Child Abuse: Seeking Balance Between Head-In-The-Sand and Hysterical-Panic
On the one hand, the Catholic Church has been accused (and found guilty in formal reports in the
USA and ) of systematically turning a blind eye, covering up, and enabling child abuse. Ireland
On the other, the Church is now accusing the media of stirring up international hysteria, and being disproportionate in the outcry.
Similar arguments have gone back-and-forth in the Jewish community in recent months and years – including on this blog.
The sexual abuse of children, even more so than physical, emotional, or neglect forms of abuse, generates a strong outcry. The sense of despair and betrayal is amplified when discovering that a family member, teacher, camp leader, coach, day care worker, doctor or religious leader perpetuated the abuse. It is estimated that 85% of victims of child sexual abuse knew they attackers (see: http://futureofchildren.org/
When men-of-the-cloth are involved as either a perpetrator, or enabler – or both, in the case of the Catholic Church – then perhaps the feeling of violation is at its most severe.
If one cannot trust God’s representatives, as it were, then who on earth can we trust?
Under circumstances so emotionally overwhelming it is understandable why reactions are so strong. Yet maintaining an objective and realistic perspective can in the long run enhance public safety and bring the abusers to justice.
Many Governments have introduced sex-offender tracking programs. The passing of these laws were often the result of a rather heinous but rare type of sex offense occurrence. This kind of event often led to legislation that "felt good" but was not informed or guided by data or research, resulting in expensive and many ineffective policies that over burdened the system and had unintended consequences.
Under Megan’s law in the
, for example, sex offenders are tracked (with varying degrees of success), an example of the potenital inefficiency of a one-size fits all approach can be seen in this disclaimer: USA
The… Department of Justice has not considered or assessed the specific risk that any convicted sex offender displayed on this web site will commit another offense or the nature of any future crimes that may be committed.
To clarify the problem with this approach, in the following examples of sex offense scenarios, how would you rank the risk of sexual re-offense?
- A 17 year old boy who had non-violent, unforced, sexual relations with a girl of 15 – and was found guilty of statutory rape;
- A man who revealed himself momentarily to a child under 18.
- A man who raped several young boys over a period of ten years.
They are all sex offenders– but are they all equally dangerous to society?
And if they are not equally dangerous, then is isolating them all from society (prison etc) and ostracizing them (when they return to society), a balanced approach to dealing with sex-offenders?
Perhaps objective risk assessment followed by commensurate risk management might provide more effective results. Rather than reacting to the emotional subjective pull to do what feels right, using professional structured judgment in assessing risk factors and symptom variables that have been found to be associated with sexual reoffense risk, will result in more accurate results. Assessing risk along the continuums of frequency, intensity, duration, likelihood and imminence will not only be more effective in using limited resources, but will result in the safer communities as well.
By implementing such an approach and with our knowledge of sex reoffense rates, on such a scale, the third case (serial child rapist) is clearly the most severe risk to society.
However, perhaps those in the first two example cases can be successfully treated and then be re-integrated into some form of regular society – probably with various levels of monitoring and controls.
The common perception that recidivism (repeat offense) is extraordinarily high for all sex offenders, regardless of therapeutic or punitive intervention, is not borne out the data.
Consider an authoritative article on this topic by the US Dept of Justice: http://www.csom.org/pubs/recidsexof.html
For those short of time to read the whole article, this is one quoted recent result of a meta-survey of 11,000 sex offenders:
So, although most people understandably react that all sex crimes are equally heinous, yet in fact not all sex crimes (with appropriate intervention & treatment) are associated with the same future risk to society.
This vital subtlety is invariably lost in the heat-of-battle, but is critical to defining and planning appropriate management and programs for sex offenders who, for the most part, (like it or not), continue to live in our communities.
[Note: I sincerely appreciate the invaluable contribution of Jeffrey C. Singer, Ph.D to this article. Thank you!]