A 15-yearold girl from a school in northern Utah who was sexually exploited by members of the Tooele High School baseball team during athletic tournaments held in St. George last spring is having a difficult time getting on with her life.
“She used to get good grades in school,” Tooele County Prosecutor John Dow stated before Judge C. Dane Nolan in Tooele’s 3rd-District Juvenile Court this morning. “The girl has now moved away from her home and she is no longer getting good grades. She is having an extremely hard time.”
Four male teens from Tooele pleaded guilty Thursday to reduced charges of sexually exploiting or dealing harmful material to a minor in relationship to the 15-year-old girl. (See related front page story).
Each of the boys will serve a day or two behind locked doors for his crime. Judge Nolan further required that each boy pay a $500 fine.
While the detention time and fine will surely leave an impact on the teens — it was obvious from hearing their expressions of remorse this morning that no punishment imposed by the judge will come anywhere close to being as severe as the penalties the boys have already paid.
In separate court hearings this morning, each teen apologized to the court for his actions.
As a survivor of sexual abuse myself — and as a long-time volunteer victim advocate — I can say with no hesitation that the four teen males were sincere in their apologies.
While no one can undo the wrong that’s been done, my heart was truly touched by the sorrow expressed by the THS athletes. They have most assuredly stepped up to the plate and admitted that what they did was wrong.
The parents of the young men, likewise, did not try to defend the actions of their sons.
“My son is a quiet kid who has a hard time getting things out,” one father stated in court today. “He is not comfortable publicly expressing remorse, but he feels terrible about what has happened. He did not think that what he did was a crime, but he knows he did not live up to his own standards.”
According to a video tape of the sexual encounter the boys had with the girl last spring, she did not tell the boys to stop. Neither drugs nor alcohol were involved in the misconduct. And defense attorneys told the court that the girl was not “coerced” into allowing the boys to touch her in a sexual manner.
Still, countered Tooele County Prosecutor John Dow, there were six boys and only one young lady. The girl may have felt that she had no alternative but to go along with the boys once they started groping her.
There was not a huge age difference between the girl and boys. Therefore, some of the boys said they did not realize it was a crime to have a sexual encounter with the young lady.
What was especially wrong, Judge Nolan told the boys, was that the sexual encounter was videotaped. Had that tape got into the hands of the wrong person, the girl could have been further exploited by pedophiles.
The prosecution said there is no absolute proof that anyone saw the tape after it was made until one of the boy’s mother found it in her home. While the teen owner of the video camera had been told by his fellow teammates that the video tape had been erased, that was not the case.
To the credit of the mother who found the tape, she immediately took the video to school officials and it was then turned over to police. The four juveniles, as well as two 18-year-old THS baseball players, were subsequently charged with sexual exploitation of a minor.
THS Baseball Coach Shanz Leonelli, who was never accused of any wrongdoing, lost his coaching job over the situation.
“These boys feel terrible that the coach lost his job,” one of the teen’s dads said today. “My son knows he has caused pain and embarrassment to the community, to the school, and to his family. He feels terrible about that.”
The teens have not been allowed to play baseball this year — and that punishment has deeply affected each of them because they all love baseball.
What’s more, according to the boys’ parents, the teens have endured a “year of hell” as they have heard the taunts and accusations of classmates. One of the boys recently told his father, “There is not a day I don’t think about this. I can’t get away from this.”
I know for sure that the young girl will carry scars for the rest of her life because of last spring’s incident. But I also truly understood this morning — while listening to each of the four male juveniles express his sorrow — that none of them will ever completely forgive himself for what has happened. Their tears of remorse were real and the four young teens truly stood up as men and acknowledged what they did.
As Judge Nolan told the teens, “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s how you handle those mistakes that makes the difference.”
Yes, the THS baseball players made a terrible, terrible mistake. But the male athletes now deserve a chance to get on with their lives — just as the young girl deserves that same chance.
Students at Tooele High School as well as all of us who live Tooele County now have a decision to make. Are we willing to forgive these young men?
I can tell you that the four juvenile baseball players have paid dearly for what they did. If they were denying their actions or not taking responsibility for what they did, that would be one thing. But, I say from the bottom of my heart that I know these teens are sorry. It’s now time for all of us to forgive them and move on.
One dad said he prays nightly that the young girl involved in last spring’s incident will heal. He also prays that the boys — who have publicly expressed deep sorrow for their actions — will also be able to heal.
As a community, it’s time for us to give these young teens the second chance they have earned. They have admitted their guilt and they have asked for forgiveness. There’s nothing more they can do.