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 CNS Special report:
 Coverage of John Jay report, National Review Board study.

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Transmitted 02/23/2004 3:59 PM ET

Understanding of child sex abuse has evolved in last 50 years

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the late 1960s there was so little professional literature available on people who sexually abuse minors that "you could read it all in one morning," said a longtime Canadian expert on the issue, psychologist William L. Marshall.

In telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, he and other leading North American experts described a sharp learning curve on sex abuse in the United States and Canada and a few other countries around the world in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

They said most other countries haven't even entered that learning curve and still do not regard child sexual abuse as a problem or are barely beginning to address it.

They described a combination of pervasive societal, legal, professional and organizational obstacles that made it far more difficult years ago to recognize child sexual abuse, report it, prevent it, arrest or treat perpetrators of abuse, or generally provide the tools to halt child sexual abuse as a major problem in society.

Those facts will present an important context for Americans, and American Catholics in particular, when they try to come to grips with the data released Feb. 27 on a national study on the nature and extent of sexual abuse of minors by U.S. Catholic clergy from 1950 to 2002.

But the experts interviewed said most people do not realize how little was known even in the most advanced countries until recently about sexual abuse of children, the impact on the victims, the psychological or other factors driving the perpetrators, the treatment needed for victims and perpetrators, or a variety of related issues.

Contributing to the lack of knowledge was a combination of gaps in state or federal laws, lax prosecution of offenders, societal attitudes demeaning children's claims, and implicit anti-disclosure policies by organizations serving children -- public schools and a wide range of nonprofit religious and child-service organizations.

Monica Applewhite, president of Texas-based Praesidium Religious Services, which provides child abuse prevention training for a number of U.S. religious and child-service organizations, said such organizations traditionally tended to disbelieve claims by children and to stand by the adult leader or volunteer who was accused.

Father Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Maryland, one of the leading institutes in the country treating Catholic priests and religious who have addictions or psychological or behavioral problems, including sexual abuse, cited two significant shifts over recent decades in societal attitudes toward sexual abuse of minors:

-- "When a child reports abuse, there is a tendency much more to believe it" than there used to be.

-- "There is a better sense of the possible damage for every victim."

In 1985, when the U.S. bishops held their first national discussion on how to deal with sexual abuse of minors by priests, Father Michael Peterson, founder of St. Luke and one of the nation's leading priest-psychotherapists, wrote to them saying that the question of why priests or others are sexually attracted to youngsters "is just (now) being investigated in a scientific fashion."

"We are at approximately the same point in time with pedophilia in the medical/psychiatric world as we were with alcoholism in the late 1950s when the American Medical Association finally agreed that alcoholism was a disease in its own right," he wrote.

Marshall, a recently retired professor of psychology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, told CNS that when he started in the field in the late 1960s he was one of only a handful of researchers in the world working in that area.

Society's awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse was low and most efforts to treat offenders were ineffective, he said.

Another Canadian expert, R. Karl Hanson, said there was "a major societal change in the attitude toward child sexual abuse" around the time he got involved in the field in the early 1980s.

Hanson is a senior research officer for Canada's Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness. He and Marshall were among a group of eight world experts who were convened in Rome last April to help Vatican officials understand the nature and scope of child sexual abuse and how to deal with such abuse by Catholic clergy.

Hanson said when he was a student, for example, his psychology textbooks said incest was very rare. "It was one in a million," he said. "Now we know it's closer to one in 10."

"I don't think it's because the rates of incest have dramatically increased -- in fact, I think they have decreased -- but there's been a major change in the willingness to address this very dark element of our society," he added.

Among psychologists in the 1870s, especially in France, he said, "there was a clear and informed discussion of child sexual abuse and its consequences. ... Freud gave a very different twist to it, and we interpreted these (child claims of abuse) more as fantasy than as fact. Freud's contribution was in fact more confusing than clarifying."

The revival of attention to child sexual abuse as a reality "became an issue largely as a logical follow-up of interest in child physical abuse" by parents in the late 1950s and the '60s, Hanson said. In the United States, it was in the 1960s that all states passed laws requiring physicians to report signs of physical abuse of children to authorities.

"(Attention to) child sexual abuse really started only in the late '70s and it was really in the '80s that there was a major societal change," he said.

