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The Complex Nature of Child Sexual Abuse

Quotes & highlights from: 
The Complex Nature of Child Sexual Abuse. Cheryl Wetzstein. Child Abuse. Ed. Bryan J. Grapes. Contemporary Issues Companion Series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001. 

This article, "The Child Molestation Dilemma," by Cheryl Wetzstein, appeared in the November 1996 issue and is reprinted with permission from The World & I. 

The identification and prosecution of child molesters present a serious dilemma to law enforcement agencies and psychiatrists, writes Cheryl Wetzstein in the following article. Child molesters suffer from a diversity of sexual disorders that are difficult to diagnose, making it nearly impossible for psychiatrists and law enforcement officials to develop uniform legal and therapeutic responses, she writes. 

Although a number of experts believe that some child sex offenders can be successfully treated and returned to society, Wetzstein explains, others maintain that the majority of child molesters are repeat offenders who cannot be rehabilitated. 

Also, the author notes, the difficulty in preventing child sexual abuse is compounded by the absence of reliable statistics, as the data suffer from both underreporting and exaggeration. 

Wetzstein is a journalist who writes on family and social issues for the Washington Times. 

"I got away with molesting over 240 children before getting caught for molesting just one little boy," convicted child molester Larry Don McQuay has confessed.

"With all that I have coldheartedly learned while in prison, there is no way that I will ever be caught again," he has said. "I am doomed to eventually rape, then murder my poor little victims to keep them from telling on me. ... Will your children be my next victims?" 

These words led to headlines in April 1996 when McQuay was ordered released from a Texas jail after serving six years of an eight-year prison sentence for the 1989 rape of a six-year-old boy. He had served his time, according to Texas's mandatory-release rules.

Before McQuay was taken to a halfway house to prepare for his reentry into society, he pleaded to be castrated to lessen his sexual drive. A victims' rights group in Houston, called Justice for All, began a fund-raising campaign to meet McQuay's request but could not find a doctor who would perform the unusual surgery to remove the testicles. McQuay has since been returned to jail on charges stemming from a previous molestation case.

The case of Larry Don McQuay seems to epitomize society's continuing inability to deal with those who have incorrigible and unspeakable appetites for children.

One obvious permanent solution -- capital punishment -- is strictly reserved for murder and is likely to remain so. The public remains divided over the merits of the death penalty, child sexual abuse cases are difficult to prove beyond all question of doubt, and most sex offenders are members of or known to the victim's family, making the latter unlikely to call for a death sentence.

As a result, there is a push to sentence child molesters to life in prison without parole or place them in secure mental institutions until they are judged not to be a danger to society.

In the meantime, however, many offenders receive probation or short prison sentences, and thousands are released from jail and back into society each year. 

Recidivism Rates 

The chances a sex offender will commit another crime seem to depend on the nature of his sexual appetite.

In January 1996, Congressional Quarterly reported that, according to international research findings, including a 1994 paper issued by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, recidivism rates for untreated sex offenders ranged as follows: 

41 to 71 percent for exhibitionists; 
13 to 40 percent for child molesters preferring boy victims; 
10 to 29 percent for child molesters preferring girl victims; 
7 to 35 percent for rapists; 
4 to 10 percent for incest offenders. 

Some medical experts hold that sex offenders can be successfully treated. 

"I don't think the majority [of sex offenders] have a condition that's curable, but I do think that many of them have a psychiatric disorder and can, like alcoholics, learn to control themselves and live safely in the community," Fred Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma in Baltimore, Maryland, told Congressional Quarterly. 

But others are not at all sure that pedophiles -- people whose sexual preference is for children -- can ever live "safely" in society. 

"Pedophiles are always model prisoners and want parole," said John Walsh, whose young son was abducted and found murdered many years ago. The show he hosted for years -- Fox-TV's America's Most Wanted -- once helped catch 37 pedophiles accused of crimes in one six-month period, he said. Ninety percent of them were repeat offenders.

"When you find out how they've conducted their lives, you realize it's their whole life to molest," said Patrick Trueman, former chief of the Department of Justice's Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and now director of governmental affairs for the American Family Association. 

Trueman and others, noting that even notorious offenders seem to get only eight-year prison sentences, strongly believe in very long prison terms, if not life in prison. 

Diversity of Disorders 

The diversity of sexual disorders has made both clinical diagnosis and uniform legal responses difficult.

