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May 18 2013

Girls: Missing Victims of Religious Sexual Abuse?

The classic picture we have of a child victim of sexual abuse in religious institutions is a boy being abused by a Catholic priest. There are a couple of good reasons for that.

The first is that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has given us a central group of people we can point fingers at for the decades of inaction (or action against victims) in their churches. The victims of Catholic priests have a powerful central authority to deal with, and it’s given them reason to band together and reason for news media to report on their immense struggle to be acknowledged.

The other reason is that, again because the Catholic Church has a central authority, it has made it easier for researchers studying church-facilitated abuse to use the Church as a proxy for religious institutions more generally.

The Catholic Church, however, is unusual. It is extreme both in the degree of organization and in the degree to which it limits the role of girls in the church. This means that stereotypes of child sexual abuse in the church are likely going to be misleading. Not surprisingly, a new study and report has found just that.

Young girls are just as likely as young boys to be sexually abused by a member of the clergy, a new QUT study has shown.

The report, ‘They Did Not Believe Me’: Adult Survivors’ Perspectives of Child Sexual Abuse by Personnel in Christian Institutions, is the first of its kind in Australia relying on personal experiences rather than church data.

Dr Jodi Death from QUT’s Crime and Justice Research Centre said the results, published yesterday, contradicted previous studies showing young boys were more likely to be sexually assaulted in the church.

Death recruited survivors of religious sexual assault from among survivor groups and networks. Because the small amount of data we have suggests women tend to seek help for dealing with the aftermath of assault more than men do, this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as The True Picture of who is assaulted. It does, however, suggest that we need to take more care with those stereotypes.

The full report is available as a pdf. It has a wealth of information from survivors. Where possible, those surveyed were also interviewed about their experiences. This technique uncovers aspects of participants’ experiences that researchers might not think to ask about on their own, and that shows in this report. If you read it, you’ll find information on how offenders managed access to the children, how they groomed them, how the victims finally stopped the abuse (yes, most of the abuse stopped because of actions taken by children).
If you want to understand child sexual abuse in (generally Christian) religious institutions, I recommend reading this report. Although it’s Australian, the nature of religious institutions and their relationship to believers is such that these findings should be broadly applicable to the U.S. as well.As painful as the subject is, this report is good to see. Though much of the results tell us that abuse looks very similar whether it’s inside our outside religious institutions, we need to know that to understand how to tackle the problem. Stereotypes aren’t going to cut it.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    This surprises me given the sexual segregation in Christian religious institutions, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of clergy members are men. Given those facts, it would make sense for most victims to be boys.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    “Dr Death”?? That’s gotta be the coolest name since “Dr Evil”!

    Other than that, the horrible stories of religion are designed to terrify children into submitting to authority. The consequences are obvious, but we need to be honest with everyone about the motives: there is no valuable reason for teaching children a bunch of lies.

  3. 3
    zed power

    Horrendous

  4. 4
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    @ Ibis3

    Growing up in a fundamentalist evangelical environment, child sexual abuse always seemed to involve female victims. I knew exactly one guy who was sexually abused when he was a child, but I couldn’t estimate the number of women and girls I met who had experienced abuse. Now, of course, that means absolutely nothing; there are a lot of reasons why I would only meet female victims, from homophobia and shame making men reluctant to talk about past abuse, to just the simple fact that as a woman, other women would be far more likely to share their experiences with me than men, especially in that sex-and-modesty obsessed fundamentalist environment. So while I heard stories of priests and alter boys, of course, it was so far removed from my experience that when I thought about religious child sexual abuse, I assumed a female victim.

    I did wonder if the reason it seemed to be different in the Catholic church was more because of opportunity than preference. (It just seemed strange that protestant churches would get mostly pedophiles that were attracted to girls while Catholics got the pedophiles who liked boys.) Don’t priests just spend more time with boys than with girls? I mean, you always hear about alter boys…do they even have alter girls? From my limited experience with the Catholic church, it seemed even more segregated by gender than the evangelical churches I was familiar with.

