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Transmitted 02/13/2004 3:20 PM ET

Child sex abusers often relatives or friends, say experts

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A positive result of the clergy child sex abuse scandal is the warning signal it gave parents that abusers are often people known and trusted by minors and their families, said a top U.S. expert on child abuse.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said 70 to 80 percent of abusers are known to the child and include relatives and friends.

Sid Johnson, president of the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse America, said uncles, fathers, live-in boyfriends and others who can gain trust of a minor are among the abusers.

"Perpetrators often place themselves in a position where they are in a respected role," said Johnson, who believes the percentage of abusers who are well-known to the child could reach 90 percent.

His organization is involved in educational and advocacy programs to prevent child abuse.

In telephone interviews with Catholic News Service, experts said professions which attract abusers include teaching and coaching. Volunteering for organizations dealing with minors also presents many opportunities for abusers, they said.

Charol Shakeshaft, who is preparing a national report on child abuse by public school educators for the U.S. Department of Education, said teachers involved in child sex abuse tend to be at the top of their profession and the ones most likely to be trusted by parents and students.

They are the teachers who are winning excellence citations and awards from their peers, said Shakeshaft, a professor of educational policies at Hofstra University in Huntington, N.Y.

Monica Applewhite, president of Praesidium Religious Services which develops child sex abuse education and prevention programs for Catholic and other church groups, said volunteers account for about half the child sex abuse allegations against people working in religious organizations.

Another fertile field for abusers is as paid, nonprofessional staff at residential treatment centers for troubled youths or at emergency youth shelters, said Applewhite.

Experts said there is little detailed data about perpetrators of child sex abuse. Most data comes from surveys of victims interviewed years later as adults. These retrospective studies indicate that most of the abusers are males and that most of the victims are girls.

There are no comprehensive studies or reliable statistics about how many people in specific professions are abusers.

Experts said that when the U.S. bishops release figures about the number of accusations against priests and deacons on Feb. 27, this will be a groundbreaking move.

Also hindering fact-gathering is that most cases of child sex abuse go unreported, said experts. Part of the hesitancy is because the vast majority of abusers are close to the victim and the family, said experts.

"No one feels good about reporting child sex abuse," said Johnson.

"Many victims are embarrassed. They're hesitant to tell something they think is partly their fault," he said. "Many victims are told to keep it a secret. They fear the perpetrator will hurt them."

Children also are hesitant because it often comes down to their word against that of a respected adult such as a priest or teacher, said experts.

Based on retrospective studies, Johnson's organization estimates that 20 percent of women and 5 to 16 percent of men experienced sex abuse as minors.

John Briere, professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California, however, warns that retrospective studies are not necessarily a mirror for today.

Survey results he published in 2003 based on 935 adults showed that 14 percent of the males reported being sexually abused as children and 32 percent of the females reported experiencing child sex abuse. But he cautioned that, given the ages of the adults, they were reporting 30-year-old events which do not necessarily reflect current rates of abuse.

Based on yearly data of substantiated cases collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Finkelhor said there is evidence of a decline in child sex abuse in the 1990s after years of increases in the 1980s.

He said 150,000 substantiated cases were reported in 1992 and the figure dropped to 89,500 in 2000. Reasons for the decline might be more aggressive prosecution of abusers and better protection efforts, he said.

But Finkelhor cautioned that if the decline is due to decreased reporting of cases or in more lax procedures in dealing with the issue, then many abused children are not getting help.

"There is still a considerable number of abused children even if it is in decline," he said.

One possible reason for the rise in substantiated cases in the 1980s is that for some people the era was one of sexual confusion, said Finkelhor, also a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire.

"People who grew up in a more sexually conservative time suddenly found themselves in a time of relaxed norms and standards," he said. "The norms and standards they thought would help them control their sexual instincts changed."

Regarding findings that abuse is mostly done by men against girls, Finkelhor said the reason is that the predominant sexual orientation of the male abuser is heterosexual. He noted that the rates of victimization of children before they reach puberty around 12 years of age is about even for boys and girls. After puberty girls account for most of the victims of sex abuse, he said.

There are more men abusers than women abusers because "men seem to be attracted more to people smaller, less powerful and younger than themselves," he said.

Women "may be more inhibited" because they receive more preparation than men for a caretaker role regarding children, he said.

Many experts and organizations specializing in preventing child sex abuse report that treatment programs for abusers are successful in reducing relapse rates.

The relapse rate for most child sex offenders is "significantly lower when the abuser gets specialized treatment as part of his or her criminal sentence," said a fact sheet by Stop it Now, a nonprofit organization which operates a hot line for abusers.

It cited a 2000 study which reported that treated offenders had a 10 percent relapse rate while untreated offenders had a 17 percent rate.

Many experts noted, however, that child sex abusers are not all alike, ranging from serial abusers to someone who seeks an emotional outlet at a time of extreme stress. Some are easier to treat than others, experts said.

Finkelhor said treatment does not work for about 3 to 5 percent of abusers.

"There is pretty good scientific evidence of moderate benefit through treatment," he said. "But it is also true that people who previously offended remain at a higher risk than the general population."


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