November 23, 2011

The Penn State Scandal: 7 Facts About Child Sex Abuse

11-23-2011 National:

National statistics reveal a decline in child sex abuse, but numerous cases remain unreported and victims’ suffering persists. In light of the Penn State scandal, experts weigh in on the facts of child sex abuse today.

Though the Penn state sex abuse scandal continues to roil the country, statistics indicate a decline in child sex abuse in the U.S. over the past 20 years.

Incidents of child sex abuse dipped 61 percent since 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Another group found 65,700 child-abuse cases in 2009 in comparison with roughly 150,000 cases in 1992.

Executive director of the National Children’s Advocacy Center, Chris Newlin, says these numbers surprise even frontline professionals.

“These are amazing statistics that I think a lot of people have a hard time believing, in part because they’re not often discussed,” he said.

Newlin points to an increase in detection rates of abuse as proof of progress. But the fight isn’t over. “As a country we shouldn’t be satisfied until the rate of reported incidents drops 100 percent,” he said.

Unreported Incidents Complicate Statistics

Experts admit that the hesitancy to report child sex abuse makes it harder to effectively quantify. “There’s an ongoing debate about the accuracy of these numbers,” said executive director of a child-abuse prevention nonprofit, Dr. Michael L. Haney.

Haney sees a cyclical problem with defining sex abuse and applying that definition across the country.

“Many of the individuals [involved in the Penn State scandal] met the laws required by the state when it came to reporting incidents at that time,” he said.

Haney hopes the Jerry Sandusky case will send a message that moral obligations should weigh as much as legal ones.

There are other complications that vary from state to state when it comes to reporting cases to child-protective agencies. One example that struck sociologist and research center director David Finkelhor is that abuse by coaches or priests can be harder to track in some states that limit investigations to perpetrators who are caretakers.

Rates of Recidivism Among Child Sex Offenders Are Lower Than Expected

“People often estimate that 90 percent of committed sex offenders reoffend, but the numbers are not as high as they fear,” said Maia Christopher, executive director at the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. ATSA found only 23 percent of child molesters were charged with another offense within 15 years of being released from prison in a 2004 report. The highest recidivism rates were found among extrafamilial child molesters whose victims were boys—30 percent in 15 years. Individuals with more than one sex-offense conviction were twice as likely to offend again.

“Sex offender” is a legal term that applies only when someone is convicted in a court of law. Sandusky is not yet a recidivist for this reason. There is, however, sufficient evidence to classify him under the clinical term “pedophile.”

A shocking 40 percent of men on U.S. sex-offender registries could be classified as pedophiles, according to Jill Levenson, professor of psychology at Boca Raton’s Lynn University.

“Those with male victims tend to be more prolific offenders,” she said.

For the remainder of this report: by Lizzie Crocker

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