In a desperate bid to do the right thing, Teri Hatcher went public with a dark truth from her childhood.

The actress has revealed to Vanity Fair that she was sexually molested by an uncle 35 years ago, but kept the abuse a secret until recently.

In the magazine's cover story, on newsstands Friday, Hatcher, 41, said she learned in 2002 that a 14-year-old victim of her uncle, Richard Hayes Stone, had committed suicide by shooting herself and that Stone had been arrested and charged with three counts of molestation.

Stone had admitted to sharing a passionate kiss with the victim, Sarah Van Cleemput, the daughter of a neighbor. However, though prosecutors believed he had abused at least three other girls, they were having trouble collecting evidence in the case.

Worried that Stone might escape molestation charges, Hatcher made the decision to tell the prosecutors her own story of sexual abuse, despite fears that her claims might be viewed as a bid for attention from a washed-up actress trying to revive her career.

"Here's what I anticipated," she said. "He did this, he gets off, and Teri ends up on the cover of a tabloid."

But Hatcher could not stop thinking about the young girl who ended her life after Stone's abuse, and admitted she identified with the girl's final act.

"I was just blown over by this girl's pain," Hatcher said. "I thought, Boy, that's really close to being me. Any day of the week, I could feel that sort of pain. I haven't tried to kill myself, but I've certainly thought about it, and then I feel guilty about thinking about it, because what's so terrible about my life?"

Hatcher said her uncle's abuse began when she was five and continued until she was about seven. The actress recalled feeling conflicted about what was happening to her--on the one hand, coveting Stone's attention, but on the other hand, knowing that something was badly wrong.

"I feel such shame, because it felt like I was special. I was being paid special attention to, told how fabulous I was. This was someone who was supposed to love me--but at the same time you know it's wrong," she said. "These are haunting things I've remembered all my life.

"The most horrible thing, that has stuck with me all my life, is that he was touching me and doing things to me and he said, 'Doesn't that feel good?' I said, 'No, it doesn't.' He said, 'Well, someday you'll know what I'm talking about.'"

Approaching prosecutors to tell them of her own molestation experiences proved more difficult that the Desperate Housewives star had anticipated.

"Nobody wanted to talk to me, because I didn't want to tell my name," she said. "People kept hanging up. There were a couple of days when I could have said, 'Screw it--this is too hard.'"

But she pressed on, and as a result of her allegations, Hayes eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of child molestation and was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

"Without Teri, this case would have been dismissed," Chuck Gillingham, the Santa Clara County deputy district attorney who was the sex crimes prosecutor against Hatcher's uncle, told Vanity Fair. "I have so much respect for what she did. This is a person who had nothing to gain and a lot to lose. But she volunteered to talk about the most heinous thing that could happen to a child, with no upside for her.

"It takes a person with a lot of emotional fortitude to do that; heroic is a word that doesn't even do it justice. She is a damn good person, and she knew what the right thing to do was."

Hatcher said that coming clean with the secret she had kept for so long helped her better come to terms with the abuse she suffered.

"He pleaded guilty, and even though it wasn't to my crime, it was because of my crime--and that made me feel really validated," she said. "It made me feel that I wasn't crazy. That's a victim thing: you ask yourself, Am I just crazy? Did I make all this up?"

Hatcher said that she never told her parents about the abuse, but she suspects they might have known. She said she never saw her aunt and uncle past the age of eight or nine, after she "went ballistic" when her uncle came to dinner at her house.

"My mom thought that was pretty out of left field, but that was when her instincts kicked in," the actress remembered. "She felt like something weird was happening, and she removed me from the situation, but she never asked me about it. After that I didn't see my aunt and uncle.

"My parents are really well intended, and I think their way of dealing with things is denial and guilt. Nobody wanted to talk about it. But all I did was blame myself."

Despite her runaway success on the hit show that has earned her both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, Hatcher told the magazine she remains haunted by the horrors of her childhood.

"I have so much pain," she said. "I'm a woman who carries around all these layers of fear and vulnerability. I'm trying to be my powerful me."