Friday, April 2, 2010

What We Knew When about Child Sexual Abuse: A Primer

In the wake of new revelations about what Benedict knew when, vis-à-vis the ongoing (and deepening) crisis of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic church, it’s heartening to hear so many heterosexual male voices suddenly joining the conversation and expressing concern about children who are sexually abused.

It’s heartening to hear these voices suddenly added to the chorus of those that have long called for attention to child sexual abuse, because heterosexual men have not on the whole shown conspicuous concern about this problem in the past.  In fact, abundant data indicate that 

1. Children who are sexually abused are far and away more likely to be abused by heterosexual males than anyone else;

2. Those children are far more likely to be females than males;

3. Most sexual abuse that children encounter occurs right in the home, in the family setting itself—with males as the perpetrators and females as the victims.

According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center, victims of childhood sexual abuse are likely to fit the following profile: 

Females are more at risk than males.

Children from low-income families are more at-risk.

Children who are victims of other forms of crime, violence and abuse are more at-risk.

And perpetrators are likely to fit this profile:

Men perpetrate most sexual abuse and sex crimes.

Sex offenders against children tend to be juveniles or young adults under the age of 30.

Most sexual abuse and sex crimes are committed by people who know the victims.

Acquaintances are most often the perpetrators, followed by family members and then strangers.

And since men (and straight men overwhelmingly, at that) are clearly a major part of the problem here, it is heartening to note how many men who have previously not been involved in efforts to find the causes of and address child sexual abuse effectively are now coming out to comment on this issue in the Catholic church—to find its causes and to address it effectively there.  .

Regardless of the gender of a child being raped, and regardless of who is doing the raping, the most salient fact to be noted about child abuse is always this: a child is being raped.  And the first and foremost concern of humane people addressing the rape of children is to see that it stops—wherever it occurs, and whoever is doing it.

One of the strangest rationales I have heard this week in Catholic circles for attacking the media as it tries to gather and report information on abuse in the Catholic church is the we’re-a-family rationale.

Those offering this rationale for the defensive attack on the media we’ve seen in recent days say that this is what we ought to expect, when a family is attacked: its members band together, lock arms, and fight back.

But if those offering this rationale would think for a moment about what that defense implies, vis-à-vis their concern for children abused within the family circle, perhaps they’d be less eager to take the we’re-a-family route.

If Uncle Bob molests little Jim and Bob’s father Grandpa Ed knows about it and looks the other way, would a well-functioning family lock arms and protect Bob?  And excuse Ed?  

Or should a sane and sound family wonder what it could do to protect Jim, even it means reporting Bob to the police for raping a minor, and and Ed for covering the rape up?

As I say, I find it heartening that many straight men are now apparently “getting it” about child abuse—that we have a very serious problem, indeed, throughout society.  And that it’s made far more difficult within religious institutions that respond to it—we are family!—by covering it up.

And that the most important response of all is to do something about it, wherever and however it occurs.  And whoever is doing it.  And the contribution of straight men, who have on the whole tended not to show widespread or conspicuous concern about this social problem in the past, is essential, if the problem’s going to be addressed.

Because we know from abundant data that in most cases in which children are raped throughout the world, those children are females.  And heterosexual males are the ones raping them.  Often right within the family circle.