by Michael Castleman
From media reports, one might infer that Catholic priests commit most pedophilia. In fact, only a tiny fraction of child sex abusers are priests.
We know who the pedophiles are from the National Sexual Health Survey (NSHS), a large, comprehensive study of American sexuality based on in-depth interviews in 1996 with a representative sample of 8,400 Americans, age 18 to 88. Although the data are 14 years old, sexual behavior rarely changes quickly, so this survey can be considered reasonably current. The NSHS asked about sexual abuse: Have you ever felt forced or frightened into having sex?
Seven percent of respondents reported such feelings, 15 percent of the women, and 3 percent of the men. These figures agree with previous surveys.
Victims were asked at what age(s) they were molested. Abuse spanned all ages from 3 to 17, but victims were most likely to be 6 to 10, or 14 to 17. Teens accounted for 49 percent of victims, 6 to 10 year olds, 34 percent.
Ninety-five percent of the abusers were men.
Abusers’ ages ranged from 10 to 70. But half–48 percent–were in their twenties. Eighteen percent were in their thirties, 15 percent were in their forties, and all other age groups accounted for 19 percent.
Who were the molesters? NSHS categories included: strangers, dates, friends or acquaintances, parents, step-parents, other relatives, and others. Dates, friends, and acquaintances comprised the largest group of assailants (38 percent), followed by non-parent relatives (23 percent), others (15 percent), strangers (10 percent), parents (6 percent), and step-parents (4 percent).
Victims under 12 were typically abused by caregivers: parents, step-parents, other relatives, babysitters, or camp or recreational-program staff. Teens were generally abused by friends or acquaintances.
Under “other,” the NSHS asked: Who? Surprisingly, not one victim mentioned a priest. Most of the abusers in this category were teachers, neighbors, doctors, grandparents, a parent’s friend or coworker, or an adult around the house: a gardener, or repairman.
Not a single priest. I emphasize this not to exculpate pedophile priests, but rather to elucidate the reality of this crime. While celibacy and sexual repression may contribute to Catholic priests’ risk for pedophilia, child sexual exploitation is most often triggered by proximity to children and the opportunity to exercise authority over them. It’s more likely to happen in the child’s home than outside it. The perpetrator is most likely to be someone the child and parents know, for younger children, a caregiver, for teens, a social contact.
I hope the Catholic Church can end priestly child sexual abuse. But the NSHS shows that priest account for only a tiny fraction of this problem. In my humble opinion, parents are too trusting of the adults–particularly young adults–who care for their children.
Now I’m not saying parents should quarantine kids. My children attended preschool, after-school programs, and camps staffed by young adults, and thrived.
But parent should monitor the adults, especially the young adults, who supervise their children. Don’t assume your kids are safe simply because they’re home. Teach your children the difference between welcome touch and frightening touch. Teach them to report the latter promptly. Don’t assume your teens are safe simply because they’re out with friends. Encourage them to tell you if they ever feel sexually threatened.
The problem of child sexual abuse is much larger than bad apples in the priesthood. As the NSHS clearly shows, we’re dealing with bad apples potentially anywhere.