Monday, Michael Devlin was charged with sixty-nine counts of forcible sodomy, to go along with the two kidnapping charges for the abductions of Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck. “CNN does not identify alleged victims in sexual assault cases,” their article reads, “but has decided to do so in these cases, given the publicity already generated.”
They refer, in part, to the decision to put the teenaged boys on the cover of People magazine (a magazine owned by AOL Time-Warner, CNN’s own parent company). Not that People was alone, of course: Newsweek gave the boys’ rescue a cover story as well, Shawn’s parents were invited on the talk show circuit, and the question of why Shawn apparently didn’t attempt to escape (he was abducted from near his rural Missouri home in October of 2002, and discovered in Devlin’s apartment three weeks ago) became a popular media talking point, with various media outlets calling forth their favorite psychologists to speculate about emotional abuse and Stockholm Syndrome. Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly infamously suggested that Shawn might have preferred life with Devlin over life with his own parents.
This is what should have happened: As soon as the boys were rescued, and police realized they’d found Shawn Hornbeck as well as Ben Ownby (who’d disappeared just a few days earlier and had been in fact the focus of the search), the assumption that Shawn had been victimized over his four-plus year captivity should have kicked in, and both the police and the media should have begun withholding their names. This has been done successfully in the past, and should be an automatic response: The need to protect child victims of sexual assault should be paramount.
There are practical exceptions, of course: Withholding Elizabeth Smart’s name would have been impossible, because her disappearance made her one of the most well-known teenager in the United States: Over a two-day period a month after she was abducted from her Utah home, I saw her “missing” posters on the walls of a Texas YMCA and a Minneapolis bookstore.
But Shawn’s disappearance, taking place not long after Elizabeth’s, was ignored by the national media. “Ben Ownby, missing since Monday, was found last night along with another Missouri teenager who has been missing since October of 2002” would have sufficed, and the rest of the story could have played out in relative privacy.
I’m sure Craig and Pamela Akers, Shawn’s parents, didn’t go on the Opera Winfrey show intending to tell the world – with Shawn sitting by their side – that they believed their son had been sexually molested: but by this point the media had decided they owned the rights to Shawn’s life, and Oprah apparently thought this was an appropriate thing to ask. It’s easy enough for us to sit here and say “Well, if it were me, I would have told Oprah it was none of her business,” but the fact is, when you’re sitting on Oprah’s stage, in front of a live audience, you have no control over the situation.
Michael Devlin, who could face life in prison for any of the seventy-one charges against him, has already pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping charges and is expected to plead not guilty to the sexual assault charges as well.