Church News Obscures Overall Decline in Abuse

By David Finkelhor
USA Today
March 1, 2004

In the midst of the grim findings from the Roman Catholic bishops' study about priest abuse and its previously hidden dimensions, which was released Friday, there is, nonetheless, some possibly hopeful news: Much less abuse appears to have occurred in the past decade. Priest-abuse incidents fell and stayed well below 100 per year since 1993, compared with 500 or more per year during the nearly two decades starting in the late 1960s.

Many believe this disparity will disappear with time. It has taken 20 or 30 years for the victims of earlier abuse to bring forth their allegations. Maybe we just need to wait. But it is surprising that, despite all of the intense publicity and a very different contemporary climate about the problem, more recent cases haven't surfaced.

The falloff in clergy-abuse allegations parallels a nationwide drop in sexual-abuse cases in general. From 1992 to 2001, state child-protection agencies have seen a 42% decline in substantiated sexual abuse, falling from a high of 150,000 cases annually to fewer than 87,000. The decline has occurred in almost all states and in almost all forms of child molestation.

Skeptics worry that this just signals an increased reluctance to report offenses or more conservative investigation practices by child-welfare authorities. But a new study released by the U.S. Department of Justice analyzed the experience of several states and concluded that such explanations could not account for the breadth and persistence of the decline.

That study also found other evidence that fewer children are being abused. In self-reporting surveys, including the large National Crime Victimization Survey, fewer youth said they had been sexually assaulted or abused in 2000 and 2001 than said so a decade earlier.

Supporting trends

Other trends in 1990s data also are consistent with the hopeful idea that fewer children are becoming victims. Statistics show declines during the late 1990s in births to teenage mothers, children running away and teenagers committing suicide — all problems that can be outcomes for children who experience sexual abuse.

Why the decline? The possible causes are numerous. The number of child-sex offenders incarcerated in state correctional facilities tripled from 1986 to 1997. In recent years, an enormous number of other offenders have been outed, prosecuted, treated and possibly deterred from re-offending. Parents and youth organizations also have become more aware and may have made it harder for molesters to operate with impunity. Many children have received prevention education, making them potentially less-amenable targets. Even as the Catholic Church was dragging its feet in dealing with the problem, some of these factors probably were working to protect children inside and outside the church.

But other more general social factors may have played a role, too. The employment picture picked up in the 1990s, which, at least in the lay population, may have reduced opportunities to molest and some of the motivations to do so, such as discouragement and anxiety. Psychiatric medication became widely disseminated and perhaps also alleviated some of the precursors to abuse. Men unable to handle the freedoms that began with the 1960s' cultural and sexual revolution may be aging out.

Don't talk about it?

Some object to talking about a decline in sexual abuse now; they believe it will lead only to complacency and inaction. They are correct in their perception that sexual abuse remains a problem of disturbing proportions, even factoring in the decline.

Some aspects of sex abuse, such as Internet child pornography and online seductions, may hold the seeds of a new abuse explosion. The scandal in the Catholic Church also clearly illustrates the degree to which some influential corners of our society have remained closed off from awareness about abuse, its many effects and the remedial efforts required.

Nevertheless, it is vital to talk about signs of progress and instill needed hope about a discouraging topic. Discussion also underscores what works well, allowing us to learn what can be applied more widely and, we hope, extending the downward trend in abuse.

David Finkelhor is a University of New Hampshire professor and director of its Crimes against Children Research Center.


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