For example, virtually all pedophiles collect child pornography, fantasize about children, and engage in infantile or abnormal behavior around them. But not all pedophiles actually assault children. They may instead employ means of self-gratification that are not illegal.

Adults who assault children are child molesters, but not all child molesters are pedophiles. Some child molesters are sexual predators who prefer adult victims but attack a child because an opportunity appears. Such "situational child molesters" are believed to be the most common kind of offender but the least likely to abuse large numbers of children.

Instead, the most worrisome sort of offender is the pedophile who molests, known to law enforcement officials as a "preferential child molester." Such a man is likely to be involved in child pornography, sex rings, and child prostitution. He may molest hundreds or even a thousand children in a lifetime, wrote FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kenneth Lanning in a 1992 booklet issued by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Referring to a landmark, long-term study of 561 sex offenders by Dr. Gene Abel, an Atlanta sexual disorder expert, Lanning said that pedophiles who targeted boys outside the home committed the greatest number of crimes, with an average of 281.7 acts with an average of 150.2 partners.

Molesters who targeted girls within the family committed an average of 81.3 acts with an average of 1.8 partners. The Abel study also found that nearly a quarter of the 561 subjects committed crimes against both family and non-family members, Lanning wrote in Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis. 

A number of punishments have been suggested for child sex offenders, but all have drawbacks.

Meanwhile, nearly every state has enacted laws requiring sex
offenders to register in their new homes. Such laws have faced court challenges by civil liberties advocates who argue that sex offenders who have paid their debt to society deserve to rejoin it without undue constraints.

Registration laws have withstood many of these challenges, however, and in May 1996 President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Megan's Law, which requires states to tell local law enforcement officials and communities when a convicted sex offender has moved in.

The law was named for Megan Kanka, a New Jersey seven-year-old who in 1994 was raped and murdered, allegedly by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived across the street and whose background was unknown to the Kankas or their neighbors. 

The Quest for Data 

"Society's attitude about child sexual abuse and exploitation can be summed up in one word: denial," Lanning wrote in a 1992 analysis on child sex rings.

"Most people do not want to hear about it and would prefer to pretend that child sexual victimization just does not occur," he wrote, urging professionals who deal with child sexual abuse to recognize and deal with this denial. 

But the flip side of denial is public hysteria -- and professionals must also be aware that there can be a lot of misinformation about the subject, Lanning said in his report. 

"Some professionals ... in their zeal to make American society more aware of this victimization, tend to exaggerate the problem," Lanning wrote. "Presentations and literature with poorly documented or misleading claims about one in three children being sexually molested, the $5 billion child pornography industry, child slavery rings, and 50,000 stranger-abducted children are not uncommon.

"The problem is bad enough; it is not necessary to exaggerate it," Lanning concluded. 

Efforts have been under way to collect reliable data on missing and exploited children since 1984, when Congress passed the Juvenile Justice, Runaway Youth, and Missing Children's Act Amendments, creating NCMEC in Arlington, Virginia, and instituting the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART).

NISMART estimates that, each year: 

450,000 children, most of whom are teenagers, run away from home and stay away at least one night. 
354,000 children are abducted by a family member, typically a non-custodial parent. 
127,100 children are "thrown away," that is, abandoned or
ejected from their homes. 
114,600 cases of attempted abduction by a non-family member are reported. 
3,200 to 4,600 children are reported abducted by non-family members. 

Non-family abductors include persons who are known to the child (that is, a neighbor or family friend), or unknown, namely, strangers. But the most common scenario, according to NISMART data, involves someone using a weapon to force a child from the street into a vehicle.

Most of these non-family abductions last less than 24 hours, but two-thirds of cases involve a sexual assault. Half of the abducted children are teenagers, and 75 percent are girls. The highest percentage of victims appears to be girls aged 11-14 and boys aged 6-9.

Each year, between 200 and 300 children taken by strangers are gone for long periods. About half of the children are recovered alive, usually within two months. But each year, between 43 and 147 children abducted by non-family members are found dead, according to NISMART's review of data from 1976 to 1987. 

Familiar Offenders 

It's not only strangers who molest children, however. Sexual abusers include parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members, stepparents, family friends, and other responsible adults in close contact with children such as teachers, Scout leaders, clergymen, and coaches.

