Phillip M. Bailey, Louisville Courier Journal Published 11:57 a.m. ET May 8, 2018 | Updated 2:14 p.m. ET May 8, 2018
A woman who is nationally recognized for speaking up on behalf of survivors of sexual abuse is calling out Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell for his response to allegations of sex abuse in a Louisville police youth program.
Katya Estes appears in an online campaign ad paid for by Metro Councilman Brent Ackerson, who is taking on O’Connell in the May 22 Democratic primary. In it, she said she is “outraged” by the county attorney’s argument to release the names of Scouts who claim they were abused in the police department’s Explorer program.
O’Connell, who represents the city in civil matters, said last year that for fairness, plaintiffs should also be identified because the police officers accused of wrongdoing are mentioned by name.
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Estes said in the ad that O’Connell was “trying to exploit” the former Scouts, who participated in a program for teens interested in law enforcement that was offered by police and the Boy Scouts of America.
In an interview with Courier Journal on Tuesday, Estes said: “In my experience it’s very delicate and it’s important to have a sense of control over what’s happening with your truth. And it’s not Mr. O’Connell’s place to say that he wanted to release the names.”
It also cited that O’Connell has created a specialized unit that handle similar cases and that the Center for Women and Families, which provides shelter and services in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, honored O’Connell last year with its community service award.
Ackerson told Courier Journal on Tuesday that O’Connell’s campaign is dodging the issue but can’t ignore his words “defending police rape” last year that the councilman said stood in the way of the accusers seeking justice.
Estes gained notoriety in Louisville when she was awarded $10 million in damages two years ago after a jury found her grandfather guilty of rape and sexual assault. In 2016, she won an award from the National Children’s Alliance for her work at the Family and Children’s Place, which has four offices across the Louisville region.
Estes said she appeared in the online political ad to stick up for the accusers in the Explorer case.
“The youth in this case, I don’t know who they are, but they don’t have a voice,” she said. “… The fact that (O’Connell) wanted to release the names is inappropriate.”
The Ackerson ad highlights O’Connell’s remarks to reporters last year when he said a former Scout should not be allowed to remain anonymous when filing a civil lawsuit against two former officers, who also face criminal charges over the allegations in the Explorer program.
Besides Estes, the ad uses TV clips from a WAVE 3 story and a debate between the two political rivals at the Louisville Forum. During that debate, Ackerson told audience members that O’Connell clearly wanted to reveal the accusers’ names and only reversed his position after a backlash.
“What happened in this town makes me ashamed, it should make all of us ashamed,” Ackerson said. “Kids were hurt.”
Read this: County attorney accused of ‘political stunt,’ he says 2 councilmen are breaking the law
O’Connell argued last year that the law was on the side of the city and the defendants.
“The playing field needs to be leveled,” O’Connell said after a Jefferson Circuit Court hearing on a Courier Journal motion to open a lawsuit filed by a former Scout identified only as N.C. who claimed he was sexually abused by two officers and that the police concealed it.
But O’Connell backpedaled that same day, saying that neither he nor Mayor Greg Fischer wanted to reveal former Explorer Scouts’ names. He said in a statement that his office works “tirelessly every day in the support of victims of sexual assault.”
Courier Journal, which typically does not name victims of sexual abuse in criminal cases, sought to unseal the case to have access to any additional filings made in the case, not for the purpose of identifying any plaintiff.
Since last year six civil suits have been filed alleging abuse or harassment by police officers in the Youth Explorer program. Five of those cases name either former police officers Kenneth Betts or Brandon Wood as defendants.
The latest suit, filed by a former Scout identified only as E.B., claims the program became a “sexually hostile environment” after Betts repeatedly asked the Scouts to send or accept nude photographs.
The suits also names as a defendant former Maj. Curtis Flaherty, who led the program as a lieutenant, alleging he was part of a cover-up.
All three have denied wrongdoing.
In another lawsuit, a former Scout identified only as B.L. claims Officer Brad Schuhmann manipulated her into having sex when she was under age 16.
Schuhmann, who was an adviser in the Explorer program, has been put on desk duty with his police powers suspended pending the completion of an internal investigation, though the police have declined to detail the nature of that inquiry.
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at 502-582-4475 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/philb.