What do child abusers look like?

Analyzing the media coverage of the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis has been difficult simply because of the disgusting nature of the topic. But perhaps one of the most difficult articles to read was this April Newsweek story putting the abuse by priests in context of the larger problem:

Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in 10. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in 5. But in either case, the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than these national estimates. The public also doesn’t realize how “profoundly prevalent” child sexual abuse is, adds Smith. Even those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime). “However you slice it, it’s a very common experience,” Smith says.

In fact, the estimate of how many priests abuse children is something like 4%. So not only do they not abuse at a higher rate than the general population but, in all likelihood, at a much lower rate.

Shortly after I read that Newsweek story, I was traveling with my youngest to Texas. Waiting around for the airplane, I began to calculate what percentage of the men around us were child molesters. I realized that this probably wasn’t a good use of my time but the horrifying thoughts have kind of stayed with me.

I’ve begun wondering why we see so many stories about clerical sexual abuse and so few stories about other areas of sexual abuse. Three years ago, the Associated Press ran a story that claimed three children are abused by public school teachers each day. That certainly sounds believable, if very sad. You have to wonder why the media have such outsized interest in certain types of abuse compared others. It’s probably worth noting how much lawyers have driven the Vatican story if only to note that it’s much harder for victims to sue public school districts.

And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some lawsuits over this horrendous story: The Washington Post ran a huge expose about a serial predator of teenage boys. He was a public educator and he abused boys beginning in 1978. There is evidence that he was pushed out of school district after school district for inappropriate behavior — and yet nothing was ever placed on his record. He has finally been caught — with a cache of pictures and stories about his many victims. It’s a horrifying story, very difficult to read. In my brief time reporting on abuse by priests, I’ve learned a bit about how difficult it is to catch the worst offenders. They are very good at manipulating relationships. Kevin Ricks, the man accused in the Post profile, seems to have been just such an offender.

There are many more stories to tell about predators in families, in schools and throughout the community. But since I’ve been critical of the degree to which the media has focused the big guns almost exclusively on Catholic priests, I wanted to highlight this story — even if it has not one ounce of religion in it — for investigating one particularly dramatic story about the failings of the public school institution to protect teenage boys from sexual predators. It also has tough questions for foreign exchange student programs and parents who failed to be suspicious about the interest he showed in their sons. These are all important parts of the story about how we protect children and adolescents from predators.

Print Friendly

  • http://codeforepress Jim

    I have published a book on this subject. Its a hand book for mothers and girl friends. Its called Protectus Prol. You might be interested in it.


  • Mike

    I would just like to point out how the media, yourself included, often uncritically accept the Church’s numbers of 4% of Catholic priests as abusers. This number comes from the John Jay study that the Bishops sponsored. Remember that the data in this study was given to the researchers by the various Dioceses, they were not given access to Diocesan files.

    If you look at the numbers in Dioceses that had to reveal their records due to either a Grand Jury investigation or civil legal action, the number seems to hover around the 9 – 10 percent range. Take for example Philadelphia, where the Archdiocese released numbers in 2002 that said there were 35 priest abusers in the last 50 years. The Grand Jury investigation put the number closer to 200.

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    You have to wonder why the media have such outsized interest in certain types of abuse compared others. It’s probably worth noting how much lawyers have driven the Vatican story if only to note that it’s much harder for victims to sue public school districts.

    I’m sure the lawyers and the money have driven the story to a large extent. I also think there’s a sense of the dramatic in the coverage: the idea that the most virtuous-seeming man (picture Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley as an archetype) is secretly committing the most heinous of sins. It makes a better read than the creepy guy down the street doing the same thing.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How about some serious coverage in the media about how the politicians and teacher’s unions have openly conspired to protect abusive teachers (without the excuse many bishops had that at the time of the height of the number of abuse cases under their watch they were following the advice of experts in the field).
    In a number of states when the legislatures tried to tighten up abuse reporting laws mostly to get at the Church (NY and Colorado come to mind) -as soon as someone added school teachers to the proposed laws, the teacher’s unions made sure the bills were deep-sixed.
    Likewise. bills in various states to end sovereign immunity (can’t sue the state) in abuse cases and let lawyers gold dig from taxpayers as they have from Church donors have gone down the drain.
    Yet stories on these aspects of the issue are very, very few and far between.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I should have made it clear where the figures on priests come from. Do you have any links to critical analyses of that study? If so, I’d like to read them and also link to them in the future.

  • Jerry

    I think there are two things going on in the media. The first is bias as Deacon Bresnahan and others have pointed out. The second is that many people want to look up to priests and ministers as paragons who live the gospel not just hypocritically preach it. Both combine to produce the kind of media coverage we’ve seen.

  • Dave

    Mollie, could you clarify where the figure of 10% of the general male population comes from? In the 1970s and 80s a cottage industry arose of slandering men in general with stats like this. My BS detector flashes red when I see something along this line.

  • Julia

    Grand Jury investigation put the number closer to 200.

    Is that 200 individual perpetrators or 200 individual incidents of abuse?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    The figures came from this Newsweek story. I hope it is not true.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    Is that 200 individual perpetrators or 200 individual incidents of abuse?

    The Grand Jury was able to establish 63 distinct priests who engaged in clear abuse. This, of course, is a lower bound; there were other cases where there was some circumstantial evidence but not enough to be definite. The report is online (PDF) and makes for some very informative, but often very unpleasant reading (recommended for people who like original sources, but not for those with queasy stomachs).

