Positions of Authority Can Be Used to Abuse
By Chris Hamilton
The Rev. Mark Makowski's actions left the Grand Marais teen-ager and his family feeling confused, angry and betrayed, feelings that the teen said may never leave him. The popular Duluth priest's behavior shook the Catholic diocese as well.
From the Iron Range to the Twin Cities, the public spotlight has often shone on cases in which clergy, teachers, coaches and other authority figures have been accused of using their positions to take advantage of others. That type of attention again could be focused on a local courtroom. A trial set to take place in Duluth this morning for Eric Howard Holtan was recently taken off the court schedule, possibly signaling a plea agreement is in the works. The charismatic former Duluth East High School choir teacher is accused of having sexual contact with two minor students.
Attorneys for either side aren't exactly saying why the trial was postponed. However, St. Louis County prosecutor Mark Rubin said the case is still active. Earl Gray, Holtan's attorney, said the case has reached the point where either it goes to trial or an agreement is reached.
In the past 20 years, the hierarchies that oversee education, religion, psychiatry and other helping professions have made strides in weeding out potential perpetrators from their ranks and reporting and banning them once abuse is discovered.
In reported 1999 sexual assaults of children and adults, a minority involved those entrusted professions, according to the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault in Duluth.
Nineteen of the 217 new cases PAVSA was involved with last year described the assailant as an educator, clergy, therapist or other person in position of authority.
While the numbers are relatively small, the effects can be great on the community as well as victims when trust is destroyed.
Each case is as unique as its offender, local mental health experts said. Some are classic pedophiles or predators. In other cases, judgment lapsed. Some are violent rapists. Many see themselves as sympathetic lovers.
The sexual contact itself ranges from rape to a seemingly consensual relationship. The latter is a concept many who deal with sexual assault victims say can never take place when the balance of power is disparate between victim and assailant.
Ultimately, most offenders use guilt or threats of exposure or violence to maintain secrecy, the curtain sexual abuse lurks behind.
As the high school choir teacher from 1993 to 1997, Holtan directed more than 230 students in six choirs, some elite. Parents described him as a gifted musician.
Holtan, now 28, was charged last fall with two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree and another two counts in the third degree. A five-day trial was scheduled to begin today before 6th Judicial District Judge Terry Hallenbeck in Duluth.
Holtan is accused of having sex with the two girls beginning in 1994. They were 15 at the time. He allegedly continued at least one of the sexual relationships until last year.
The numerous sexual encounters occurred in his car, Duluth residences and his East High School office, according to court documents. There is no indication the sexual contact was physically forced.
Police say Holtan earlier admitted the crimes but said he believed the girls were 16 when the sexual relationships started. However, under the statute that doesn't matter.
Since the crimes were allegedly committed while Holtan was in a position of authority, the charges are enhanced. He also faces a more severe sentence if convicted of having sex with the 15-year-olds.
How it can happen
During the sexual abuse cases involving teachers and pastors in the past 10 years, the abuser was rarely violent, said Dr. Michael Miner, coordinator of the sex offender treatment program at the University of Minnesota's Human Sexuality program.
"Basically, if you think about modis operandi, people use various methods to coerce," Miner said. "And some who use positions of authority generally base the relationship on the position of authority, then use the position to have sex."
In those instances, generally, there are feelings of affection on both sides, Miner said.
"The perpetrators know what they're doing," said Tammy Feige, executive director of PAVSA. She has worked with hundreds of victims as an advocate, including those in the Holtan case. "Most (abusers) have a plan. They don't go right into, 'Oh, I'll help you, now let's have sex.' "
Feige and other experts describe a grooming process that takes place.
For instance, with someone such as a teacher or club leader it can start out as a healthy relationship. They are being attentive to the child. In a relationship between therapist and patient, the potential victim might feel good because they are being helped with personal problems, she said.
People are attracted to those in power. And an authority figure might have money and status. Their profession may be something potential victims aspire to, experts say.
Flattery or favoritism from such a person can go a long way toward influencing a potential victim.
Generally, perpetrators use their position and the breadth of their life experience to exploit the vulnerability of a younger victim, Mary Graff said. The therapist with Lake Superior Associates has worked with both victims and assailants for more than 25 years.
The offender might see himself or herself as an appropriate peer in a sexual way, Graff said. The young person might be quite mature. And a place like a high school, where blossoming sexuality is everywhere, can be a challenging environment.
"However, the teachers are responsible for maintaining the boundaries," Graff said. "You're the adult."
However, once that line is crossed, it can lead to double lives for both offender and victim. Secrecy is a big problem, she said.
What generally can develop is an entrenched relationship. A victim might not be able to see a way out, since sexual assault is all about isolation, said Feige, the victim's advocate. Guilt, shame and embarrassment all hold back the victim from coming forward.
The long-term effects on the victim can include self-loathing, depression, a lack of trust in other relationships and poor decision-making later in life.
It can also lead to a resentment of all authority figures, said Patty Matejka, of First Witness, a public program that helps investigate child abuse. She said she's seen abuse survivors have a difficult time holding down jobs, paying bills and meeting other responsibilities.
Coming forward is only the beginning in the healing process. The release of all that stress and anxiety can be immediately cathartic for a victim, Matejka said. From there, it's situational, often confusion can be abundant, she said.
A higher standard
The focus on sexual abuse in recent years has led to policy changes.
New teachers and priests must now undergo background checks. The Duluth Catholic Diocese and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's local synod, which has had its own recent scandals, have policies to immediately report sexual abuse.
Any teacher convicted of a sex crime in Minnesota will lose his or her teaching license. The 1998 law was passed because of a Northland incident.
Minnesota state law also says no matter what the age of the parties, it is illegal for anyone who conducts psychotherapy to have sexual contact with a client.
And state ethics board guidelines go further to say therapists and counselors should not have sexual contact for at least two years after they've stopped therapy. Even then, it is discouraged.
As he sentenced Makowski to six months in jail and seven years probation, Judge Kenneth Sandvik said a person placed in a position of authority should be held to a higher standard.
Makowski is no longer a priest, according to the Catholic Diocese of Duluth. He now works as a florist in the Twin Cities.
Chris Hamilton covers state and federal courts. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5318 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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