CATHY HARPER LEE
NAME: CATHY HARPER LEE
HOME: POWELL, OHIO
DATE OF BIRTH: DECEMBER 1964
OCCUPATION: FOUNDER, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF OHIO
SURVIVOR PROFILE: FIGHTER
ADVERSITY: CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE
As soon as her mother’s car pulled away, Cathy Harper Lee always counted the blades of grass on the lawn. She hoped to reach a high number. That meant a few moments alone before her step-father ordered her inside. Then he would abuse, molest, and rape her, telling her over and over that he loved her. It all started when she was just five-years-old. He would touch her sometimes hold a gun to her head and pull the trigger. She never knew if the revolver was loaded but eventually she began to hope that it was. Today, she doesn’t know why she never told her mother or anyone else what was going on at home. Maybe she was too frightened. Maybe she thought no one would believe her.
The abuse ended at 16, but Cathy lived in fear of her step-father. When she graduated from high school in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, she visited Myrtle Beach, North Carolina with some friends and decided to stay there. It was a safe place. Years went by and Cathy tried not to think about what had happened to her. Eventually, her step-father divorced her mother and remarried. When Cathy was about to turn 24, she learned that he had a five-year-old girl with his new wife.
Deep in her gut, Cathy knew this little girl was being abused as well. If it hadn’t started yet, it would soon. The very thought made her sick. Three weeks later she went to the Lancaster police. Sobbing so hard she couldn’t catch her breath, she told the sheriff that she had been a victim of sexual abuse for 10 years. One of the officers listening to her testimony told her that rape “isn’t always black and white” and questioned whether Cathy really wanted to press charges. It was the start of a long, long fight with law enforcement and judges that would leave her exhausted and broke.
It turned out that the officer who questioned her testimony was her step-father’s buddy. When Cathy never heard back from the police, she felt deeply concerned for the five-year-old girl and went back to the station a few weeks later. She was told the statute of limitations had expired. Time had simply run out. But she had filed her complaint within the legal limit so she still had a small chance. When her step-father found out about her allegations, he threatened her. When Cathy requested a protection order, it was denied.
Cathy felt increasingly desperate. She tried various state law enforcement agencies, but no one seemed to care. She even considered killing her step-father or kidnapping his young child. She knew those ideas were crazy, so she went to work trying to extend the statute of limitations on child abuse from six to 10 years. She also worked Ohio Children Services to investigate her step-father’s home. A review found nothing unreasonable about his conduct. Cathy was dumbfounded. “I’m thinking, holy s***,” she says. “What is going on?”
At this point, Cathy felt like she was losing her mind. At night, she experienced horrific nightmares and flashbacks. Terrified of her step-father, she began to sleep with a softball bat under her bed and later a loaded gun under her pillow. During the day, she refused to surrender and was even more determined to bring him to justice. In a twisted way, she says, her step-father taught her to be persistent. He had always been unstoppable in pursuing her. Now she would be unstoppable in making him pay.
Two years later, after trying and failing repeatedly to get anyone interested in her case, Cathy heard from a local police officer that her police reports were being reviewed along with other complaints against her step-father. It turns out other victims had come forward and the authorities were finally paying attention. Her step-father fled and was missing for nearly a year, while the television show America’s Most Wanted became interested in Cathy’s story. Just one day before the program aired, her step-father turned himself into the authorities.
Cathy’s step-father is in jail now for violating a parole order and has served eight years for a previous rape conviction. Cathy says the battle was well worth fighting. “I have personal knowledge, personal experience of the pain of what it means to see the justice system fail,” she adds. “I know what it feels like on a very personal level.” So Cathy decided to help other people so they wouldn’t have to go through it alone. “All I wanted was for someone to put out a hand and say, ‘Let me take your hand and let me handle this for you. I know this is a little too much for you to handle right now. Let me handle it for you.’ That’s what I wanted. It never happened. I want to make sure no one has to experience that. They don’t need to battle the justice system also.”
In 2003, Cathy launched the Justice League of Ohio to help victims of violent crimes and their families navigate the legal system. While the organization works with crime victims of all kinds, most cases concern child abuse, molestation, or sexual assault against women. Cathy says the League has taken on more than 650 cases with some ending in convictions.
Today, Cathy is 43 years old and says she’s finally experiencing life “on my own terms” and she wants to make sure others reach that point as well. “I want them to be able to continue their jobs and work and I want them to be able to find things of joy in their life and move with recovery.” In 2007, Cathy received the Special Achievement Award from the Ohio Attorney General for bringing increased awareness to issues concerning crime victims.