail to ask, "What's going on?"

Etter, who has wavy hair and a direct gaze, asked that her abuser not be identified by name in this column. "I don't want any money from him and didn't necessarily want him to go to jail," she says. "I wanted validation that what he did was wrong.

"And to protect other children."

October is National Crime Prevention Month. A quick scan of the National Crime Prevention Council's Web site offers worthwhile tips on starting a neighborhood watch program and avoiding identity theft -- but no immediate mention of an oft-preventable crime that happens right under our noses.

"People don't expect [child sex abuse] from someone they trust," Guenther says. So parents "have to notice changes in their children, listen to what they're saying, even if they're not saying it straight out."

Of course, some abuses escape the notice of even responsible caregivers. But as a child who was painfully aware that her family was on welfare, and whose haircuts were paid for by teachers who'd noticed her mother's inattention, she was "an easy victim," Etter says.

So her neighbor took her for long drives, placing her on his lap where he could "rub me inside my pants." When she expressed reluctance to accompany him, her mother would say, "But he does so much for us!" He even took her to be baptized.

By Etter's teenage years, the abuses had stopped. A talented softball player, she won a partial scholarship to George Mason University -- and dropped out because "I was too depressed to focus on studies. I felt defective and damaged." Turning to computer sales, she eventually bought a three-bedroom townhouse and became "very successful -- on the outside."

But "I thought of him every day of my life," Etter says. "I was afraid of running into him. Wondering if there was someone else [he'd molested]."

Last year, she began calling Arlington police, asking questions about her abuser, about the statute of limitations on sex crimes (there is none). Finally, she explained her curiosity to detective Gregory Sloan, adding, "I don't want to ruin [her abuser's] life."

"Why not?" Sloan responded.

For the first time, Etter wondered, "Why am I protecting him?"

She needed evidence. Set up with a police phone, Etter began calling the neighbor. She told him of her hurt and anger; he was cagey, though he admitted, "I was very attracted to you." After several calls, Etter remembered the man had converted to Judaism.

It was Yom Kippur -- the holiday of atonement. "If he believed," she figured, "he had to come clean."

He did. "I want to say I'm sorry that we had an improper relationship," he told her. "I crossed the line in a very bad way."

On April 28, Etter's abuser received a five-year "suspended imposition of sentence." Placed on supervised probation, he was required to submit to a sex offender evaluation, a polygraph and whatever treatment his evaluator required.

Two months later, Etter learned, a group in his synagogue -- six members of which had written character references for his court appearance -- voted him "Man of the Year."

Still, Etter feels "lucky." Few of the millions of child sex-abuse survivors -- experts say that's one in four children -- hear admissions of guilt from their tormentors. So "they're out there, still carrying their abuser's secret," says Pat Powers, Etter's therapist at the Women's Center in Vienna.

No wonder facing her abuser in court "was absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done," Etter admits. But as he was leaving the proceedings, she says, "our eyes locked."

"It felt good, not to be afraid."

Etter actually grins.

"I carried the baggage for both of us. . . ," she explains. "Now he can fear running into me."

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