WASHINGTON –– The number of child sexual abuse incidents has declined over time, according to several studies. The studies also indicate that other forms of child abuse also have dropped.
According to the studies, though, incidents of child neglect have not decreased nearly as much over the time periods studied.
The first study to report lower numbers of child sexual abuse was published in 2001, according to Lisa Jones of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. That was one year before a child sexual abuse scandal rocked the Archdiocese of Boston, as victims of abuse suffered years and decades earlier went public.
Jones said the number of abuse reports had gone down 61 percent between 1992-2009. “The most significant parts of the decline happened in the 1990s, but continued through the 2000s,” Jones said during a webinar earlier this year on child abuse and neglect trends.
The numbers come from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, which reports substantiated cases of sexual abuse and other forms of child maltreatment.
Those figures are mirrored somewhat in the John Jay report commissioned by the U.S. bishops and issued May 18.
In a May 23 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, David Finkelhor, one of the nation’s leading specialists on child sexual abuse who is also affiliated with the Crimes Against Children Research Center, said he trusted the John Jay report’s findings on the declining number of child sexual abuse reports within the church.
“A lot of people question, ‘Did it really go down? Is this something we can bank on?’ I trust the report’s findings on that. They did a good analysis on that. I think that reflects reality,” Finkelhor said.
“It corresponds with things we have found that deal with more general trends of sex crimes against children overall, that there has been a big decline, although the big decline in the church context seems to have occurred somewhat earlier. It started (in the church) in the mid-1980s, while the decline that we saw seems to have taken off more in the early1990s. And they may have similar causes – or not.
“I do think that’s good news,” Finkelhor said.
“Almost all states are experiencing very large declines” in reported incidents of child abuse, including sexual abuse, Jones said during the webinar. “It’s not just any particular state or part of the country. It’s happening all over the country.”
Jones said she saw similar trends in child victimization surveys conducted among those in the field who are not state-based child protective services officers. Those trends also are repeated in such related measures as crime victimization and youth well-being, according to Jones.
A National Incidence Study of abuse and neglect looking at the years 1993-2005 and using the harm standard and not the less stringent endangerment standard, shows child sexual abuse reports having dropped 44 percent, a larger downturn than physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. When using the endangerment standard, the numbers went down 47 percent.
Mark Chaffin, a pediatrics professor at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect of the University of Oklahoma, said during the webinar that child abuse is considered a high-priority case and as such would not be set aside were a report made. Jones added there is no evidence that the willingness to report abuse is down, citing a study last year by Finkelhor and others that reporting rates had doubled between 1992 and 2008, from 25 percent to 50 percent.
Chaffin called the 50 percent threshold “critical,” a sign that victims are less willing to stay anonymous. “More than half of kids who have a victimization experience, including sexual victimization, are coming into contact with a professional at some point,” he said.
The trends were maintained, Jones said, despite recessions. “You expect to see more victimization during a bad economy,” she added.
Chaffin credited the changing numbers on abuse reporting to increased professional vigilance. “There was a huge surge in the number of articles published during the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, it got close to 800-1,000 scientific articles a year on that topic,” he said. “Virtually nothing was published on neglect by comparison.”
Applying the numbers in a historical context remains difficult because much of the reporting on child sexual abuse did not become standardized until the mid-1980s. Prior to then, sexual abuse was lumped in with other forms of abuse. States also employ different reporting protocols. The John Jay report on the causes and context of clergy sex abuse goes back to 1950.
Finkelhor told CNS he was unsure how much stock should be taken in the “product of the times” argument for the child sexual abuse cases within the Catholic Church.
“I would describe it more as an interaction with some important features of the structure and the culture of the church, and some particular historical and cultural developments in the wider world that exacerbated the problem,” Finkelhor said, issuing two caveats.
“I wouldn’t put all the responsibility on the historical events, and secondly, I don’t feel the (John Jay) report sufficiently details what aspects of the events – historical events – were the most important,” he said. “They reference the fact that at the same time, things like homicide and robbery and divorce were skyrocketing. But homicide was skyrocketing because of the drug market, and divorce was skyrocketing because of the women’s movement. And I don’t think either of those things were responsible for what was going on within the church.”