Calls to sexual assault response helplines increased dramatically in Maine and nationwide Thursday when Christine Blasey Ford testified before a Senate committee that she was sexually assaulted as a teenager by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“People are calling, hopefully knowing we’re a place without judgment and without shame,” said Melanie Sachs, executive director of Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, which runs the helpline. “Those are some of the main reasons people do not report.”

Sara McGovern, the press secretary for RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, reported that the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 147 percent increase above its normal daily volume Thursday.

RAINN describes itself as the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. It operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers.

“Since Dr. Ford has come forward with her allegations, we have seen a 45.6 percent uptick compared to the same time period in 2017,” McGovern said in an email Thursday night.

McGovern said hard data regarding the actual number of calls received Thursday will be made public as soon as the figures become available.

Sachs said calls to the helpline in Maine have been growing for about a year, and she attributes the increase to the #MeToo movement in which women have reported sexual assaults by powerful men, such as movie producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, or scandals over child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Media coverage of those reports, as well as Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh, tend to lead to more calls, she said.

Sachs said the helpline fielded about 1,000 calls in the last year.

“Unfortunately, there’s lots of incidents of sexual assault coming through in the last year and that can be very hard for survivors,” she said. “People are reflecting on what’s going on. It calls up so many emotions when they see anything like this.”

Sachs declined to be more specific about the call volume Thursday, explaining that her organization does not release such figures because it believes that could discourage people from calling.

McGovern echoed Sachs’ observations about the impact of high-profile sexual assault cases.

“We often see an uptick (in calls) when sexual assault is in the news,” McGovern said. “For example, last weekend, from Friday to Sunday (when the Senate Judiciary Committee was negotiating when Ford and Kavanaugh would testify) we saw a 57 percent increase compared to an average Friday to Sunday.”

The testimony by Ford, a college psychology professor, inspired two sexual assault survivors from Maine to share their stories during a candlelight vigil in Portland’s Congress Square Park on Thursday night.

More than 75 people, a mix of men and women, attended the vigil that was organized by Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund. A second vigil was held in Bangor.

“It is my story, but it could easily be your story,” said Dini Merz of Falmouth. Merz told the audience she was sexually assaulted while attending college.

She reported the incident to authorities, and said the man who assaulted her “defiantly admitted” to police that he committed the assault.

Merz said it was difficult to share her story publicly for the first time, but said the time has come for women to speak out. She said the “old, white men” who serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee “have pushed us one step too far.”

“It has been an excruciating day,” said Anne Fowler, an Episcopal priest from Portland. Fowler told the crowd she was molested as a young girl by her grandfather.

“When he let me go, he’d say, now remember that is our secret,” said Fowler, who was 3 or 4 years old when the molestation began. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s that Fowler started talking with a therapist about the incidents.

“I believe Judge Kavanaugh’s accusers,” Fowler said.

“History will remember how we respond to this hearing. This is our chance as a community to change this story from one filled with blame, shame, and judgment to one that respects and supports survivors and serves as a catalyst to end sexual violence in our country,” said Nicole Clegg, vice president of Public Policy for Planned Parenthood.

Sachs also spoke at the vigil and said victims of sexual assault are encouraged to call the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine helpline “if they want to talk about an incident 36 years ago or today.”

Sachs said she and others who take the calls at 800-871-7741 tend to follow the lead of the caller. If they’d like to report the assault, she said, SARS will offer to have someone accompany them to police. If they’d like counseling, they can recommend someone. Or if they’d just like to talk about the incident, they’ll do that.

“We provide support,” whatever form that takes, Sachs said.

The increased calls Thursday meant that Sachs was unable to watch Ford’s live testimony, but she was taping it.

“I have a caseload of survivors like Dr. Ford,” she said. “A lot of eerily similar and heartbreaking stories.”

That element of Ford’s testimony resonated with numerous Mainers who watched or listened to the proceedings on laptops, cellphones, television and radio.

Corey Wilson, an Augusta city councilor and former Republican state legislator, said Ford’s testimony seemed credible to him, especially because she communicated her concerns well before the nomination hearings, both to her congressional representative and to her therapist.

He said before hearing Ford’s testimony Thursday, he suspected she could have been a Democratic operative of some kind, but hearing her speak changed his view.

“Prior to her testimony, I was far more skeptical,” Wilson said. “I think the fact she had spoken with her therapist well in advance of any nomination or hearings, and that she had reached out to her own congressperson prior to any nomination hearing, I think those two things support that she has significant concerns for Judge Kavanaugh serving.”

If he were in Kavanaugh’s position, Wilson said, he would want Ford’s claims investigated.

Maeghan Maloney, district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, said she watched parts of the proceedings while having an early lunch and said Ford presented as an intelligent, competent and credible woman.

“I was struck by her most vivid memory: the laughter of her attackers,” said Maloney, a Democrat. “Victims who talk to me about their assaults often hold on to a single detail. Her memory of the laughter was chilling and compelling.”

She said there should be a full investigation into the accusations against Kavanaugh.

Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, had a day off but took her daughter to daycare so she would have time to watch the hearings.

“I think Dr. Ford looks exactly like and seems exactly like a textbook credible victim,” Courchesne said. “She is obviously terrified. She’s clearly experienced a lot from this ordeal and it’s really hard to watch.”

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day at 800-871-7741. To learn more about sexual violence prevention and response in Maine, visit the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault website. To reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, call 800-656-4673.

Staff Writer Penelope Overton contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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