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How should rapist, now a Penguin, pay for his crimes?

Wednesday, March 28, 2001

How nice for Billy Tibbetts that he got the chance to overcome his past and go on to a rewarding career with the Penguins. I wonder if the 15-year-old girl he raped in 1992 is doing as well.

Tibbetts was 17 at the time, living with his affluent family in Massachusetts. The girl got drunk at a party and passed out. She was taken behind a warehouse and sexually assaulted.

Tibbetts was charged with three counts of statutory rape -- the victim was alleged to have been raped three different ways -- and pleaded guilty to one count. The judge gave him a suspended sentence. Sixteen months later, he shot someone with a BB gun and wound up doing 39 months behind bars.

And what of the rape victim? She'd be about 24 now, old enough to be graduated from college, working, married -- or reclusive, depressed, alcoholic.

Whatever she's doing, I'm guessing it doesn't involve a contract that pays about $140,000 for a 29-game season. That's the deal Tibbetts has with the Penguins -- not bad for a guy on parole who has to register with police as a sex offender.

Here's what team owner Mario Lemieux had to say about Tibbetts' return to hockey: "I think that's a great story. That kid faced so much adversity, did his time, came back after 31/2 years. To find himself in the NHL is a great accomplishment."

A striking statement, that. To me, adversity implies forces working against you that are not of your own making. Being born into poverty, abused as a child, raised in a series of foster homes. Developing cancer or a mental illness.

Getting raped. That's adversity.

Committing rape; that's something else. It's a coward's power trip, exerting brute force over someone weaker, taking what you want and not giving a damn about who it hurts.

Tibbetts appears to be driven by some kind of demons, the source of which I wouldn't presume to know. He had six arrests between 1992 and 1995 and attended five different schools in six years. Since joining the Penguins, he's had two NHL suspensions for punching and kneeing other players.

Maybe it's even some of those same demons that make him such a threat on the ice. But no 15-year-old girl, drunk or sober, deserved to be run over and left in his wake.

"I'm not proud of what I did," Tibbetts said. "There hasn't been a day the past nine years when I haven't thought about it."

His victim would probably say the same thing, only she doesn't have the paycheck and the cheering fans to take her mind off it.

"What does it say to women who've been raped when a Mike Tyson gets returned to the ring or a Billy Tibbetts is allowed to skate?" said Ellen Kerr of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.

"They're glorified as athletes and allowed to continue their lives without much loss. But there's a huge loss for the victims. They live with the memory of the incident, the fear that it's going to happen again, the self-doubt about how they could have prevented it because our society places the blame on them."

The National Center for Policy Analysis estimates that 84 percent of rape cases never get reported. A huge percentage of women undergoing treatment for drug/alcohol abuse or eating disorders have been victims of sexual assault.

"Rape victims, especially teen-agers who are just learning about themselves, feel a lot of shame and guilt," said Kathi Elliott from the Center for Victims of Violent Crimes. They may also feel re-victimized by their attacker's success, she added, because it seems as if there's no real justice.

"I did my time," Tibbetts said. "And I'm not the only person in the world on parole. I just happen to be the only one ... in the NHL."

True enough. And Tibbetts may be less dangerous in hockey than out of it, at least while he's on parole, because coaches and managers have a stake in keeping him under control.

But the Tysons and Tibbettses of the world owe a debt to their victims that cannot be paid off by doing time. They owe real remorse and reparations.

I would like to see a portion of every paycheck garnisheed. If the victims don't want the money, let it go to a rape crisis center or a juvenile court program that works with teen-age offenders.

The next Billy Tibbetts is out there, waiting to erupt. If the current one had a hand in stopping him, that would be some form of justice.

Sally Kalson's e-mail is: skalson@post-gazette.com

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