Jodi Zierhut, a parole and probation agent for the Department of Corrections in Milwaukee, Wis., escorts a client out of her office. She has a caseload of about 40 sex offenders. Another agent comes up to her and whispers, I can’t believe he’s a sex offender. Even people trained to think otherwise expect a person convicted of a sex crime to look a certain way: a crazy glint in the eye, a bad haircut, thick glasses. Sex offenders rarely fit this description.
Movies and the media have filled people’s heads with images of demented men snatching children. These stereotypes, matched with misinformation, make abuse difficult to understand. How could a priest or any upstanding member of the community commit a sex crime?
It is important to answer this question, because the extent of sexual abuse is staggering. In 1994, David Finkelhor collated statistics from over a dozen studies about the sexual abuse of children. The studies indicated at least 20 percent of adult women and 5 percent to 10 percent of adult men experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. The definition of the term sexual abuse varied depending on the study. In general, the term referred to both contact and non-contact activities with children intended for sexual stimulation by the perpetrator.
The National Center for Victims of Crime determined in a 1992 survey that one out of every eight women will be raped in her lifetime. Whether the victim was a child or an adult at the time of the assault or abuse, long-term consequences can include posttraumatic stress (with possible symptoms of nightmares, numbness and jumpiness), low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse and addiction, indiscriminate sexual behavior, eating disorders, self-mutilation and suicide. The effect on children can be truly horrific.
The church community can accomplish a great deal through education to prevent and respond to sexual abuse. To get past the myths of monsters committing sex crimes and victims encouraging assaults by the way they dress or act will make the community less likely to hide behind denial and more open to address abuse directly.
The first of 10 myths that the Center for Sex Offender Management lists in one of its online community education publications (www.csom.org) is, Most sexual assaults are committed by strangers. In fact, in the vast majority of cases the victim knows the perpetrator. Abusers are usually family members, babysitters, boyfriends, teachers or co-workers.
Most sexual abusers plan carefully. Over a period of time, the abuser grooms a victim. C.S.O.M. defines grooming as the process of manipulation intended to reduce a victim’s resistance to sexual abuse. Someone who sexually abuses children, for example, might begin by taking the child to restaurants or giving the child gifts. These early incidents not only encourage the child to spend time alone with the abuser, but will help ensure that the child will not disclose a future assault. Once the child feels safe with this person, the abuser might engage in a non-touching crime, like showing the child a pornographic movie. At a later date, the abuser might refer to the movie to initiate a sex act with the child.
Imagining such an abuser, most readers will think of a man. Men commit 9 out of 10 sex crimes. Dr. David Thornton, an international expert in the field, believes America is just starting to accept the fact that women commit sex crimes as well, primarily against children. A 1996 study found that women were responsible for 20 percent of child sexual abuse.
Nobody gets up one day and says, I want to be a sex offender,’ Agent Zierhut reminds people. Sex offenders often have no prior criminal record, and they come from all socioeconomic groups and ethnicities. National statistics from 1995 show that 56 percent of arrestees for rape were white, as well as 75 percent of those arrested for other sex offenses. Sexual abuse can start at a young age. Adolescents commit about 20 percent of all sex crimes.
About 30 percent of offenders were sexually abused as children. In an interview conducted by STOP IT NOW!, a national nonprofit organization devoted to preventing the sexual abuse of children, the wife of a sex offender said: My husband was sexually abused as a child. He is a third-generation offender. For these perpetrators, trusted people in their past modeled deviant sexual behaviors for them.
What about the other 70 percent? What might lead someone to commit a sex crime? It can have quite simple origins. Joe Henger, who has treated over 2,000 male and female sex offenders throughout Wisconsin, gives an example of a 14-year-old boy punished and sent to his room for the afternoon. There is nothing in the room to entertain him, and so he might masturbate while feeling very angry. He might unwittingly begin to pair anger and arousal, says Henger.
Many people wonder whether once a person has become an abuser, he or she can ever be rehabilitated. Most sex offenders reoffend, is another myth on the C.S.O.M.’s top 10 list. In fact, as Thornton puts it, Sex crimes have a low rate of recidivism relative to other kinds of crimes. A burglar might have 1,500 victims in a year. A high-risk sex offender might have 150 victims over 30 years. But sex offenses create an enormous tide of human misery. When studies average rates for all types of offenders, without treatment about 35 percent recidivate. That number can be reduced to less than half when an offender engages in regular, long-term treatment.
People’s views of recidivism are often skewed, because a small percentage of offenders perpetrate a large number of crimes and generate a huge amount of media attention. Sixteen states have enacted laws to detain indefinitely this small group of offenders (under 10 percent of those sentenced) for treatment after completing prison sentences. A debate is being waged about whether mental health professionals can assess which offenders fit into this group. A recent Supreme Court decision established a tighter definition that states must use to commit indefinitely for treatment these potentially high-risk offenders.
Before the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers was founded in 1984, there was no organization in the United States to establish and monitor guidelines for sex offender therapy and management. Now treatment programs throughout the country use similar models, and researchers are constantly testing to validate their effectiveness. Underlying these techniques is the principle, as stated in the A.T.S.A. standards, that although many, if not most, sexual abusers are treatable, there is no known cure.’ Management of sexually abusive behavior is a lifelong task for some sexual abusers (www.atsa.com).
