Tina Anderson’s horrifying treatment by Concord’s Trinity Baptist Church made her story the subject of national attention. Anderson was 15 in 1997 when she was raped and impregnated by Ernest Willis, then a church member more than twice her age. In a scene that sounds like it occurred in a distant century, Anderson was called before the congregation by its then-pastor, Chuck Phelps, and told to apologize for being pregnant. She was sent by Phelps and her mother to live with a family Phelps knew in Colorado until the baby was born and could be put up for adoption.
The specifics of Anderson’s case were extraordinary in one other way too: Fourteen years later, she summoned the courage to return to Concord and confront Willis, not to mention Phelps and her mother. In doing so, she set an example for women everywhere who have been doubly victimized – first by their attackers and then again by their fear of seeking justice.
Anderson put a name and a face to a crime that usually goes unreported because women fear the attacks on their character and credibility that inevitably follow accusations of rape.
Confronted years later, Willis admitted to statutory rape and claimed the sex was consensual. But last week, a Merrimack County Superior Court jury also found him guilty of forcibly raping Anderson on two occasions. He is now awaiting sentencing. For Anderson, the trauma of testifying in open court – not just before a judge and jury but also for an audience that stretched far beyond Concord – was mitigated by the courtroom victory.
A distressing number of American woman are the victims of rape or sexual assault. One national study puts the figure at one in seven; a 2007 New Hampshire surveys found the number closer to one in four. Despite the national focus on sexual and domestic violence and the increasing empowerment of women, most rapes still go unreported. The National Institute of Justice estimates that just 31 percent are brought to the attention of authorities; a 2011 study published by the Journal of Interpersonal Violence puts the figure at 15.8 percent.
Rape is typically committed by someone known to the victim, and it is a crime that rarely has witnesses. It is a hard crime to prove. Earlier this year, a committee of the Governor’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence published a report that argues that the criminal justice system fails to prosecute or win convictions in the vast majority of rape cases. It studied 344 female sexual assault cases in New Hampshire in 2006 and found that only 13 – or 3 percent – of the 344 offenders named either pleaded guilty or were convicted.
Indeed, Anderson’s case might have been forgotten altogether had a former Trinity member not discussed Anderson’s treatment by the church on a Facebook page founded by an activist to highlight what she believes are abuses by fundamentalist Baptist churches.
That activist, Jocelyn Zichterman, claims that when she was abused by a family member as a youth, her Baptist church pressured her into remaining silent. She now considers such fundamentalist churches to be cults and has made it her cause to support victims like Anderson. Whatever you make of Zichterman’s beliefs, the trial dramatized the importance for rape victims of having an experienced, caring advocate at one’s side while going through a grueling, emotional trial.
If rapists are going to be convicted, more victims will need the courage to do what Anderson did: confront their attackers and endure difficult questioning in the name of justice. In this case, at least, that bravery paid off.