He added that the time frame he was discussing applied to the United States and Canada and was somewhat similar for England, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

"Europe is quite different," he said. "Each country in Europe has a different attitude, and they haven't followed the same trends at all. ... France is starting to (address it), but they're just starting to now. ... It's barely being discussed in Italy. Germany is doing something. ... (There's) a tiny bit in the Nordic countries. In places like Japan it's ignored, not an issue at all."

Parallel to the changes in North American societal attitudes were changes in the understanding of those in the psychological professions, he said. "The major change was from considering it a psychological oddity or a fantasy/rare event to being a pervasive and common experience."

Marshall, the retired Queens University professor, said treatment programs for offenders before 1980 were not effective. "In the '60s you had a choice between a Freudian psychoanalytic approach, which wasn't at all effective, or aversion therapy, like shock therapy. Those early behavioral interventions were useless," he said.

"In the mid-'70s to early '80s you could have got something adequate, but your chances were very slim. ... It was sheer luck where you went," he added.

Asked about statements by bishops that in those days most treatment-givers often advised a quick return of priests to ministry after treatment, Marshall said, "In retrospect it was dumb advice. ... They were doing their best to guess what was most effective. It's not the advice that I would have given in the '60s, but in fairness, we were all in the dark."

He said he would never advise putting a priest who has sexually abused a child back into the circumstances in which he previously offended, but he does not agree with the U.S. bishops' current policy either.

At last April's Vatican meeting, he said, "my recommendation was not to chuck these men, but to put them in jobs" within the church's bureaucracy where they would be monitored and would have something constructive to do, contacts with people, an income and access to ongoing treatment.

He said that since Canada reformulated its criminal code on sexual offenses in 1983 it has had success in reducing recidivism by putting its money into treatment, both in prison and after release.

Sentencing in Canada is "proportionate to the crime rather than to the wrath of society" and the length and nature of treatment and supervision during and after prison are based on a separate assessment of the offender's risk level for recidivism and his progress in treatment, Marshall said. "You don't have to do some of the draconian things your (U.S.) states do."

"Part of the process is not just treatment, but post-treatment procedures," he said. "One of the problems of (the U.S. bishops') 'one strike and you're out' is that it takes offenders totally out of the loop of treatment. ... The probability of re-offending goes up considerably."

Hanson said current treatment programs for sexual offenders "aim at cognitive and behavioral therapy and are action focused, such as teaching people with intimacy deficits practical steps in developing warm, caring relationships."

Now, he said, studies of adults who have sexually abused children show that the recidivism rate drops from about 17 percent for those who are not treated to around 9 percent or 10 percent among those who go through treatment.

Applewhite, whose organizational clients for child abuse prevention training include Catholic dioceses and religious orders, said that even as research on child sexual abuse grew dramatically over the past couple of decades, most of it has been directed at abuse within families.

She said research on other "acquaintance abuse" and specifically on "organizational abuse" -- abuse by adults the child comes to know through school or religious and child-service organizations -- is "very thin."

Applewhite said the dynamics of organizational abuse are quite different from those of incest.

For example, she said, most incest victims are female, while more males are victims in organizational abuse.

She said organizational abuse has received a lot of media attention because of lawsuits, but "there is very little research because the organizations don't want to be researched" -- in part because of the huge potential for legal liability if past practices and decisions become known, as has happened in the Catholic Church. For the U.S. bishops to have opened themselves to such research is "unique," she said.

She also highlighted the establishment of national standards of conduct for church personnel in the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." Many religious bodies and national child-service organizations have national guidelines but, for fear of legal liability, leave the development of standards to local branches or agencies, she said.

Father Rossetti said of the charter and its implementation, "Within the church the most important thing that has happened is the prevention plan. ... Every diocese has to have a prevention program, and that's where the money should be -- in prevention, before it happens. A lot of people don't realize the extensiveness and the aggressiveness of the Dallas charter. The church right now is doing more to deal with and prevent child sexual abuse, far more than any other group in society."

Applewhite seconded that view. She predicted that the child safety training and the information about that training which the Catholic Church is giving nationwide to hundreds of thousands of Catholic parents, volunteers, teachers, youth ministers, priests and other personnel will result in new demands for better child safety programs and policies in other organizations serving young people.

"I think people's eyes have been opened," she said. "It takes dollars to prevent abuse and it takes an incredible commitment."

As a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis of the past two years and the church's response, she said, "child sexual abuse in the United States today has a voice like never before."

END

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