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50YEARS-NATIONAL Feb-13-2004 (1,180 words) Backgrounder. xxxn
Picture of child sex abuse in U.S. society clouded by lack of data

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The clergy child sex abuse crisis has thrown light on a major problem throughout the United States that is still much in the shadows.

Child sex abuse is grossly underreported and underinvestigated, making a comprehensive national picture difficult to develop, according to experts researching the issue.

But, they added, it is a national problem that cuts across professions and organizations dealing with children.

Most abusers are not strangers but individuals who are well-known to children, including relatives, friends and people in positions of trust, said experts interviewed by telephone by Catholic News Service.

"As a ballpark figure, in excess of 200,000 children a year are sexually abused" in the United States, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Sid Johnson, president of the nonprofit Prevent Child Abuse America, said about 500,000 reports of child sex abuse are made yearly to state child prevention agencies. His organization estimates that 20 percent of women and 5 to 16 percent of men in the United States experienced sex abuse as minors.

Key statistics lacking include:

-- Data on the number and percentage of adults who sexually abuse children.

-- Figures on the number and percentages of adults associated with professions or organizations working with children who sexually abuse minors.

Groundbreaking for any organization will be the U.S. bishops' release of statistics Feb. 27 on the number of priests and deacons who have been accused of sexually abusing a minor between 1950 and 2002, said experts.

Experts noted that sexual abuse does not have to be physical. They said it can be verbal, involve the showing of pornography or be any other activity using a child for the sexual pleasure of an adult.

Finkelhor, also a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, said about 70 to 80 percent of the abusers are relatives or people known to the children.

Other experts told CNS that the figure may well reach 90 percent.

National surveys of adults abused as minors show that a significantly higher number of girls are abused than boys and that men greatly outnumber women as abusers.

Prevent Child Abuse America estimates that 90 percent of the abusers are men.

A congressionally mandated national study, updated in 2001, done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that about three times as many girls are abused as boys.

The bottom line in these reports is that the greatest danger is men abusing girls.

Regarding the lack of data on abuse for organizations that work with children, Finkelhor said many groups keep track of the figures but do not release them.

Monica Applewhite, president of Praesidium Religious Services, which develops child sex abuse education and prevention programs for Catholic and other church groups, said organizations are afraid to publish such statistics because the numbers could be used against them in civil lawsuits.

"They don't want to create a database," said Applewhite. "Such a database can be used as proof of bad action by an organization and that the organization is responsible."

The bishops' decision to release the data is "unprecedented" and "courageous," said Applewhite.

"Plaintiffs' attorneys will use it (the data) against the church," she said.

"The bishops are saying: 'Yes, we will be held accountable,'" Applewhite said.

The U.S. bishops' national data was compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York based on statistics from local dioceses across the country. The study was mandated by the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

On Feb. 27, the bishops also plan to release another study, done by its lay National Review Board on the causes of the clergy child sex abuse crisis.

Regarding public school systems across the country, there are no comprehensive figures for educators who have abused students, said Charol Shakeshaft, who is preparing a national report on child sex abuse by educators in public schools for the U.S. Department of Education. The report is mandated by federal law.

A national survey of 2,064 students in 2000 showed that 9.6 percent of public school students from kindergarten through 11th grade reported unwanted sexual harassment or abuse by public school employees, mostly educators, said Shakeshaft, professor of educational policies at Hofstra University in Huntington, N.Y.

The survey, done by the American Association of University Women, listed educators as responsible for 57 percent of the abuse with the rest done by other employees such as bus drivers and teachers' aides.

Regarding victims, 56 percent of the reported abuses were against girls. Regarding offenders, students reported that 57 percent were males.

If the survey were projected over the entire public school system, it would mean that 4.5 million students are subject to sexual abuse or harassment by school employees, said Shakeshaft.

Shakeshaft said a 1994 study she did on disciplinary action against 225 public school teachers who admitted sexually abusing children in New York state showed a lax policy.

Only 15 percent were terminated and 25 percent received no disciplinary consequences, she said.

Of the rest, 39 percent left the school district, many with a positive recommendation to teach elsewhere, and the rest were informally reprimanded, she said.

Experts studying child sex abuse often refer to the sending of child-abusing teachers to other school districts as "passing the trash."

Regarding all U.S. males, Praesidium's Applewhite said the best estimate is that 2 to 3 percent of them have sexually abused children. Finkelhor at the University of New Hampshire said there is no reliable figure on the percentage of males who sexually abuse children.

The percentage of women abusers is considered to be very small.

A growing awareness of the child sex abuse problem has led many organizations to develop prevention programs and policies, even before the clergy scandal erupted in early 2002, said experts.

Among the leaders are two major private organizations promoting adult-youth interaction -- the Boy Scouts of America and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Neither releases detailed figures about child sex abuse in their ranks, but both have strict policies and programs to prevent child sex abuse. This includes immediately throwing out abusers.

The Boy Scouts Web site -- www.scouting.org -- even has a user-friendly course on identifying and preventing child sex abuse.

Officials of both groups said their organizations have been hit with child sex abuse lawsuits.

Mack Koonce, chief operating officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters, said from three to seven child sex abuse incidents are reported a year with about half ending up in a court conviction or an admission of guilt. He said the number has been declining in the 12 years he has been associated with the organization.

Big Brothers Big Sisters currently supervises over 200,000 one-on-one relationships between adults and youths.

Greg Shields, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts, which has over 3 million boys under 18 in its programs, cited privacy for not releasing child sex abuse data.


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