Who Are the Men Who Commit Child Abuse?

The Tidings [United States]
February 10, 2006

Are priests the major male sex abusers in our society? You might think so, after all the publicity given to the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. But not only is that false, it may also divert our attention from the major male sex abusers in our midst.

Safeguarding children has become a major concern in our society, as we have become aware of how many children are abused (one in five girls and one in ten boys before the age 18). In January 2005, the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation released one of the most comprehensive studies to date of the men who commit child abuse. Data was examined from 18 states involving 192,392 perpetrators of all kinds of neglect and abuse, male and female.

Even though females account for more than half of all child abusers, their abuse is of a distinctly different pattern than that of males. Two-thirds (66 percent) of female abuse is associated with neglect, compared to one-third (36 percent) of males. But 26 percent of the males were linked to child sex abuse, compared to 2 percent of females.

It is important, in safeguarding our children, to know which groups of men put children at most risk of abuse. The study documented that of the 26 percent of males who abuse children sexually, 30 percent are stepfathers, 24 percent are adoptive fathers, and 20 percent are the mothers' boyfriends. None of these were the biological fathers of the children. Together, these groups represent three-fourths of the abusing males in our society.

Biological or actual fathers of the children accounted for 7 percent of the incidents of sexual abuse, while "combination" fathers (men who were biologically related to one victim and the stepfather of another) were responsible for another 7 percent.

Where do abusive priests fit in these statistics? Teachers, coaches, neighbors, clergy, daycare providers and youth ministers are among the remaining 12 percent of abusive males. But the horrifying fact confirmed by this study is that the greatest risk to our children still comes from those to whom we entrust them.

These are the "non-parents" --- not only the stepfathers, adoptive fathers and mothers' boyfriends, but also the teachers, coaches, neighbors, clergy, daycare providers, youth ministers, etc. Together they account for 68 percent of the incidents of sexual abuse by male perpetrators.

The bottom line of this study is that children are most at risk from those whom we trust most to spend time with our children, people in their lives who appear to have their best interests at heart, and who are known and trusted by the children and the parents.

Clergy certainly fit within this group. But the most comprehensive study available suggests that of the estimated 110,000 active priests serving in the United States between 1950 and 2002, approximately 4 percent have been accused as child sex abusers. Most of the priest abuse occurred before 1985 (75 percent between 1960 and 1984); it was in 1984 that the church began to employ ever more effective methods to deal with this problem. By the 1990s, priest abuse declined dramatically, from under 3 percent to near zero in 2000 and after. (2)

The statistics for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reveal that after the archdiocese formed policies for treating abusive priests --- and especially for screening candidates for the seminary and improving seminary formation regarding sexual education and behavior --- the occurrence of sexual abuse by the 155 priests ordained for the archdiocese since 1985 was 1.3 percent.

Catholic people would say that any percentage of child sexual abuse, no matter how small, would be too much when it comes to the men they trust as their priests. And so do priests themselves. The model given at their ordination, Jesus Christ, and his words, "Let the little children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven," is the ideal expected of them, and which they strive for themselves.

The study cited at the beginning of this article reminds us to be vigilant in monitoring the behavior of those to whom we entrust children, especially of those groups identified as the greatest risk to them.

Child abuse could significantly be reduced if our society would learn from both the failures and the successes of the Church.


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