One phrase in an otherwise routine story about a nonprofit organization published in a college newspaper has led a father to sue his own daughter.

But dear God, what a phrase. Here’s the way the lawsuit describes it:

“On or about February 1, 2019 … the defendant DTH Media Corp. published an article on the front page of its newspaper ‘The Daily Tar Heel’ that stated that (the alleged victim) was drugged and raped the spring of her sophomore year and experienced sexual abuse from her father during her childhood,” the lawsuit reads.

That one phrase, printed in bold in the suit, when combined with the uncomfortable fact that a father would feel so aggrieved that he would even consider, much less file, a lawsuit against his daughter for defamation of character, can neither be ignored nor forgotten.

It’s hard to look away.

An unusual step

This legal confrontation began Feb. 1 when The Daily Tar Heel published a story about a nonprofit organization founded by a UNC grad from Winston-Salem that aims to pair victims of sexual assault survivors with emotional support animals.

“Running alongside the Bolin Creek at Carolina North Forest with her dog, Biscuit, crashing through the water, Sophie Capshaw-Mack felt one thing — freedom,” the first sentence of the story reads.

Sounds nice, right? Innocuous, even. But soon after came the kind of wrecking ball accusation that destroys families and reputations.

The father, Bradley Mack, a businessman formerly of Winston-Salem, was understandably mortified and ultimately took the highly unusual step of hiring a lawyer to sue his own daughter — and The Daily Tar Heel media corporation — for libel and defamation.

“Sophie Capshaw Mack had made these false allegations to The Daily Tar Heel with specific knowledge of their falsity and with specific knowledge that the statements would damage the Plaintiff personally and in his business relationships,” paragraph nine of his suit reads.

After fielding a complaint, The Daily Tar Heel did change online the offending sentence to read that Capshaw-Mack “said she was sexually assaulted during her sophomore year. The paper added an editor’s note which says simply: “This story has been updated for clarity.”

But the damage was done.

In the Internet-fueled world of instant, constant communication via social media, there are few take-backs and no do-overs. What’s done is done.

To repair and remedy that damage, Mack filed his suit asking for damages in “an amount greater than $25,000.”

(The DTH Media Corp, the defendant with presumably deeper pockets than a 24-year-old woman, has been dropped from the lawsuit. Most likely that is because it was settled.)

“I can’t comment on the claim with (The Daily Tar Heel) other than to say that we have resolved the matter with The Daily Tar Heel) to our mutual satisfaction,” wrote John Vermitsky, Mack’s attorney. “The matter with the other defendant remains outstanding and my client is very committed to prosecuting this claim and clearing his name.”

A father suing his daughter

In her answer filed earlier this month, Capshaw-Mack, through her lawyers Dudley Witt and David Freedman, responded simply and forcefully, albeit couched in legalese that’s best summed up this way: It’s true. And I’m not sorry that I spoke up.

The answer maintains that the father molested his daughter regularly until she was 8 years old, and that “intermittent instances of inappropriate physical touching” occurred until she left for college in 2013.

“Based upon the foregoing, Defendant Capshaw-Mack submits her allegations which appeared in The Daily Tar Heel were accurate and truthful, and asserts truth as an affirmative defense to all claims raised by the Plaintiff in the present action,” the answer reads.

Her answer also says that the lawsuit has caused Capshaw-Mack to suffer damages “greater than $25,000” for shame and embarrassment. And it makes plain her intention to file a counter suit after Jan. 1 under a new state law that extends the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse claims.

“Plaintiff’s conduct clearly crosses a threshold which goes beyond all bound of decency,” the answer reads.

Witt declined to comment on the suit and his client’s answer other than to say: “We look forward to Sophie having an opportunity to tell her story.”

Lives forever altered

Under ordinary circumstances, victims — alleged and real — of sexual abuse, rape or incest are not identified by name in print. Not here anyway.

But these are not ordinary circumstances. A lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of North Carolina makes this so.

A young woman told the UNC campus about jarring events she believes to be true, and shared her story via social media. No criminal investigation into the alleged molestation ever happened and no criminal charges stemmed from the allegations of sexual assault while a sophomore.

Still, speaking out was brave. Doing so is permanent and life-changing consequences. #MeToo is real and it affects a lot of women you know. Ask your wife, sister or daughter.

To look away is to pretend that sexual assault, rape and molestation don’t happen. Hiding behind denial is to say that what happens to women and girls — sometimes at the hands of the very people who should be most protective of them — doesn’t matter.

We could look away or act like these sorts of incidents don’t happen. But they do.

Cops, prosecutors and social workers know. Similar cases involving similar allegations are heard regularly in courthouses across the country.

The flip side is that a man was accused by his own daughter of despicable acts in a very public forum, and then the claim was amplified via social media. That sort of accusation is forever.

Yes, Mack v DTH Media Corp. and Sophie Capshaw-Mack is horrifying. It’s a tragedy, and it’s landed in court. A jury ultimately will decide whom to believe.

But the damage has been done. And it’s impossible to look away.

Get today’s top stories right in your inbox. Sign up for our daily morning newsletter.

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

Recommended for you

Load comments