‘I Refuse to Let Someone Have my Power': Stories of Survival After Sexual Assault

After more than a year of working with survivors to share their stories, aims to give a voice to stories of sexual misconduct in the Chicago area

UPDATE: Since NBC 5 first launched the Survivors Project in April, more have come forward with stories they hope will bring about change. See those stories here.

Every 98 seconds someone in America is sexually assaulted.

The statistic from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) gives shocking context to the #MeToo movement that went viral following the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault allegations last year in Hollywood. Since then, a growing number of high-profile men have been accused of sexual harassment and assault, and women and men around the world have shared their stories, giving voice to the collective silence around sexual misconduct. 

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#MeToo was more than an outlet for their stories. It was a sea change. 

Our goal, too, is to give a voice to those stories.

“I was brutally attacked,” Venesa Brakes said. “For 11 hours, I was held hostage.” 

"When I was a child, 10 years old, I was serially molested by a Catholic priest," Ken Kaczmarz said. "I was a[n] altar boy, and this priest was able to manipulate when I would be there. He would arrange for me to be there early and then he would have access to me."

“I remember saying, ‘No, please stop, no please stop,’” Emagin Tanashuk said. “I sounded like a broken record in my head.” 

“I was screaming and fighting for my life,” Kelley Kitley said. 

The Survivors Project took root last year when Marion Brooks was approached by several people who wanted to tell her their stories. 

Marion has met many survivors since she started covering sexual violence in 2011. In this case, these men and women didn’t want their identities hidden or voices altered for secrecy. They wanted to share their stories with not just Marion, but the public.

"This is not a woman’s thing, this is an everybody’s thing," Ken said. "All survivors — men women, whatever you are — if you were harmed, you need to seek help."

Their hope was to help other “victims” become “survivors.”

Venesa found power in sharing her story. She is part of the inspiration for this project. Venesa was sexually assaulted in April 2014 by a person she did not know personally, but knew “of.” He held her hostage and repeatedly attacked her sexually and brutally beat her. 

“I had a broken nose, my face was distorted. He did despicable things to my body,” she said. “For 11 hours he told me he was going to kill me. … What he was trying to do was to break me down. He was trying to make me submissive to him.” 

After more than a year of working with survivors to share their stories, aims to give a voice to stories of sexual misconduct in the Chicago area. Marion Brooks reports.

Police arrested Venesa’s perpetrator. He was charged with several counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated battery. He pleaded guilty to a lesser crimes and is still in prison.

Emagin, Ken and Kelley also came forward. 

Emagin was assaulted on campus at Northwestern University by an alumnus. He pulled her into a bathroom stall and assaulted her. The next morning, she told her roommates. 

“I knew that something was wrong, and I knew I wasn’t OK with what happened. But I didn’t know that it was sexual assault; at least it didn’t click.” 

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According to RAINN, sexual assaults can happen anywhere, though they most often occur at or near a person’s home. Although RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) found only 8 percent of sexual assaults happen on school property, sexual violence is the most common form of crime on campuses. 

Emagin’s attacker was eventually charged and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. She said dealing with the justice system was difficult, but she is glad she reported what happened to her. “I just didn’t want it to go unheard,” she said. “Hopefully my story will help another person.”

Kelley was walking home from work, and as soon as she turned off of a main street, she said, “there was somebody who came after me through the alley. … I was screaming and fighting for my life.” 

She managed to break free and find a public place, but that isn’t where it ended. 

“As soon as the police came, they walked into the bar and started talking to me and asked me what happened,” she said. “And I asked them if they could take me to a hospital because I knew I wanted to make sure that I was OK. And they told me that they weren’t a taxi cab.” 

Kelley’s attacker was never found.

Email Marion to share your story

In 2016 Illinois passed a law requiring sensitivity training for first responders dealing with victims of sexual assault. 

Ken was molested by a Catholic priest while serving as an altar boy as a child. The abuse happened, he said, between 1981 and 1982 starting at age 10.

"He would take me into his office and place me on his lap and, um, basically dry hump me until he got himself off," Ken said. "And he did this numerous times."

"If I decide now to really think about this, it will take about 5 minutes and I will be back in [name deleted] office, and I will be on his lap," he said.

In 2002, the Boston Globe broke the story about priests in Boston abusing children. "I knew that at that point I had to come out and do something," he said.

In 2003, Ken and another survivor filed a lawsuit against the priest, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Augustinian Order. Read Ken's initial complaint here. Eleven other survivors joined Ken's lawsuit. In 2006, the Archdiocese and the Augustinian Order settled with no admission of guilt. The settlement included: an undisclosed amount of cash, a demand that Augustinians run background checks on future employees and the construction of a memorial to survivors of priest sexual abuse. 

