Should we entrust children to the care of the devoutly religious?

Should we entrust children to the care of the devoutly religious? February 23, 2010

The Catholic Church is in the news again – this time in Germany – as a result paedophile priests being outed after years of cover-ups. Traditionally, we have entrusted vulnerable children to the care of the devoutly religious, on the grounds that, of all people, they can be relied upon not to abuse those in their care. Does that assumption hold up? We can’t extrapolate too wildly from the particular problems of the Catholic Church, but there are other data out there.

So I took a look at the evidence for religion and sexual crime. Now, there is a negative correlation between religion and crime in general, especially in the USA (although the devil is in the detail). Broadly speaking, the relationship seems to hold best for property crime, rather than violent crime. But most studies don’t look at sexual crime.

However, here’s an interesting fact from the UK. Although disproportionately few crooks in the prison population report having a religious faith, that’s not the case when you just look at felons who are in for sex crimes. According to the Times.

The proportion of all prisoners declaring any faith compared with those with none is about 2:1 but among those convicted of sex crime it rises to 3:1. The trend is marked across many faiths, including Buddhism, Anglicanism, Free Church Christianity and Judaism.

That’s pretty unscientific, but I have found a few studies that have looked into this in a more rigorous way, and they both found something similar.

Donna Eshuys and Stephen Smallbone of Griffith University in Australia assessed 111 incarcerated adult male sexual offenders. They categorised them as either atheists, religious dropouts, new converts, and lifelong religious stayers.

Surprisingly, they found that this last group (those who maintained religious involvement from childhood to adulthood) had more sexual offence convictions, more victims, and younger victims, than other groups. This relationship persisted after controlling for other factors that might explain it.

A similar study comes from Israel, and looked at Jewish male prisoners. As in the UK, religious individuals were rarer in prison than in wider society (by religious they mean orthodox observant Jews, who made up 3.75% of the prison population, compared with 20% of the general population). However, those religious Jews who were in prison were more likely to be in for sex crimes.

Lastly, Ruth Stout-Miller and colleagues interviewed freshman at a Southern University, and found that those who had been sexually abused by a relative were much more likely to be affiliated with fundamental Protestant religions (while those abused by a non-relative were more likely to be non-religious).

Well, it’s not much. But it is interesting that the same pattern seems to crop up in the UK, Australia Israel and the USA. There does seem to be a link between religion and sex crimes, and it seems to be particularly a problem for the more devoutly religious individuals.

We can speculate why this might be (sexual repression, perhaps) although the reasons aren’t altogether clear. But I think what is clear is that we should be cautious when entrusting children into the care of devout believers.
Eshuys, D., & Smallbone, S. (2006). Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18 (3), 279-288 DOI: 10.1007/s11194-006-9020-5

Ben-David S, & Weller L (1995). Religiosity, criminality and types of offences of Jewish male prisoners. Medicine and law, 14 (7-8), 509-19 PMID: 8667998

Stout-Miller, R., Miller, L., & Langenbrunner, M. (1998). Religiosity and Child Sexual Abuse: A Risk Factor Assessment Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 6 (4), 15-34 DOI: 10.1300/J070v06n04_02

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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