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 Ireland) of systematically turning a blind eye, covering up, and enabling child abuse.

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:

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 USA, 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:

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?

  1. A 17 year old boy who had non-violent, unforced, sexual relations with a girl of 15 – and was found guilty of statutory rape;
  2.  A man who revealed himself momentarily to a child under 18.
  3. 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:

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!] 


  1. David:

    As a child, have you ever heard the exression "we never ever play with fire"? Does a fireman think twice about the wall he breaks to save a child?

    These were rhetorical questions as you may have well figured.

    It's not about "emotionally overwhelming" circumstances. It's about implementing the highest safety standards for our innocent children. We should stop thinking or "clering" as they call it in yeshiva. "Too much noodles too much cholent". The attempt in itself at being objective causes one to be subjective.

    We can't either get swayed or be distracted by naysayers or collateral damage; the offset is too dangerous - it is playing with a live and buring fire. After the fire is out, only then can we begin the process of sorting through the rubble and smoke to clean up the mess we left behind. We're not quite there yet. We have a long road ahead of us. Till then, as "fireman" we must continue to break through as hard as we can with one goal in mind; to remove this blazing cancerous evil from our midst, at all costs, once and for all!

    Hamaivin yovin

  2. This whole post is unclear and disorganized. What is your point or points? Are you trying to say you think a 17 yr old who has consensual sex with a 15 yr old girl is a "sex offender?" Are you trying to say that therapy works or doesn't work for sex offenders?

  3. Well, running with Fireman’s metaphor, I think remaining vigilant towards the potentially life threatening hazard of a fire is wise. Not all fires require the entire fire department, sometimes just a truck or two. Of course a complete conflagration requires several departments to respond. I think keeping “smoke detectors” in working order helps prevent fires but if someone knows of a “secret” burning fire, I hope the fire alarm klaxon is sounded loudly and decisively.

    Regarding the point of the post in general, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the posting covers a broad array of issues and each one is substantially more complex than most people appreciate. As an example, the term sex offender is a legal term, covering a broad, heterogeneous, wide universe of illegal sexual behavior, but is often used interchangeably with pedophile, a term from psychiatry and mental health. Technically speaking, even the relationship between children molester and pedophile is complicated, let alone discussing what constitutes a sex offense. Approximately 50% of child molesters fit the diagnostic criteria of pedophilia. This does not make a child molester’s behavior any less damaging to the victim(s) or less illegal, but typically this distinction eventually becomes important in terms of risk assessment and risk management. Often a “one size fits all” approach is implemented towards understanding the complexity of the problem with poor results. Sex offenders are a complex issue that lends itself to thinking in bold sweeping ideas without critically considering underlying assumptions. Does therapy work for sex offenders is an interesting question. It depends. Many sex offenders never receive therapy and never sexually reoffend. Consider a 20 year-old man who rapes a woman, is found guilty and sentenced to thirty years in jail. At age 50, the opportunistic impulsive, hedonistic elements of this former 20 year-old have likely been broken and are “burned out” from a deserved life in prison. The psychological elements one might have treated in this person are now of the level that there is not much there to treat. Although this may sound odd to the dear reader, if you become even more confused or curious about these weighty matters, then you are likely on the right track as the topic really is complicated.

  4. Your statement "It is estimated that 85% of victims of child sexual abuse knew they attackers" I hate to be the one to break it to you, but sex offenders who see the same kid get off the same bus everyday consider "knowing" that child. Thats what is so devious about them..they position themselves around children to abuse children..thus "knowing" them..dont expect the general public to take it apon themselves to determine "who and who is not dangerous" dont expect the "system" to do it either. They are self serving and budget conscious, so no help there. The public must go on the assumption that any person who has been convicted of a crime that has put him on a registry is capable of re-offending. We arent reinventing the wheel here. Prosecution for consentual teenage sex is almost non existant in many states so that is a moot argument at this juncture.All one has to do is wake up and read the daily papers to determine whatever we are doing with these people isnt harsh enough..Liars can figure, figures dont lie..we are now in another generation of offenders repeating their crimes at all time rates and victims of these offenders are committing new doesnt take a rocket scientist to determine, we arent locking up enough bad guys "long enough" to put a dent in these crimes..

  5. Dear Anonymous,
    You can make these dramatic comments or try clicking the link in the article above to educate yourself to the facts of the issue. As a concerned member of the public, I imagine you would want to be as best informed about this important topic. The school bus watcher scenario is a thankfully very, very rare situation, often scene on TV shows like "Criminal Minds" or the news giving the false impression that this a prototypical case. Although sexual reoffense is always a concern, actual sex reoffense rates are substantially lower than one might expect and are in fact decreasing yearly. Don't rely on members of the media or politicians, or even me for your data and information, simply search out cites like Center for Sex Offender Management at or the Bureau of Justice Statistics at Good luck!

  6. My colleague Rabbi Asher Lipner, Ph.D., co-founder of the Jewish Board of Advocates for Children (
    brought to my attention that readers should be aware that the word “recidivism” and the associated statistics refer ONLY to previously convicted sex offenders who have already been convicted of a sex offense crime and have had their punishment. This absolutely is not the same as someone who is caught sexually abusing but has never been brought to justice. When someone is caught and escapes from the criminal justice system prosecution, I bet they will sexually molest again and again. Why would anyone want to collude in protecting such a person knowing that they helped create the environment for continued sexual abuse? Incarceration and other forms of legal sanctions helps decrease sexual reoffense in the specific offender as well as in the community at large (through deterrence).

  7. Am I correct in reading into this article that David Morris is going soft on pedophiles??

    By saying that there are different levels of sex offenders, this is a slippery slope to saying that one shuld turn a blind eye, because *this* one (who's ONLY a molester..)isn't really so bad - there's far worse out there...

    In my books, they are all like dangerous animals, and should be incarcerated or castrated, or both.

  8. Actually just the opposite is true for David Morris. By noting there are different levels of sex offenders Mr. Morris is looking at the problem straight on, as it actually exists in reality. No one (unless denial is the approach) is saying to turn a blind eye but rather an informed eye. The more one chooses to learn about this complicated, unsavory topic using data and research to inform your views the more you will see how there are no easy answers.

    Anonymous' passionate proclamation at the end of their posting reminds me to encourage any individual whose life has been impacted by sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, to seek out help and not suffer in silence.


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