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Silence around Seattle mayor’s rape allegations

Former Mayor Ed Murray at a press conference in the University District in September 2016.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has said he will run for re-election despite a pending lawsuit alleging sexual abuse.

This was going to be a story about how far we’ve come in talking about victims of sexual abuse.

It was a few days after a man, age 46, initials D.H., filed a lawsuit saying Seattle Mayor Ed Murray had paid him for sex when he was 15.

It turned out similar allegations against Murray had surfaced a decade ago but were never shared with the public – a lawyer withdrew and reporters balked. That made me wonder if we as a society had evolved since 2008 in how we treat victims.

And then I started making phone calls.

Directors of sexual assault organizations in town – no comment, too touchy.

Democrats – no comment. (Some exceptions, brief comments in favor of the mayor.)

The Seattle City Council as a group – no comment. Approached individually, council members waved off reporters – really, seriously, no comment.

The mayor did talk — two press conferences and one editorial — to say the allegations were politically motivated. 

But from political leaders, no calls for resignation. No calls for investigation. No endorsements rescinded.

“Nobody is talking. It’s heartbreaking,” said Danni Askini, an LGBT leader and survivor of sexual abuse. As one of the few being quoted in the press, she wondered, “Am I the only one talking about this? Are people so afraid?”

Askini wants to run for office again – she dropped out of a legislative race last year. She said being outspoken could hurt her chances of winning because the mayor, who is gay, is heralded in her community as a champion of civil rights.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Danni Askini.", "fid": "44885", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201406/danielleaskini.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Courtesy of Danielle Askini"}]]But Askini said she’s not thinking about her career – she’s remembering what it’s like to be a homeless gay teenager preyed on by an adult.

“There are literally hundreds of kids in this city right now who are surviving sexual abuse,” she said. “They are gaining inputs and messages from us about whether it’s safe to get help. How we respond – that’s at the forefront of my mind. All the other political considerations are so far downstream, so inconsequential.”

Askini helped Councilmember Kshama Sawant pen what she called a “value-neutral” statement focusing on victims rather than the allegations against the mayor. Sawant, a Socialist party member, wrote:

I believe such serious charges must not be tried in a court of public opinion, which is often cruel to survivors, and can be unjust for everyone involved. We have heard in recent days how survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence are reliving their own experiences of summoning the courage to come forward only to have their characters attacked. For many survivors, healing from the psychological violence of sexual abuse is a difficult, and sometimes lifelong process.

“Kshama Sawant has been roundly attacked since making that statement,” Askini said. “I think it was very courageous of her to say that she supports survivors openly.”

In the week after the story broke, some Democrats talked. On KUOW the next day, Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington state Democratic Party said, “It would be reasonable at least to ask the question about any political motivation.”

While she touched on the vulnerability of street youth, she focused her comments on political careers ruined by sex allegations.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mary Dispenza, a former nun and Catholic Church abuse victim.", "fid": "124510", "style": "placed_left", "uri": "public://201602/AP_061202019776.jpg", "attribution": "Credit AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey"}]]“We’ve heard stories in the past about how this impacts someone’s reputation,” Podlodowski said.

Like former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, she said, who had a relationship with an intern who was either 17 or 18. And former Spokane Mayor Jim West, who was accused by two men of sexually abusing them when they were teen Boy Scouts. Neither mayor recovered from the political fallout of those scandals.

A week later, Councilmember Sally Bagshaw went off message at a press conference about city zoning.

“I want you to know I have faith in this mayor,” she said. “As a former lawyer, a former prosecuting attorney, I have faith that truth and fairness will win out.”

Mary Dispenza, a former nun and advocate for those abused by priests, said she hasn’t been surprised by the reluctance to talk about this story, given how the priest abuses were seldom discussed here.

“Clergy abuse in Seattle has been very quiet and very silent, more so than other states and places,” Dispenza said. “That’s always been a puzzle to me.”

Dispenza met Murray in the early 1990s, when she was still a nun and he was part of Dignity, a group for gays and lesbians within the Catholic Church. Murray remains a practicing Catholic.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m making a judgment – I’m trying to be candid and honest,” Dispenza said, “But in my learning and my own life, an abuser establishes a bond and a relationship. And that, we know, is called the grooming process. And also, not always, but many times, the child or young adult is vulnerable. 

“There are so many red flags, and those are concerns you can't put under the carpet,” she continued. “Silence is the way you keep things from coming into the light.”

But Mike Pfau, a Seattle attorney who represented dozens of people abused as children by clergy, said he understands the silence.

“I would venture a guess that it’s just too big a hot potato,” he said. “This isn’t Mike Pfau lawyer talking, but if you want the mayor’s job, you have to time your response. … It’s politically appropriate to not say anything.”

And at this point, Pfau said, these are allegations.

“The allegations are really sordid,” Pfau said. “If they’re true, it’s tragic. If they’re not true, it’s tragic in a different way. This is just the beginning. What happens next is discovery – depositions, looking for documents. The lawyers will begin to develop their cases.”

Over at The Seattle Times, managing editor Michele Matassa Flores rejected that Times reporters weren’t savvy about sexual assault in 2008. She noted several projects they had done, including Coaches Who Prey.

But she said she understood why people might call it a political conspiracy.

“It’s human nature to not want to believe something so horrible,” Matassa Flores said. “I’m not saying he’s guilty for sure, but it’s human nature. If this is someone you know and have supported all along, I understand that.

“We can certainly find no evidence of a conspiracy,” she continued. “None whatsoever. We looked for that. It was one of the things we did in taking care with that story, and we could find none.”