Ann Burgess


The van Ameringen Professor of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing has entered the darkness many times and come out with strategies to help crime victims.

Photo by Candace diCarlo


Bespectacled and dressed in a conservative suit, as you might expect of the sensible Yankee that she is, Ann Burgess, the van Ameringen Professor of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing, doesn’t look like someone who has probed the depths of the criminal mind. You would never guess that this level-headed middle-aged woman has worked with the FBI, and has been on the scene of horrific crimes; she’s dealt with the distraught victims of rapes and sexual assaults; and she’s struggled to understand why criminals do what they do.

This fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded $700,000 to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) and its research partner, Penn’s School of Nursing, to establish the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSRC). Burgess will direct the research of the new NSRC.

Also this fall, she received the Episteme Award, one of the highest honors in nursing, given by Sigma Theta Tau, an international honor society of nursing.

Raised in the Boston area, which she continues to call home, Burgess began her research in victimology in the early ’70s at Boston City Hospital. Since then she has published extensively on rape, sexual homicide, child abduction, crime scene patterns and juvenile delinquency.

She has been instrumental in helping the FBI develop its criminal profiling methods. In addition, she has been an expert witness in many trials, including the Menendez trial.

Burgess spoke with us in her office at Penn, where she commutes weekly to teach her popular courses in the nursing school.

Q. Can you tell me about the center you will start?

A. Nationally, we’ll be the resource center for anything to do with rape and sexual assault. Our role will be to be keep rape crisis centers aware of the latest in research and how it can apply to practice. We’ll also be looking to identify research directions.

Q. What are your current research projects?

A. Now the area of my research is looking at people who have cognitive defects. I’m looking at a population of about 20 women and men in nursing homes with Alzheimer’s who have been raped. And the question, of course, is, What is the damage if indeed they have “no memory”? How can we say there’s been any damage done to them?

Q. They were assaulted while they had Alzheimer’s?

A. As a patient, yes. As a patient in a nursing home. Just looking at 20 cases that I personally have had, some of the assaults have been by staff, some of the assaults have been by other patients. We don’t think any have been by strangers, although that’s always a possibility. There were three that they never did identify who assaulted them.

Q. How were the rapes discovered?

A. I remember one son said he went in and his mother was moaning and groaning and pulled back the sheet and she was a mass of black and blue and had very severe injuries.

Sometimes it will be the patient is able to tell family members, sometimes it’s a staff member. But sometimes the staff tries to cover it up. On the three cases of patient-to-patient assault, [the rape] was witnessed. It was actually witnessed by staff and they just thought, This is consent, when it clearly was not consent.

So that’s the nursing home group. Then the other population is at the other end of the age [range] — the very young children who, again, don’t have the memory or verbal skill to be able to tell you what’s happened, but a clue or something comes up. So there’s that group. And then there’s another group that I’ve been looking at and that’s the mentally retarded, which is again another memory problem that nobody is there to really speak for them.

The other big area is cyberstalking. What’s called on-line sexual assault.

Q. What does cyberstalking mean?

A. What happens is, predators are in Internet chat rooms. Kids are being lured in there. Then they actually lure the child to meet them with their purpose being of course sexual contact.

Q. Do you ever look at things from the point of view of the offender?

A. Yes, I’ve worked defense cases. One of the big areas of research that we did was the victim-to-victimizer cycle. We looked especially at juveniles who have sexually offended and those who have murdered. We looked at child victims over time and [asked], If they didn’t resolve the incident, did they ever act that out [and victimize others]? That certainly is what seems to happen.

Q. Can you talk about your work with the FBI?

A. Well, it was with the Behavioral Science Unit down at the FBI Academy [in Quantico, Va.]. We systematically went through their cases. First of all, we documented a typology, classifying violent crime by motive. You go to the crime scene and the first question is, Why was this crime committed? How organized was it versus how disorganized? And that will give an idea as to the behavioral state or the mental state of the person. Somebody’s who’s very disorganized — you know, there are clues everywhere and it’s “very easy” to solve — it will tell you either it’s somebody that’s having a lot of mental problems or a very young criminal, maybe doing it for the first time.

It’s only as they get better and better at their crimes that they become more organized. It’s like the Center City rapist. He’s so good that they can’t catch him. He may even be interjecting himself into the investigation so he can learn how to be better and how to cover his crimes better.

Q. Would you say that most rapists are repeat offenders?

A. Absolutely. I mean, sexual behavior is repetitive behavior, so I don’t know why people think that they only rape once. Because it does have payoff from a psychological as well as a physiological standpoint.

Q. What are the courses you teach at Penn?

A. There are three courses that we have in what we call a “forensic cluster” now. There is the course in victimology, which takes the crime from the victim’s standpoint. We do almost a different crime every week. Then we have a course in forensic science, which is the how of the crime: How do you find the evidence of the crime? And then the third course is forensic mental health, which is the offender. We focus on who has committed the crime and how can we better understand. Because if we can’t understand why the criminal commits the crime how can we prevent it?

Q. Is it unusual for nurses to go into this sort of area?

A. Not at all. Nurses are frontline people in the emergency room. That’s where victims usually come.

Q. Are you married? Children?

A. Mmmhmm. Four children.

Q. Do you think this area has ...

A. [laughs] Yes. Made me more aware? Oh, sure. Any area of study is going to make you more aware of the dangers.

Q. I’ve heard that the award you won, the Episteme Award, is also known as the Nursing Nobel.

A. Oh, okay. [laughs] Yes, it is considered quite an honor, so I was overwhelmed and delighted of course to receive that and delighted for Penn. Because they always look at the university that you’re affiliated with, so it brings not only me honor but the University and the School of Nursing.

Originally published on January 20, 2000