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Transmitted 02/16/2004 3:00 PM ET

Lawyers in sex abuse cases should be accountable, says expert

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Greater public scrutiny of lawyers for child sex abuse victims may be needed to assure that litigation is not psychologically harmful to victims and does not bankrupt organizations serving children, wrote a leading expert on maltreatment of children.

Lawyers for victims should be praised for their "heroic leadership" in drawing attention to the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, but they should be subject to the same public accountability as other professionals who work with victims of child sex abuse, wrote David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Finkelhor's assessment appeared in the November issue of Child Abuse and Neglect, a monthly magazine for child-care specialists published by the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

The article assessed the positive and negative aspects of the clergy abuse scandal on society's overall understanding of child sex abuse.

The crisis drew attention to the need for prevention, but public discussions often fostered misconceptions regarding offenders, the limited scope of sex abuse within the entire range of child maltreatment problems and the role of homosexuality, Finkelhor said.

Regarding lawsuits, "many professionals have a sense that for some survivors, civil litigation ends up exacerbating their trauma rather than alleviating it," the article said.

"How are the plaintiffs recruited? What kinds of informed consent procedures are undertaken with them? What are the traumatizing portions of the litigation process, and how are these stresses managed and mitigated?" it asked.

Assessments need to be made about "the consequences of litigation and civil damage awards on insurance costs and hiring practices," it said.

"If society gets better child protection, it will be a success. If, on the other hand, the lawsuits bankrupt youth-serving organizations, or alienate those who work in the youth sector, it will have been a hollow victory," it said.

The article said the scandal opened the door to "the scapegoating of homosexuals" as the cause of the problem.

"Homosexuality may be connected with some of the clergy abuse" but homosexuality "is not a sufficient cause" to explain all of it and may not be a factor among nonpriest abusers, it said.

The article called for studies to determine if homosexuality is a factor in child sex abuse by clergy trained for celibacy.

It noted that the scandal drew attention to something which is a small part of the overall problem of the maltreatment of children. Only 10 percent of child abuse cases reported to public authorities involves sex abuse, he said.

Regarding offenders, the article said that emphasis on the more dramatic cases among clergy abusers reinforced "insidious stereotypes" that offenders are mostly attracted to prepubescent children and that the majority were high-risk abusers who victimized many minors.

Most of the clergy abusers were attracted to post-pubescent adolescents, Finkelhor said.

"The reality that most of the accused had one or a couple of victims got lost," he added.

Child-care specialists "have to work hard to re-establish public awareness about the full spectrum of abusers," said the article.

"When people do not have a sense that there are both risky and not so risky sex offenders, it leads to bad policy," said the article.

It said that the scandal "reinforced people's exaggerated impressions" about the "incorrigibility of sex offenders," leading to a belief that treatment is futile.

Studies show that treatment can be helpful in preventing relapse by lower risk offenders, it said.

The article said the scandal helped create an erroneous belief that there are "compliant victims" among minors because apparently some older adolescents were aware of what was happening to them and willingly participated.

These were really "statutory victims," as willingness by minors does not absolve the offender, it said.

Youths, parents and people who work with children need to be taught "why society has these prohibitions, and about what to do to enforce them," it said.

Positive aspects of the scandal, the article said, include:

-- Alerting parents to the need to talk to children about sexual abuse and about the risk from people who are known and respected by children.

-- Furthering "the destigmatization of sexual abuse and lowering the barriers to disclosure."

-- Making organizations and administrators aware that they must responsibly deal with problematic employees.


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