With abuse coming from so many directions, it's easy to assume that child sexual abuse is epidemic. Certainly, the endless parade of abuse survivors on daytime talk shows provides anecdotal evidence that the problem is "everywhere." And when the amount of unreportedabuse is added in -- an FBI document says that "only 1 to 10 percent of child molestation cases are ever reported to police" -- it indeed appears that there must be a child molester on every block.

But it is frankly impossible to determine how extensive child sexual abuse is. The National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse said: 

"Retrospective surveys reveal great variation [in the national rate of abuse], with 6 percent to 62 percent of females and 3 percent to 31 percent of males reporting to have experienced some form of sexual abuse." 

The Burden of Proof

Finally, it would be easier to toughen the laws against child
molesting if more people were diagnosed as incorrigible child
molesters. But those who try to prosecute child sexual abuse cases run into a vast array of hurdles.

In most instances of sexual abuse -- three out of four documented cases, according to one reputable study published in 1994 -- there are no physical marks or signs of abuse.

This places the burden of proof on other signs of distress -- for
example, bed-wetting, sexual precociousness, and withdrawal. But these can be attributed to other causes.

Then there is the victim's testimony. But testimony from children is notoriously unreliable. They may be too young to talk or confused about what happened to them. They may be reluctant to betray the "special secret" they share with their abuser or may blame themselves, having been told "you wanted it" by the abuser. They also may be unduly influenced by their parents, therapists, law enforcement officials, or others and make allegations that are eventually recanted or discounted.

While most victims of abuse do not forget their molestation, some may repress such memories and not recall it until years later, either through some spontaneous event or through therapy.

Cases of such "recovered memories" have made sensational stories in recent years. Adult children have recalled being abused by their parents, and men have remembered being abused by their clergymen. 

Some of these cases have led to arrests, convictions, or
multimillion-dollar lawsuits for damages. At least 21 states have extended the statute of limitations for sexual abuse so those who belatedly wish to take legal action against their abuser can do so.

But some cases have sparked a fierce outcry from those accused. In March 1992, a group called the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, located in Philadelphia, arose to help rebut what it said were distorted or confabulated memories contrived through incompetent therapy.

As a result of this and other controversies, convictions in sexual abuse cases are not only difficult to get but may be difficult to uphold.

For several years now, scandal has rocked the small town of
Wenatchee, Washington, after dozens of adults were accused of participating in two child-sex rings. Nineteen people eventually pleaded guilty or were convicted of charges related to child molestation and rape. In February 1996, however, several of the adults who were acquitted sued state and local agencies for civil rights violations. In June 1996, seven adults and three children filed a lawsuit against law authorities charging them with coercing the children into making false statements against others. 

"The reality," says David Beatty, a spokesman with the National Victim Center in Arlington, Virginia, "is that people victimize children because they feel like they can get away with it." 

If society becomes better educated about sexual abuse of children, he said, it will at least increase the likelihood that predators will be caught and punished. 


[ < >]


* Elizabeth Bartholet. Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect,
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* John Briere, Lucy Berliner, and Josephine A. Bulkley, eds. The APSAC Handbook on Child Maltreatment. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 2000.

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* Jane Waldfogel. The Future of Child Protection: How to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. 


* Arthur Allen. "She Catches Child Abusers," Redbook, March 1999.

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* Rosemary Chalk and Patricia King. "Facing Up to Family
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* Jennifer Couzin. "Missing the Signals: Doctors Misdiagnose
Child-Abuse Injuries," U.S. News & World Report, March 1, 1999.

* Thomas Fields-Meyer. "Bad Medicine," People Weekly, October 25, 1999.

* Skip Hollandsworth. "No One Knows What Could Be Happening to Those Kids," Texas Monthly, April 1999.

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* David Laskin. "Childproofing the Internet," Parents, January 1999.

* Stephanie Mansfield. "The Avengers Online," Good Housekeeping, June 1999.

* Joyce Milton. "Suffer Little Children?" National Review,
February 26, 1996.

* William Nack and Don Yaeger. "Every Parent's Nightmare,"
Sports Illustrated, September 13, 1999. 

* Marjorie Preston. "The Molester Next Door," Ladies' Home
Journal, July 1998.

* Carla Rivera. "U.S. Child Abuse at Crisis Levels, Panel Says,"
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* Rachel L. Swarns. "In a Policy Shift, More Parents Are
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* Anastasia Toufexis. "Why Jennifer Got Sick," Time, April 29, 1996.

* Gayle White. "Pain Relief," Christianity Today, July 12, 1999.

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