Victim awarded $5 million

The case centered
on two psychologists’ failure to report a case of sexual abuse.
Sunday, September 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Head down, short brown hair falling in her eyes, Kelly Pope sat in the witness stand of a Boone County courtroom last week. She stared at a spot between her feet and relived the worst years of her life. “I would look at the sun coming in through the window,” she said finally, “and hope that someone would come protect me from these things I didn’t ask for or deserve. I wished that God or someone would come in there and say, ‘Stop.’ ”

A few feet away, Lester Pope, seated at a table with his attorney, listened with no apparent emotion as his adopted daughter repeated the testimony that helped send him to prison in 1990.

Kelly Pope was 14 years old when she first told a jury how Lester Pope, a former MU journalism professor, sexually assaulted her repeatedly, starting when she was 4 years old. Pope pleaded guilty to one count of sodomy and served five years in the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Now 27, Kelly Pope appeared before a different jury Wednesday to accuse two psychologists, one of whom has been dead for a decade, of failing to report Lester Pope’s assaults on her between January 1988 and December 1989.

By Thursday, the verdict was in: Columbia child psychologist Joel Ray could have prevented the abuse with one phone call to the Missouri Division of Family Services. The jury of six men and six women, which deliberated for three hours before reaching its decision, awarded Kelly Pope $5 million in damages.

To one juror, it wasn’t enough.

“I think it should have been more because of the molestation,” said juror Pranee Neumann. “Her life is never going to be the same.”

Lester and Nancy Pope adopted Kelly in 1979. A year later, according to Kelly Pope’s testimony, the assaults began. Lester Pope masturbated over his naked daughter and demanded oral sex from her. They engaged in intercourse. It wasn’t until Jan. 23, 1988, when Kelly was 11 years old, that her mother grew suspicious after breaking into Lester Pope’s study, where she found photographs of Kelly and other young girls.

Nancy Pope owned a day-care center and had once worked with Ray at Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center. In videotaped testimony last week, Nancy Pope Copin, who now lives in Alabama, said that she “freaked out” upon discovering the photos and arranged a counseling session with Ray and Bruce Strnad, who were partners in Columbia Psychological Associates at 10 N. Garth St.

Ray and Strnad each billed Nancy Pope $40 for the half-hour session. Plans were made for Lester Pope to seek counseling with Strnad, who specialized in treating adults. Strnad testified in 1990 that Lester Pope only agreed to attend the sessions if Strnad did not inform the Missouri Division of Family Services about the sexual assault allegations. Lester Pope met with Strnad three times before he stopped showing up for his appointments.

Ray, who has a private child psychology practice in Columbia and is an assistant clinical professor at MU, denied last week that Nancy Pope ever told him that her husband might be abusing Kelly. He testified that Nancy Pope was “hysterical” and obsessed with a belief that Lester Pope was cheating on her.

Nancy Pope could not recall last week whether or not she mentioned the “inappropriate” photographs in Lester Pope’s study.

Dan Miller, Kelly Pope’s attorney, argued that Nancy Pope became suicidal after discovering the photographs and had threatened to “end her life if word got out” about the alleged abuse of Kelly.

The heart of Miller’s case, however, was Strnad’s agreement with Lester Pope that he would not report the allegations to the state so long as Lester Pope continued treatment. Under Missouri law, medical professionals are required to immediately set aside doctor-patient privilege and make a report to the Division of Family Services if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” that child abuse is occurring.

DFS wasn’t contacted until almost two years later, when on Dec. 5, 1989, Nancy Pope told Lynn Ogden, a licensed clinical social worker with Columbia Psychological Associates, that she feared Lester Pope was assaulting their daughter. He was arrested the following day. An examination revealed that Kelly Pope’s vaginal area was severely traumatized and that she had contracted chlymidia. Facing as many as 45 years in prison, Pope cut a deal with the prosecution and was sentenced to nine years by Boone County District Court Judge Gene Hamilton.

At issue last week was whether Nancy Pope’s 30-minute session with Ray and Strnad represented a “reasonable cause to suspect” her husband was sexually abusing their daughter, as well as whether Ray was negligent in not contacting DFS.

Miller argued that because Ray and Strnad shared an office and were business partners, they were both liable for failing to report Lester Pope to the authorities.

The jury agreed.

“It was not directly Dr. Ray’s fault, but their partnership created obligation,” juror Neumann said. “We jurors felt he should’ve taken immediate action.”

Neither Ray or his attorney, Joe Mueller, would comment on the jury’s verdict.

Lester Pope, who was released from the Missouri Department of Corrections in 1995 and now sells appliances for a department store in the Edwardsville, Ill., area, said after the trial that he never abused Kelly Pope. He said the photographs his wife found in his study 15 years ago were like those any family might have taken, of children taking baths and playing dress-up. He did recall that once, when Kelly was a child, she asked to hold his penis while he was urinating.

“I know I shouldn’t have let her, but I didn’t want her to grow up thinking sex was a bad thing,” said Lester Pope, who was an editor at the Columbia Missourian from August 1976 to August 1978.

Lester Pope, who was also named in last week’s suit, said he suspects his adopted daughter is being manipulated.

“Nothing is more important to me than my kids,” he said. “I never hurt them. I don’t think she has any concept of what happened. Her attorney is using her for money, programming her to say these things.”

Lester Pope, Nancy Pope Copin and Bruce Strnad, who died in 1993, were also named in last week’s lawsuit. Their liability will be the subject of future arbitration.

Miller, Kelly Pope’s attorney, said last week’s verdict was a long time coming for his client. She filed the lawsuit nearly a decade ago against “the big people” who failed to protect her when she couldn’t protect herself.

“For the first time in her life, Kelly was told she’s not stupid, she’s not lying and she matters,” Miller said. “This was a solid jury and they did their job for Boone County. This is a verdict for a lot of people, not just Kelly.”

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