Even 14 years after the abuse had stopped and she had grown up, the pain continued. One day last fall, Laura White made up her mind. She picked up the phone, called the police and told them that her uncle sexually abused her as a child and she wanted to press charges.
Yesterday, White, 27, sat in Fairfax County Circuit Court and watched her 65-year-old uncle, Francis R. Wilkie, a small man with white hair, plead guilty to two counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor and one count of sodomy. Wilkie, a former county schoolteacher, faces up to 13 years in prison for two assaults on his niece that occurred in 1971 and 1974. Prosecutors said yesterday that White was abused from the time she was 4 until she was 13.
"It was tremendously validating that all the feelings and the pain I felt were real, that he did abuse me," said White, who consented to the use of her name. "There is sort of a sense of finality to it. Not that it won't always be with me, but this chapter is closed."
Experts on child abuse say adults increasingly are coming forward and seeking confrontation with their abusers through the court system as society's awareness of child abuse has grown. However, they say, statutes of limitations prohibit prosecution in some states, and it often is difficult to prove crimes that took place years earlier. Virginia has no statute of limitations on felonies.
"My sense is it's starting to happen more and more," said Patricia Toth, director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. "More and more adult survivors are coming forward." More adults are filing civil suits against their abusers, she said, because criminal cases are harder to prove.
Last week, a University of Maryland professor was indicted on felony charges after his daughter told police that she was sexually abused by him.
White, a counselor for an employee assistance firm in the District, said she decided to file charges after years of counseling and coming to the realization that the abuse was not her fault. "It took me a while to realize it wasn't my fault and I wasn't responsible for the abuse," she said. "I was concerned he would still be abusing other children."
White said after she made the call to the police, an investigator visited her and they set up a phone conversation between White and Wilkie, who was living in Salem, Ore. Wilkie, a former English teacher at Chantilly High School who was convicted in Virginia in 1974 of taking indecent liberties with a 12-year-old girl, moved to Oregon shortly after his conviction, the prosecutor said.
"Primarily, I asked him why he abused me," White said of the conversation. "And he didn't have a good response."
Prosecutors said police taped the conversation, and recorded an apology from Wilkie to his niece.
In May, a Fairfax County grand jury indicted Wilkie on one count of taking indecent liberties with White when she was 9 years old, and one count of taking indecent liberties and one count of sodomy without force when she was 11.
White said she remembered those two incidents as though they happened yesterday. "There are scars I will always bear. It's a part of my identity. If you compare it to breaking your leg as a kid or falling down and getting stitches. You have a scar on your knee . . . . You might notice it when you get dressed in the morning. It's sort of like that, an emotional wound that's never gone."
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney William D. Pickett told the court that Wilkie abused White over nine years. "She has been living in her own hell," he said, "trying to deal with what the defendant did to her."
Wilkie's attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, told the judge that Wilkie "expressed his feelings of remorse" during the taped phone conversation. "He wanted to plead guilty and get this behind him," Greenspun said. "He is here facing the music."
Wilkie is to be sentenced Aug. 17.
Pickett said his office decided to prosecute the case because the charges were serious. "We take the position: If we could prove it, we will prosecute, especially if it's a crime against a child because they are among the most serious crimes we see and also among the most unjustifiable."