  • Christine RObinson

    Lots of sex abuse goes on, there’s not doubt about that, and lots of kids get hurt. But what hurts is not just the bodily violation. What hurts worse is that that violation is from somebody that the child feels they should have trusted, like a family member or a priest, and what hurts even worse than that is when nobody believes the child or stops the abuse. I am prepared to believe that Catholic priests abuse children in lower percentages than men in general. But when they do, it does more damage, and then the church responds as it did for decades, ti does even more damage. That’s why the media takes an outsized interest in this subject. It’s a triple horror and needs to stop.

  • Mercy

    Bull—-, Christine. I was molested for months and months at age 7 by a teenage neighbour, someone of whom I had no expectation of trust. When I finally got over my fear enough to tell my parents, I was immediately believed and the abuse was stopped.

    The bodily violation hurt plenty, ok? Everything was not hunky dory fine with me.

    The suggestion that clerical sexual abuse victims deserve more coverage than other abuse victims because they suffer more is horribly offensive to me, and I protest it in the strongest possible terms. My molestation never got in the paper, probably because “juvenile offender whom we can’t name legally on other juvenile victim whom we can’t name” isn’t much of a story. And that’s bull—-. Pardon my language. Parents need to be aware, like mine weren’t, that if a teenage boy shows unusual interest in your prepubescent daughter, he does not just “really like kids”. THAT would have been an important story. But I’ve never read ANY stories in the paper about that and from friends I know that being molested by teenagers in prepubescence is very, very common (if they’re horny and unscrupulous, we’re defenseless and easily manipulated).

    Where is that story? I want to know!

  • Christine RObinson

    I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience. You have every right to your pain, which has obviously been considerable. I can promise you that it would have been worse if it had not been a neighbor boy but your priest, and when you finally got up the courage to tell someone that someone, or someones “up the line” dismissed your experience and that man was promoted instead of being punished. And all your swearing at me will not convince me otherwise. I had both experiences.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    The JAMA (Journal of the AMA) has an article showing the extent of the abuse: LINK

  • Bill in Ottawa

    I have experience in fraud investigations, which is a different form of abuse of trust. These con artists are almost always chameleons who can be exceptionally charming or coercive bullies, depending on what will work on their victim. I’ve had both behaviours thrown at me in the same interview.

    From what I’ve read about abusers, they exhibit most of the same traits. What disturbs me most, though, is the level of self-righteous justification that the perpetrators of abuse of trust crimes exhibit. They may know, intellectually, that what they are doing is wrong, but have a deep seated delusion that allows them to continue doing it anyway.

  • Dave

    Mercy, I’m sorry you were abused and I’m glad you had the good fortune to be believed and get the abuse stopped. Pardon me if I reach around your sad story to make a point only tangentially related with Christine.

    Christine, your explanation of why the media might put an extra spotlight on clerical abuse, without being sectarian, might be valid. But it doesn’t explain why public school abuse doesn’t get the same treatment — a point made numerous times on this board.

  • Dave

    Mollie at 9, I would give that statistic specifically the same level of skepticism that GetReligionistas give Newsweek generally.

    tioedong, thanks for the JAMA link. Alas, the interesting information is behind a paywall.

  • Doug Sirman

    “..thanks for the JAMA link. Alas, the interesting information is behind a paywall.”

    If you click on “skip this ad”, all the information is there.

    Why don’t public schools get the same treatment?
    Because they have no governing hierarchy claiming spiritual authority; something many seem to find offensive.

    Why don’t public schools face the same kind of lawsuits?
    Because both the federal and state governments have made sure to eliminate any legal ability on the part of the taxpayer to sue the education system; the public school system is legally shielded from accountability.

    Why don’t Catholic journalists report on this fact?
    Because they’re far too interested in playing martyr, even when they know it’s a lie.

  • Dave

    Thanks for the clue, Doug. I skimmed the article but found no reference to the prevalence of abusers in the male population.

  • Passing By

    I’m still waiting for some links to actual critical analysis of the John Jay study. It’s absurd to think that posturing politicians (aka “District Attorneys”) are any more objective than Catholic bishops. As some of the snide comments above demonstrate, everyone’s got a dog in this hunt.

    Actually, I don’t have a problem with the notion that the offense rate might be 8-10%, since that is probably the rate at which men in general offend. What I would like is data.

    NOTE: a researcher in sex offender management opined to me once that the rate is about 8%. He told me that figure was published in the LA Times, but I’ve never been able to locate it.

    Bait and switch does seem the primary rule for discussing this. Either the Catholic Church has a special problem with sex abuse (bait) OR the Church doesn’t have any more offenders, but claims moral authority (switch). Either way, it’s just another excuse to hate Catholics and our Faith.

    Apparently the comment to which #18 replies is deleted, but here’s something by Catholic journalists that’s fairly comprehensive. There is also this interesting story from the Wall Street Journal.

    Look, I worked with sex offenders for 10 years; the real predators are liars, manipulators, and frauds. But so are some of the alleged victims. Worst of all, the real victims are exploited by the professional victims and the Oprahs, paraded in front of audiences titillated by their tears and pain. It’s a disgusting display of cheap sensationalism played out at the expense of others.