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Child sexual abuse cases in Hollywood attract attention

At least a dozen child molestation and child pornography prosecutions since 2000 have involved actors, managers, production assistants and others in the entertainment industry.

January 08, 2012|By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
  • Jason James Murphy, left, had been convicted of child molestation and abduction 15 years ago but was helping to cast young actors in major Hollywood films. Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polansk pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl but fled to Europe before sentencing.
Jason James Murphy, left, had been convicted of child molestation and abduction… (Washington Corrections…)

In his private journal, Jason Michael Handy once described himself as a "pedophile, full blown."

Handy snapped more than 1,000 photos of girls at the elementary school across the street from his house, using a camera with a telephoto lens, according to court documents. He volunteered at a Malibu church, where he worked with 6-year-olds. And his job as a production assistant at one of the nation's most prominent producers of children's television programs, Nickelodeon, gave him access to child actors on and off the set, and allowed him to exchange email addresses and phone numbers with them.

He used the hopes of at least two girls who dreamed of careers in TV to sexually exploit them.

Handy was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading no contest in 2004 to two felony counts, one of lewd acts on a child and one of distributing sexually explicit material by email, and to a misdemeanor charge related to child sexual exploitation. His arrest and prosecution received scant media attention at the time but are attracting renewed interest now, after the recent arrest of a talent manager on molestation charges and reports by The Times that a registered sex offender was working with children as a casting associate.

The Handy case, which in part prompted Nickelodeon to toughen its background checks for all employees, is among at least a dozen child molestation and child pornography prosecutions since 2000 involving actors, managers, production assistants and others in the industry, according to court documents and published accounts.

Advocates and professionals who work with victims of child sexual abuse say predators exploit the glittery lure of Hollywood to prey on aspiring actors or models. They assert that the problem is more widespread than the industry is willing to acknowledge and have called for tougher laws and better screening of those who represent or work with children.

"Unlike other settings, such as Little League, Scouts, day care and school volunteers, where adults who have unsupervised access to children are required to comply with fingerprinting requirements, there are no such standards in the entertainment industry," said Paula Dorn, co-founder of the BizParentz Foundation, a nonprofit group for families of child actors.

The most recent case involves Martin Weiss, a longtime talent manager who specialized in representing young actors. He was arrested Nov. 29 and charged with eight felonies stemming from his alleged abuse of a boy who came to him for help in pursuing a music career. He is being held on $800,000 bail.

Weiss' arrest came within weeks of a report that a man who was convicted of child molestation and abduction 15 years ago had been helping to cast young actors in major Hollywood films, using a different name than the one listed in the sex offender registry . Jason James Murphy, 35, faces felony charges of failing to file name and address changes with authorities.

The recent arrests prompted a bill, expected to be filed this month with the California Assembly, that would require licensing and criminal background checks for those who work with actors under age 16. It would prohibit registered sex offenders from serving as child managers, photographers, career counselors or publicists.

"Under the existing law, talent agents are regulated; however, casting directors, managers and photographers are not. This loophole makes it very easy for a predator to gain access to children working within the entertainment industry," said the bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose).

Experts say addressing the problem is overdue.

"This is just like the Catholic Church pretending that priests never molested people in the past," said Dr. Daniel D. Broughton, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic and expert on child sexual abuse. "What's surprising to me is why it hasn't come out even stronger and sooner."

Some instances of child sexual exploitation have received considerable attention, such as the one involving Oscar-winning filmmaker Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty in 1977 to having sex with a 13-year-old girl but fled to Europe before sentencing.

A number of other cases involve lesser-known assailants employed at all levels of the industry — from the set tutor in Vancouver, Canada, who worked on nearly 50 films and was convicted of child sexual assault to the acting coach from Georgia who contacted an 11-year-old girl over the Internet and enticed the aspiring actress and her sibling to meet him in Los Angeles, where he molested the girl.

Some of the cases illustrate how a more rigorous screening process could have detected adults who posed a danger to young actors.

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