Stop Abuse before It Starts

By Fran Henry and Mark L. Rosenberg
Washington Post [United States]
March 23, 2004

Appearing on "Meet the Press" last month, Robert Bennett, one of the chief authors of a report on the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, said that "child sexual abuse is a national health problem -- it is a national crisis." The report noted that since 1950, 4,392 Catholic priests had sexually abused 10,667 children. But, as Bennett noted, these numbers are just a small part of the problem, because child sexual abuse is perpetrated not only by fathers in the church but by fathers and other people in families across the United States. If we as a nation are serious about protecting our children, we need a strategy for prevention. We need to stop child sexual abuse before it happens.

Punishment for the abuser and treatment for the victim are necessary, but they aren't enough. We ought to learn from what has been done in the area of drinking and driving. Public health scientists, working with advocates, fostered a new social norm: that drunk driving, far from being something to joke about, is unacceptable. People stopped looking the other way when someone started to get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol. They insisted on designated drivers and on taking the keys away. As a society, we lowered our threshold for destructive behavior of that sort and moved more quickly to help people with drinking problems -- if possible before they got into trouble from drinking and driving.

In the same way, we need to be looking for warnings of sexual abuse of children, and to act on those warnings before the offense is committed. Stop It Now is an organization that uses marketing techniques to change attitudes about child sexual abuse. Through its work, we have learned that people at risk of abuse will come forward for help if it is offered. We have learned that families need help to identify healthy sexual behavior and the warning signs of abusive behavior in adults and children. They need help when they have concerns about sexual behavior toward children but nothing to report because the system starts working only after there is an identified victim. When the social norms support seeking help, family members have courageously come forward with wrenching stories of what has happened and how it could have been different.

Estimates of the incidence of abuse in the United States range from 100,000 to 500,000 cases a year. Children routinely do not report sexual abuse; 88 percent is not reported to authorities, and only 3 percent of people who have sexually offended have been convicted. Most such offenses occur in the homes and neighborhoods of the children. We also know that in intimate settings, children are even less likely to reveal abuse. Many people still believe that strangers are the danger to children. But most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone a child knows -- a family member, a family friend or even an older adolescent. Sexual abusers come from all socioeconomic classes and all racial and ethnic groups.

Why does it happen? Bennett said that within the church "there was such a fear of bringing scandal to the church that they planted seeds of an even greater scandal." The same fear keeps one parent from reporting the destructive behavior of a spouse.

We cannot put the responsibility for reporting and stopping child sexual abuse on the child. Adults need to be educated about what constitutes sexual abuse and taught to recognize the warning signs. And we need to make help available for abusers or potential abusers. In Vermont, abusers began coming forward to the criminal justice system once they knew help was available.

Prevention of child sexual abuse will not be accomplished overnight. But what better time than now to start mobilizing the programs we have for children and families, to educate parents and to change the social norms? It's time for the church and for the country to move beyond punishment for perpetrators and therapy for the victims. By starting to focus on prevention we can ensure that in many instances, the abuse will never occur.

Fran Henry is founder of Stop It Now, a program to prevent sexual abuse of children. Mark Rosenberg, executive director of the Task Force for Child Survival and Development, is a former assistant surgeon general and founding director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Henry will discuss this piece today at 12:30 p.m. on


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