“The Archdiocese of Chicago does not comment on legal matters,” Anne Maselli, director of communications and marketing for the Archdiocese of Chicago said in February in response to a request for comment on Kaczmarz's claims in the Survivors Project. “The Archdiocese’s Healing Garden was created in 2011 by a committee of victims-survivors diocesan priests, and staff from the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth (OPCY) and approved by Cardinal George. The garden is intended to be a place that invites reconciliation, hope and healing, not only for survivors and their families, but also for the larger Catholic Church.”

"The current Augustinian leadership team believes that everything communicated to Mr. Kaczmarz by the Augustinians following the receipt of this allegation was truthful. They regret any feeling Mr. Kaczmarz has that he was misled," Fr. Bernie of the Midwest Augustinians said in response to request for comment on Kaczmarz's claims in the Survivors Project. "The safety of minors is of the utmost importance to the Augustinians."

Sexual violence comes in many forms and can affect anyone, no matter a person’s gender or age or socio-economic status. According to RAINN, one in six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And one in 10 rape victims is a man or boy.

These brave survivors said they have found healing in sharing—and hope their journeys will help others.

“Helping others is helping myself,” Venesa said. “I refuse to let someone have my power. I refuse to let someone control me.”

“For a lot of survivors, it is not so much that it feels good to articulate an experience,” explains Kaethe Morris Hoffer of Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation said. It’s when survivors are being treated with dignity and believe they are “regaining a sense of control, ownership” that healing takes place.

“I have been able to heal from telling my story and connecting with other women who had similar experiences,” Kelley said.

Part of healing for all of our survivors has been some form of therapy. Dr. Maria Nanos of Porchlight Counseling calls that critical. “We have to not only focus on awareness and prevention, but also on treatment,” Nanos said. “People need to recover. They need to heal.”

Along with our survivors’ personal accounts we added statistics for context. We also provided links to supplemental resources like sexual assault hotlines and counseling services.

Resources for Survivors

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) describes itself as the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It also operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE and En Espanol:

Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) is a non-profit organization of sexual assault crisis centers. It has 30 centers across the state, each of which operates a 24-hour hotline to provide services including counseling education and advocacy.

Rape Victim Advocates (RVA) is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the healing and empowerment of sexual assault survivors through non-judgmental crisis intervention counseling, individual and group trauma therapy, and medical and legal advocacy in the greater Chicago metropolitan area. RVA Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline: 1-888-293-2080

Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) works in prevention, policy reform, community engagement and legal services to combat sexual exploitation in all forms, including sexual assault and the commercial sex trade.

Porchlight Counseling is a program under the Center for Law and Social Work (, which provides free counseling for sexual assault survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. It also provides a helpline number 773-750-7077. 

The Voices and Faces Project describes its mission as one “to create a national network of survivors willing to stand up and speak out about sexual violence.” It also sponsors writers workshops to help survivors tell their stories and find support.

C4 counseling services helps people overcome mental health problems and disorders and the trauma of sexual assault and abuse. We provide services at four locations in Chicago. We also offer advocacy for people with mental health problems.

Chicago Children Advocacy Center

It’s website describes Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center as a front-line responder in Chicago to reports of child sexual abuse, as well as reports of physical abuse of children under age 3. Since opening in 2001, it has served more than 30,000 children.

ChicagoCAC is the city’s only not-for-profit organization that coordinates the efforts of child protection staff, law enforcement professionals, family advocates, medical experts and mental health clinicians under one roof.

Pillars Community Health provides many community services including “legal advocacy, crisis intervention and other services for victims of sexual violence." Pillars' 24-hour sexual assault hotline: 708-482-9600

“MY Self”

This book was written by Kelley Kitley who tells her story of survival after being assaulted in Chicago after walking home from work. It can be purchased here.

Boston Globe Stories on priest sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese

Church allowed abuse by priest for years

Geoghan preferred preying on poorer children

Scores of priests involved in sex abuse cases

CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) April 2017: A report of state and national statistics on sexual violence

NISVS Infographics

An informational graphic of the findings within the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey

"Illinois law requires cops to take reports for every sexual assault allegation, get training for sensitivity toward victims": Chicago Tribune, April 2, 2018

Additional Studies

Kilpatrick, Dean G. Ph.D (2000) The Mental Health Impact of Rape; National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, Medical University of South Carolina

Briere, John (1991) Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children. Journal of Traumatic Stress

Website by Jim Hopper, Ph.D

Dr. Jim Hopper describes himself as a clinical psychologist and independent consultant, Teaching Associate in Psychology, Harvard Medical School and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma. Dr. Hopper’s website has a great deal of information and source material on sexual abuse and other trauma.

We’ve included some links within his site that reference recovered memories as well: Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse

Elliott, D.M. (1997) Traumatic Events: Prevalence and Delayed Recall in the General Population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 

Archdiocese of Chicago’s Healing Garden

As part of the Ken Kaczmarz settlement, the Archdiocese of Chicago agreed to create a memorial to victims of priest sex abuse. The Healing Garden is that memorial.

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