Therapists most often work with groups of different types of offenders. In a group comprised of rapists, pedophiles, perpetrators of incest and exhibitionists, the offenders will question the denial and stories of others. All offenders have created stories that allow them to justify their criminal behavior. An exhibitionist, for example, may think his behavior did not hurt his victims because he did not touch them. Using group dynamics, therapists carefully work with offenders to disclose their crimes, empathize with their victims and put together detailed plans to disrupt the triggers that might lead them to reoffend.
A.T.S.A. looks beyond therapy to manage offenders. The organization recommends a multifaceted program that includes coordination with parole and probation officers, the use of polygraph tests, interaction with an offender’s support network and possibly the use of medications.
Multifaceted management was missing in the Archdiocese of Boston. In 1989 Cardinal Bernard Law believed that the former priest John Geoghan had repented and recovered from sexually abusing boys. Father Geoghan had received treatment in the 1980’s, and Cardinal Law decided he could return to ministry at St. Julia Parish. If Geoghan had initially been sentenced for any of his crimes, even if he only received probation, it is unlikely that a corrections official would have allowed the priest contact with children. Cardinal Law’s faith in the possibility of change was not matched by an understanding of the deeply rooted nature of sexual abuse.
According to Agent Zierhut, who has worked with sex offenders since 1994, Geoghan should have known not to place himself in such a high-risk situation. Treatment does not necessarily rid an offender of deviant thoughts and urges, she explains. Treatment gives an offender the tools to aid him in controlling his deviant behaviors. Zierhut advises, The church can put safeguards into the offender’s life, thereby helping to prevent future offenses.
As dioceses throughout the United States write new policies about sexual abuse, some may take the not in my backyard approach so typical in communities when sex offenders return. When a neighborhood rises up and insists that an offender live somewhere else, the danger merely moves elsewhere. If the church forces a priest to leave the ministryalthough this is better than moving a priest from parish to parishthe church community has done nothing to put in place necessary treatment and supervision.
People in churches across the country are wondering what they can do to help both victims and abusers. Priests, pastoral ministers, teachers, parents and others in the church can take action in a number of ways.
Avoid blaming victims. In a recent article for the Whitestone Foundation (whitestonefoundation.net), which is dedicated to fostering healing in the aftermath of a sexual offense, the organization’s founder, Tamara Menteer, writes, Many people, without admitting it, remain fixed on the idea that victims somehow bring the assault upon themselves. Vulnerable and blameless victims may feel a broad range of emotions: shame, an inability to trust, fear and guilt. Victims need therapy and succor to help them restore their sense of meaning.
Some people assume that alleged victims have made false accusations. Although false accusations do occur, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has found them to be no more frequent than for other crimes. Finkelhor’s 1994 study notes, Most states mandate that professionals report even suspicions of abuse. Agency investigators use discretion in checking out claims. For example, a study Finkelhor co-authored concluded investigators dismissed 82 percent of all allegations lodged against day care workers.
False reports are not the same as unsubstantiated reports. An unsubstantiated report lacks the evidence necessary to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the criminal justice system that a crime may have occurred. During an investigation, the church community can maintain respect for all parties involved.
Keep in mind offenders. Menteer writes, In contrast to the victim, response to the sexual offender by congregations is either to support the offender as if he is innocent, ostracize him completely or act as if nothing happened at all. Alisa Klein, director of public policy at STOP IT NOW!, characterizes all these reactions as forms of denial. We want to deny that there are those among us who could do these sorts of things, she explains. We don’t want their deeds to reflect upon us, so we ostracize them.
In order to be rehabilitated, offenders need assistance as well. They need people who will see them as not defined solely by their crime, people who will stand by them as they go through the corrections system, receive treatment and labor to modify their thinking and behavior.
Focus on prevention. The American Medical Association estimated in 1996 that two-thirds of sexual assaults are never reported. Of individuals charged, many are never sentenced. The approximately 386,000 registered sex offenders in the United States represent less than 10 percent of all sex offenders living in communities nationwide. Yet it is not as though unreported abuse is never detected. STOP IT NOW! (www.stopitnow.com) conducted a random survey in Vermont in 1995 with 200 interviewees. Six percent of the respondents said they knew an adult they suspected was sexually abusing a child, and 14 percent admitted knowing a child they suspected was being sexually abused. These people felt uncomfortable directly confronting a potential perpetrator or victim about abuse, and many did not want to call the police.
Perhaps because adults feel so uncomfortable talking about sex in general and about confronting possible abuse in particular, schools now teach children prevention strategies. Educational programs across the country train children to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate touching. STOP IT NOW! urges parents, teachers and any other adults in contact with children to take more responsibility for deterring offenders. Caregivers need to think carefully about the people who spend time alone with children. Caregivers can watch for warning signs in both adults and children. An adult who insists on touching, kissing, tickling or wrestling with a child, when the child is obviously uncomfortable, is acting inappropriately. A child who fears a certain friend or relative, or simulates sexual activities with toys or other children may have been abused.
Finkelhor tried to find risk factors for child victims in his 1994 study. He could discover no correlations based on social class, ethnicity or single-parenthood. But two factors, which crossed all boundaries, did matter. Emotionally deprived children with a lack of quality supervision were vulnerable to the ploys of sexual abusers. Families and churches can help protect children by providing affection and attention in a safe environment.