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Hollywood vulnerable to sex suits

Law repealing the statute of limitations on abuse follows clergy scandals.

Cindy Smith still vividly remembers the day of her first job interview with a top talent agency based here.

"The president of the agency walked by me in the waiting room and gestured me into his office," says Ms. Smith, now a writer and mother of two. "Without a moments hesitation he said, 'if you sleep with me right now, I will get you anywhere you want to go in this industry.' He was not even being bold but rather matter-of-fact. That's what shocked me most."

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The incident, as she recounts it, is one of the more overt examples of an oft-told tale: female teen comes to Hollywood to become a star, and instead becomes a victim of sexual abuse or harassment.

Now, because of a California law lifting the statute of limitations in certain molestation cases, incidents as old as the one from three-decades ago described by Ms. Smith (not her real name) are open to legal action. Coming after the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the law's effects is to raise new questions about the extent to which sexual harassment of young people has gone unchecked in the male-dominated culture of Hollywood.

Such questions have surfaced with regularity over the decades in high-profile scandals from Charlie Chaplin's dalliances with underaged girls in the 1930s to Roman Polanski's departure from the US in 1978 after allegedly seducing a teenager.

Today, lawyers who are preparing dozens of cases against Catholic priests say there's the potential for even more sex-abuse cases to come forward within the film, modeling, music, and television industries. "Because of this new law, I anticipate that the number of cases coming forward in California by victims of the entertainment industry will be larger than that of the Catholic church," says Larry Drivon, a Stockton-based lawyer who helped draft the California law.

His firm just named John Casablancas, the founder of top modeling agency, Elite, in a sexual-abuse lawsuit filed under the new law by a former model. The woman, now a housewife, claims that Casablancas impregnated her when she was 15 in the late 1980s, and then arranged for her to have an abortion.

Child, family, and sexual-abuse groups say they are preparing for the onslaught of similar cases, which could snowball as revelations are made - much like the church scandal.

But other lawyers and civil libertarians worry that it could lead to an unwarranted witch hunt - a frenzy of sensationalism, greed, and revenge reminiscent of the McCarthy era. While there may be legitimate cases of sex abuse in the entertainment industry, they say, there is great potential for abuse of the new law by damaging public reputations through mere allegation.

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Legislators in several states are watching the California example for clues on how to proceed in their own moves to extend statutes-of-limitation in sex cases. Similar laws are pending in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, and Missouri, and early moves are afoot in Michigan, Florida, and Ohio.

A modeling company under scrutiny

The Casablancas lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that Casablancas began sexually abusing the girl in 1988 when she was in Elite's "Look of the Year" competition, a pageant to find new models. Casablancas, now 60, set up the business in 1970 and built it into one of the world's leading agencies with models such Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell. "The industry is full of [sexual abuse]," says supermodel Tyra Banks, "A lot of it is disgusting. You need to be mature enough to handle it."

But Casablancas's lawyer says the case is both without merit and doesn't come under the jurisdiction of California. "This is a very dangerous situation that encourages lawyers and plaintiffs to exploit this law and fabricate claims. The exploitation of these laws is the next scandal," says the attorney, Robert Wolf.

Legal experts say the deciding factor in all such cases will be viable evidence. Many accusations will involve acts more than a decade old, and the burden of proof still rests with those bringing the legal action. People also have only one year, beginning Jan.1, to file their claims.

"Attorneys or plaintiffs who think they want to file frivolous lawsuits under this law will be stopped cold by lawyers who need significant amounts of real evidence to win convictions," says Raymond Boucher, lawyer for Kiesel, Boucher and Larson, which is representing the plaintiff against Casablancas.

He says his firm rejects roughly half of possible cases for lack of evidence. "Many times we evaluate a possible case where we know the abuse happened, but we also know we can't prove it," says Jeff Anderson, a lawyer based in St. Paul, Minn., who has filed cases against the Catholic church over three decades.

Whatever the problem in determining the veracity, agencies that deal with sex abuse of minors say they welcome more scrutiny of the entertainment industry.

"Any situation where you have someone in power over young people who are vulnerable and are so desperate to get contracts ... is the worst kind of breeding ground for the sexual abuse of power," says Jonny Morales, executive director of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Institute, a San Diego-based group.

One other important difference is that the captains of industry in Hollywood do not hold the same position of public trust as priests, and the industry itself is well-known as an exploiter of youth for physical beauty. "The bar is way different here," says Michael Gross, author of "Model: The ugly business of beautiful women." "Modeling agents are not priests, but no one in the world thinks they are either."

A culture of public silence

Yet he also believes that male executives alone aren't to blame for Hollywood's dalliance culture. "The problem with the entertainment business is that there are just as many 14-year-olds going on 40 who set out to get exactly what they want and knowing how to get it," he says. "It's also human nature not to feel a lot of sympathy for someone [beautiful] who won the genetic lottery."

That explanation doesn't sit well with others, who feel it was silent acquiescence that led to sex abuse in the Catholic church, and it is public silence that allows it elsewhere. What is needed, say activists, is concerted effort but evenhandedness in ferreting out the worse cases.

"We as a society have to shape the agenda of correction without going overboard," says Lisa Pion-Berlin, CEO of Parents Anonymous, a child-abuse prevention group. "This is a watershed time for the issue of sexual abuse in which Americans can stand up and say it is no longer OK for a work culture to exist that sexually exploits the most vulnerable amongst us."