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Only the secrets are new in this story

By SUE CARLTON, Times Columnist
Published September 12, 2007


He has a highly public job, wears a tie to work.

He is an elected politician, so he wields some power and enjoys some measure of respect.

He does this for years and years.

Maybe people hear rumors about him, a whisper of hidden secrets. But nothing seems to stick, not until his world finally comes crashing down around him.

We've heard the story before, been shocked by the news of a seemingly seamless double-life exposed.

Lately, we have heard about Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, disgraced and denying what he pleaded guilty to: a misdemeanor charge related to a gay sex sting in an airport men's room.

Last year, we had the scandal of former Rep. Mark Foley and his sexually explicit e-mails to underage pages.

Locally, we had judge-turned-Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe.

Coe won election after election until an investigation got too close to his gambling jones and his six-figure debt. And who at the courthouse didn't know Hangin' Harry hung out at the dog track? Ultimately, Coe took his own life under an expressway overpass.

Now we have something even more sinister -- allegations that John Bryan, a St. Petersburg City Council member, advocate for the foster care system and family man, sexually abused at least one of his adopted daughters.

Bryan resigned Friday after the allegations came to light. Then he took his own life.

If the allegations turn out to be true, a question will resonate in the aftermath.

How? How does a person who leads such a public life keep something like this hidden?

We have been shocked by these sorts of allegations before, involving preachers and teachers and next-door neighbors.

They tend to be people who know their victims. They tend to be a family member or a friend, not "a weird-looking guy in a trench coat," says Dr. Leo P. Cotter, who runs the SHARE sex offender treatment program.

"Offenders come from all walks of life," he says. "Most of the people I treat, if you met them on the street, you wouldn't spot them."

People who deal with sex offense cases in which the victims are children will tell you about the psychological manipulation, the guilt or shame or even bonding that can keep them from telling.

They will also tell you of some sex offenders' ability to tune out the damage they are causing.

The fear of losing everything - your status, the job you love, your friends and family, your life as you know it - is a pretty powerful motivator for keeping things looking normal. Maybe fear of prison is the most powerful of all.

Is there any connection between the healthy ego it takes to run for office and living with secrets in the face of all that exposure? Maybe so.

I always thought Coe, a man I wrote about for years as a courthouse reporter, a man careful with his secrets, had a plan for how he would end it if the secrets caught up with him and the investigators came.

Did Bryan? We may never know.

In the picture in the newspaper, Bryan wears a neat dark suit, crisp white shirt, requisite lapel pin, the politician's uniform. He looks tan, graying at the temples, smiling only a little and telling nothing at all.