A recent report from the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center found incidents of child sexual abuse have been declining in the U.S. for 20 years, with some statistics showing decreases as steep as 60 per cent.
The findings may be surprising given the high-profile cases in the news. But many of those incidents took place years, sometimes decades, ago. Ironically, experts say, publicity surrounding such scandals may help reduce the problem.
"One or two or even five or 10 high publicity cases are not going to stop the problem in its tracks," said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and a UNH sociology professor. "But there is a lot of evidence that the greater awareness and actions taken to improve safety in the wake of these things does reduce the amount of abuse."
The October report from the Crimes Against Children Research Center showing a decrease in child sexual abuse since the early 1990s is based on information from government agencies, FBI crime reports and national surveys. It includes data from state child protective agencies showing a 62 per cent decline in substantiated sex abuse claims between 1992 and 2010, and a national crime survey that found a 69 per cent decline in sexual assaults against teens from 1993 to 2008.
Finkelhor said that in decades past, pedophiles often behaved with impunity: "They thought nobody would ever detect them because they never heard of people getting caught, but nowadays they get caught, they get prosecuted, they get incarcerated," which "has a big deterrent effect."
In addition, said Finkelhor, "we've increased guardianship. Parents and leaders and staff people working in organizations are much more aware of the problem than they used to be and therefore take steps to reduce the likelihood that this will occur."
In some cases that made headlines, parents allowed children to have sleepovers or go on trips with adults who later turned out to be pedophiles. At Penn State, the school's former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of molesting children he met through a charity he founded. Revelations also emerged this year about a prestigious New York City private school, Horace Mann, where students said they were molested in teachers' homes and on school trips.
Michele Galietta, director of clinical psychology training at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a researcher on a 2004 report by John Jay about sex abuse by Catholic priests, agreed that public awareness has a major impact on child sex abuse: "Publicity around big scandals like Penn State, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, sensitizes people to the fact that a predator is more likely to be a neighbour, family friend, or familiar person" than the old stereotype of a creepy stranger or kidnapper.
Galietta added that while child sex abuse remains a serious problem, "because the stories are everywhere, it forces people to have conversations. Especially with boys, it used to be such a shameful thing, they could never tell anyone. Now if someone were to approach them, they wouldn't feel like they had to keep it secret."
At the BBC in England, the late Jimmy Savile, a popular children's entertainer, has been accused of molesting dozens of young girls in the 1970s and '80s. Victims say their original complaints were ignored, and police said the case has created a "watershed moment," with many adults reporting other claims of sex abuse they suffered as kids.
Kelly Clark, a lead attorney in a successful $20 million lawsuit over the Boy Scouts' failure to report sex abuse accusations against Scout leaders from 1959 to 1985, cited the Catholic Church as an example of an institution where reforms changed a culture that once protected molesters.
"The fact is, we don't see a Catholic priest getting arrested once a month these days," he said. "The Catholic Church is undoubtedly a safer place than it was 20 years ago. It's not because the bishops got the holy spirit but because they got sued over and over again and the insurance company said, 'We can't have this.'"
The program used by the Catholic Church, VIRTUS, is a three-hour course that trains individuals to recognize signs of behaviour that suggest potential sexual abuse and intervene. (The word VIRTUS is Latin for moral excellence.) VIRTUS was developed by the church's insurance company, the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, and it's mandatory for anyone who interacts with kids in church-sponsored activities.
Sister Pat Hudson, a therapist and VIRTUS consultant, says that "after people are trained, they have a keen awareness. So many times, cases have come forward where people have said they noticed something," such as adults who are overly affectionate or who single certain kids out for gifts.
Behaviours like that can be signs of "grooming," where adults cultivate children's trust as a gateway to sexual activity. VIRTUS stresses the importance of communicating concerns both to the perceived offender and to those in charge.
Many children's organizations also now mandate screening — including criminal background checks — for volunteers as well as employees. In addition, the "two-adult rule" — forbidding an adult to be alone with a child unless someone else is present — has become standard in children's activities, including team sports.
Finkelhor noted that "the priest abuse problem declined precipitously starting in the late 1980s, suggesting that as people started to pay attention to it there, the problem got reined in. The recently released data from the Boy Scouts show a decline in recent years there too as they've started to pay more attention to the problem. And there's data that shows recidivism among sexual offenders has been declining as well, which suggests we're doing a better job keeping them from reoffending." Finkelhor has served as a consultant on child abuse both to the church and the Boy Scouts.
The Boy Scouts now require volunteers to complete youth protection training, which focuses on preventing sex abuse, every two years, according to spokesman Deron Smith.