STEUBENVILLE - National media flooded the city after a group referring to itself as "Anonymous" targeted the case of two Steubenville High School student-athletes charged with raping a 16-year-old girl, and officials on Thursday addressed the unsavory portrayal the area has since received.
"We're getting calls from all over the country from people calling us 'pigs,'" said longtime Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. "People in this county know they've got a good sheriff's department."
In his tenure as sheriff, the department has investigated more than 50 murders that resulted in convictions and arrested more than 200 people for committing sex crimes against children, Abdalla said. He contended that in this case, however, some members of the public believe there is a scandal in the sheriff's department.
"People are going to believe what they want to believe," Abdalla said. "They're going to continue to say cover-up. If God could come down from heaven and tell people there's no cover-up, they wouldn't believe it."
Steubenville police Chief William McCafferty said his department has been diligent in its handling of the case since the girl's parents reported the alleged crime at department headquarters in August.
"I know my department did nothing wrong," he said. "If everybody lets the court do its job and wait until they run their mouth, all the details will come out."
Although two 16-year-olds were arrested, some believe additional people were responsible for the alleged rape. As a result, some have speculated that police were guarding the Big Red football team. On Thursday, McCafferty called that notion "utterly stupid."
"That's got to be one of the most idiotic things I've ever heard - that anybody would risk their job to protect a high school football team," he said. "Who would do that?"
City Manager Cathy Davison did not return calls seeking comment Thursday, but she was one of those behind Steubenville Facts - a website launched in response to the rampant rumors surrounding the case. The site is dedicated to disseminating the "real, factual story" about the investigation, it states.
Wells Academy was being praised one year ago for having the best test scores among Ohio public elementary schools. On Tuesday, Wells and all other city schools were placed on lockdown following an online threat of violence over the handling of the case. The district has since increased security at all schools.
"We have 2,450 kids in our school district, so hopefully one incident does not define us," Steubenville City Schools Superintendent Michael McVey said of the national media attention aimed at the high school.
McVey acknowledged that some parents may feel obligated to remove their children from Wells - which is housed in the same building as the high school - or other district schools out of fear of reprisals. The Steubenville Cyber Academy offers K-12 curriculum to any student learning from home, he said.
School administrators will review records today to determine if the threat affected attendance or enrollment. McVey said he will release that information next week.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Steubenville also commented on the negative publicity the city has received over the case in a statement released Thursday from Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton, who was appointed in July.
"In recent months, the Steubenville community has attracted local and national interest in a context no community desires," Monforton said. "However unwelcome, we cannot and should not ignore our attention to these events and those involved.
''As we approach the court date for the case of alleged rape, hurt, shame and concern are abundant among all involved. Sides have been taken and emotions are visible for all to see. Our community is in need of justice and healing as best as can be determined by our civil means.
''Silence has proven an ineffective salve to ease the pain and suffering of social or familial wounds," he said. "In these troubling days, self-reflection and prayer can be the most effective catalysts to guide our conduct and to nurture healing.
''As members of the human family, let us place ourselves in God's presence, requesting him to guide all involved in this case and the entire community of Steubenville through his mercy and his healing love. God will not abandon us and only wishes that we remember to turn to him in this and in all difficult times."
Reynard writes for the Intelligencer in Wheeling, W.Va.