11.22.11

The Penn State Scandal: 7 Facts About Child Sex Abuse

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. Lizzie Crocker reports. 

The Rate of Child Sex Abuse in the U.S. is Declining

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.

Children and even parents are reluctant to report sex abuse by a trusted authority figure for fear of the scandal’s fallout.

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.

Boys and Girls Suffer Equally From Sex Abuse

Most professionals don’t differentiate trauma’s effects based on gender. Finkelhor argues that though men are more likely to seek psychological treatment, research doesn’t suggest sex abuse has a greater systematic psychological impact on boys.

Levenson agrees that boys and girls are equally reluctant to report sex abuse because they are ashamed for a variety of reasons. But boys who are abused by men have to deal with the issue of sexuality, which can be an additional shame variant. “Boys will often hold back from reporting sex abuse because they’re afraid people will think they’re gay, or because they themselves are questioning their sexuality,” she said.

Very Few Child Sex-Abuse Victims Become Sex Offenders Later in Life

While there is no national data on the number of child sex-abuse victims that become abusive adults, research suggests that only a very small percentage of victims have gone on to commit sex crimes later in life. One such study published this year in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that only 0.1 percent of 497 child-abuse victims had committed sex crimes as adults.

Victims Earn Lower Incomes as Adults Than Nonvictims

Children who are abused earn $8,000 less per year than their peers, according to the National Children’s Advocacy Center. The statistic is not exclusive to sex abuse, but it proves that this crime seriously affects the economy—especially factoring in higher health-care costs for victims.

Newlin says increasing public awareness about child abuse is crucial to creating change. “At the end of the day, when you start talking to the Chamber of Commerce about economic productivity and the cost of their business operations, that’s when they start to pay attention.”

Despite Progress, Child Sex Abuse Remains a Silent Crime

Much like any other public-health issue, societal awareness and discussion of child sex abuse has increased over the years. “Students are regularly informed about the issue of child sex abuse,” said Newlin. Police and prosecutors have increased efforts to incarcerate serial offenders. Though media hype has made the Penn State scandal stand out as singular and appalling, experts say it’s all too common.

“The majority of child sexual abuse occurs at the hands of people [like Sandusky] who know the victims and the victims’ families,” Levenson said. Children and parents are reluctant to report sex abuse by a trusted authority figure because they fear repercussions.

One of Sandusky’s alleged victims had been bullied to the extent that he left high school in the middle of his senior year. Students were blaming him for Paterno’s firing. “Not only is this a kid who may have been assaulted by someone he trusted, now his classmates and peers are blaming him for the fallout,” said Levenson. “That’s an additional trauma he and his family shouldn’t have to suffer.”