WATERVILLE — Being a community that is supportive of victims of sexual assault is not only right; it also creates a safer community because the victim is more likely to report the crime and the crime is then more easily prosecuted.

That was one of the messages Monday night at a community forum at Thomas College about responding to sexual violence in the community.

The forum, organized by the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, included a panel of experts who work with victims and help prosecute crimes, as well as educators who help spread awareness of sexual violence.

It is important, they said, for people in a community to believe the victim of sexual abuse and validate the victim — and not blame him or her.

Kennebec County Sheriff Ryan Reardon and Waterville Detective-Sgt. Bill Bonney said law enforcement officials are better trained than they were 20 years ago to interview victims and investigate sexual abuse crimes, and they use a multidisciplinary approach that includes working with the district attorney, victim advocates and others. Now, they said, many more resources are available for victims in a more comprehensive way, and law enforcement agencies share resources. If an officer from one department has particular expertise in interviewing someone for a case, for instance, the other department may use him or her.

Reardon said that 20 years ago, there was a tendency to doubt the victim of sex crimes, but that has changed.

“Law enforcement is a shifting culture,” he said. “As we shift forward — and we are, as law enforcement — it is getting better.”

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties, said it is important for victims to come forward, because perpetrators of sexual violence will strike again. It is hard and traumatic for victims to talk about what has happened to them, but it is necessary in order to prosecute cases.

“We know they don’t stop and if we don’t take it seriously, there will be additional victims,” Maloney said. “With sexual assault, I know they’re going to do it again if I don’t do something.”

But if a victim is afraid and does not feel supported and validated by family members, friends and the community at large, it can be hard to prosecute a case, she said. In most sexual assault cases, the only witness is the victim; so if the victim is afraid of testifying, thinking he or she will not be believed, the case cannot be prosecuted.

“I lose my witness, I lose my case,” Maloney said.

A good part of the discussion Monday was about the Waterville Senior High School case in which Principal Don Reiter was terminated last year by the Waterville Board of Education for allegedly asking an 18-year-old senior for sex on the first day of school in August.

Without identifying Reiter, Bonney, Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center Executive Director Donna Strickler and others talked about how damaging it was for educators and others in the community to blame the victim publicly and support the principal when they did not have all the facts of the case. It was a perfect example, they said, of how victim-blaming can cause victims to be afraid to talk about their experience because they fear they will not be believed and will be humiliated publicly and traumatized again.

As it turned out, when two more people came forward from New Hampshire and said they were victimized by Reiter, then people started to start to believe the victim in the Waterville case, they said.

Bonney, who interviewed the former students in New Hampshire, said it is important that victims know that law enforcement officials, educators and everyone else supporting the victim will do everything they can to help the him or her heal.

“I look at facts and present them to the district attorney’s office,” Bonney said. “As a friend, as a family member, as a community member, as a teacher, it is your job to support the victim and make sure the victim is getting the services they need and the help they need to be whole again.”

If a person truly believes the accused is telling the truth, there are ways to support him without doing it publicly, including calling the person and expressing support, according to Bonney. He said it was heartbreaking for police to watch a public display of support for the principal when police had information about the case that the public did not.

“That’s pretty hard for us to sit back and watch,” he said.

Other panel members were Kathleen Paradis, a community educator for Sexual Assault Crisis & Support; Jackie Dupont, a child and family therapist for Maine Children’s Home who also is a city councilor; Jenna McCarthy Mayhew, client services manager for Sexual Assault Crisis & Support; and Cheryl Williams, who recently published the book “Stolen Innocence,” about her experience as a victim of sexual assault.

Williams said she was assaulted by a family member from the time she was a small child and was blacklisted by her family for talking about it. She has spent a lifetime suffering from the experience and working to heal, she said. Williams said the most important thing someone can do for a victim is validate him or her.

“The validation is what has helped me so much,” she said.

Peggie Chouinard, a volunteer advocate for Sexual Assault Crisis & Support, asked what a person can do when family members do not support or believe a victim.

“What can we do as a community?” she asked. “How do we help fight against that?”

Reardon said people must be vigilant and not give up.

“You have to stay on it,” he said. “If you don’t do it, who will?”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17