Seeking justice after surviving child sexual assault is the topic of Tuesday's free film screening and roundtable discussion at Ashland's Varsity Theatre.

Seeking justice after surviving child sexual assault is the topic of Tuesday's free film screening and roundtable discussion at Ashland's Varsity Theatre.

Featured in the film are Randy Ellison, a local adult survivor, and representatives of the Ashland Police Department. Their goal is to ease the path of victims seeking redress in the court system. They also want to change the public's perception regarding allegations of false reporting, said Ellison.

"The system is not designed to protect, or quite frankly, bring justice, to victims of abuse," said Ellison, an Ashland resident. "It is assumed that (sexual assault) didn't happen until you can prove it did. This does not honor or support truth-telling. And it makes it difficult beyond belief for the victims. Our hope is this film opens eyes to just how difficult it is to come forward."

Ellison was 15 when a charismatic youth minister began sexually abusing him. For more than 40 years, Ellison remained silent about the devastation wrought by the trusted leader in his community — a 40-year-old married man with children of his own.

Because perpetrators are often "upstanding" members of the community, holding trusted positions in churches, schools and city councils, the community is loathe to believe victims who come forward, he said.

"We just don't want to believe the victim, and that assumption follows through the judicial system," Ellison said. "In the end, if these crimes are not reported, the offenders are left to reoffend, and never brought to justice or held accountable for their actions."

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness agrees. Whether the abuse is recent or decades old, there is a general assumption that the victims' reports are false.

"But, in fact, that is an extremely small percentage," Holderness said. "We have to have a new paradigm."

Holderness has investigated "hundreds and hundreds" of sexual assault cases in his 32 years as a police officer, he said. Only twice did he receive a false report. Both incidents involved teens concerned about parental fallout from unprotected sexual activities. Both teens refused to name anyone related to their false reports. One quickly admitted she had lied after speaking with police, he said.

"I hope people will show up to see the film," Holderness said. "I think the whole film is interesting."

Ashland police Detective Carrie Hull said Valerie Gibson, the executive producer of "Pursuit of Truth," conceived the film project as a result of her fight to support her adult son's quest for justice against the individual who abused him as a child. The family's odyssey through the legal system was marked by countless impediments, including incompetence, indifference and procedural devices that are heavily weighted against adult survivors and in favor of their abusers. The process re-traumatizes survivors by invading their rights to privacy and subjecting them to inherently unfair practices, she said.

Hull recently created an instructional animated video about the biases faced by victims who attempt to report sexual assault based on a 40-year-old transcript of an article written by Art Spikol.

In the video, an affluent attorney named "Mr. Smith" has been robbed by an armed assailant. When Smith reports the crime, an officer, voiced by APD Officer Jason Daoust, derisively questions Smith. Why didn't Smith cry out against his armed attacker? Why didn't he fight back? Why was he wearing an expensive suit? Why was he walking around town at night?

"I was just trying to increase awareness," Hull said, adding these are the types of questions that sexual assault victims regularly have to answer.

Placed in the context of a male-on-male robbery, the narrative parodies the myths and misconceptions that help create judgments made against sexual assault victims, she said.

"It's a thought-provoking reversal of the way crime victims are treated," Hull said. "Art did this in 1973, and the fact that we have not really made the necessary changes since then is amazing. We just have to change."

Hull said she hears similar victim-blaming statements "almost on a daily basis," she said. The questions aren't coming from Ashland police officers, they come from family and friends, Hull said.

"It makes it really hard for victims to come forward if they're not supported by the people closest to them," Hull said.

Hull said Gibson chose APD as a law enforcement model to better support adult survivors.

"Chief Holderness was interviewed for the film because of his out-of-the-box thinking in allowing victims to report past the statute of limitations, which allowed law enforcement to better identify perpetrators," Hull said.

Holderness was recently challenged by a man questioning his ability to assume a person accused of sexual assault was innocent until proven guilty, he said.

"He said, 'I thought you were going to be neutral'," Holderness said, adding no one ever poses that question regarding crimes that are not sexually-based.

"If you tell me you were robbed, we're going to assume you were robbed," Holderness said. "If a house is burgled, we go out and assist that person. We are not going to be assuming that someone is making a false report of sexual assault. False reports are extremely rare."

Only 15 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are ever reported, he said.

"Seventy five to 80 percent of victims don't feel comfortable letting (authorities) know what happened," Holderness said.

Ashland police offer victims more respect, and control, in reporting sexual assault, Holderness said. The combination has resulted in a 42 percent increase in reporting. Reports rose from 25 in 2009 to 43 in 2012. Holderness said he is grateful that he works for a "progressive" city council that understands the meaning behind the statistics. Some cities might worry that the data from increased reporting portrays the city as unsafe. But Holderness said the council understands that an increase in reporting does not correlate with an increase in activity, he said.

However, the increase in reporting has helped police track serial sexual offenders. Ninety percent of sexual assaults are by repeat offenders, and the average offender has committed 5.8 assaults before being identified, he said.

"Some we have been able to prosecute," Holderness said.

Plagued by thoughts of suicide and abusing alcohol and drugs for decades, Ellison said he finally found his voice. In 2009 he helped change the civil statute of limitations in Oregon on sex abuse of children to one of the most liberal in the country. In the 2011 legislative session, Ellison advocated with others to help pass the first human sex trafficking laws in Oregon.

Recently appointed to the Oregon Attorney General's Sexual Assault Task Force, Ellison also is a member of the Child Abuse Network of Jackson County, a group of more than 40 agencies working together to reduce child abuse in Southern Oregon.

"When I was finally able to tell my deepest, darkest secret, I began the process of freeing, and healing, myself," Ellison said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email