  5. 5
    Ozzy

    @EEB (and Ibis3)

    In the United States, at any rate, there are both altar boys and altar girls. And in the two parishes where I grew up, only the gender-neutral altar SERVER was used (seriously). Alter servers aren’t considered priests-in-training (or nuns in training, I suppose) anymore, so they really don’t spend as much time off in seclusion with the priests as the stereotypes would have us believe. Still, it seems to be enough…

    It’s kind of sick to say it like this, but as a budding heterosexual, raised in a heteronormative culture, I was FLOORED when I learned so many priests raped BOYS… especially (please don’t kill my twelve-year-old-self for thinking this) when there were girl alter servers around, too. I’ve leaned a lot since then, but the sheer numbers have always made me wonder wether we are hearing the whole story when it comes to pedophile priests. It’s not a topic I like to dwell on, so I’ve never given it the thought or research it probably deserves. I should probably read that pdf… but I’m just not sure I have the stomach for it.

  6. 6
    Ozzy

    To clayify a point: I was shocked and sickened to learn that priests were raping ANYONE. I hope this goes without saying. That being said, I was indeed surprised that all anyone ever talked about was priests raping boys.

  7. 7
    Corvus illustris

    Marcus @2: “Death” is a cool surname but not uncommon in England: the conjectural origin is that some ancestor personified Death in a mediaeval mystery play and the name stuck.

    Re Ozzy @4&5: Viewing the RCC from the post-Vatican II perspective, one can fail to perceive what a single-sex institution it was before the 1960s. In general, prospective priests entered the “minor seminary” at the (USA) 8th-9th grade level. They lived in an environment that was almost exclusively male and actively sexually repressive throughout most of their adolescence and early adulthood. It would be hard to imagine a machine better designed to turn out men whose sexuality was fixated on immature males–and then give them altar boys as targets of opportunity. Note also that the clerical careers of many of the criminals, particularly the ones beyond the reach of the statutes of limitations, would date that far back.

  8. 8
    steve84

    There are still some more traditional Catholic churches (like the ones that reject Vatican II) that only have altar boys. But most have both these days.

    But traditionally priests definitely had easier access to boys. It just wasn’t exclusive, so when they got the chance they raped girls too. For example there might still be a priest at a Catholic girl’s school although the eduction and oversight would generally be done by nuns. Or take the Irish Magdalene laundries. The emotional and physical abuse was perpetrated by nuns, but there were also some priests around who sexually abused the women.

  9. 9
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    I think the fundamentalist Christian environment is almost perfectly designed to enable abuse and protect abusers. (I’m not saying it was consciously designed this way, just that people are easily able to take advantage of a near perfect set-up.)

    First, you keep kids entirely sexually ignorant. When I was molested, I honestly had no idea what was going on, or that it was in any way connected with sex. I was told that sex was “when the daddy puts a seed in the mommy” and I kinda knew it had something to do with your vagina (because when I got my period, my Mom told me it was my body getting ready to have babies when I got married). I was twelve before I learned that sex was not a guy sticking a lima bean shaped seed into my lady parts. It’s hard to tell a trusted adult that you’re being sexually abused if you have no words (or understanding) of what’s happening to you.

    Second, raise kids to obey anyone older than they are, without question or hesitation. (Not just adults…every fundamentalist family I know has a strict hierarchy, where the oldest child is always in charge in the absence of parents. As an oldest child, I can tell you this is less fun than it sounds, because you’re also totally responsible for what the younger kids do. So if they don’t get their chores done or they disobey, you get punished, too.) Kids learn early on that questioning commands results in punishment (my parents were considered very liberal and permissive, because they allowed us to raise one argument or objection, and they often gave us reasons for their commands). Outright rebellion or disobedience, for some of us, becomes almost literally impossible. Also, obedience is supposed to be cheerful; even if you obeyed immediately, if you were outwardly sullen or unhappy, you would be punished for rebellion. Because of this, many of us learned to disassociate early on. I don’t think I need to draw a picture for how this training does 90% of the pedophiles work for them. The “grooming” is mostly accomplished before they even meet the child.

    Third, place a huge amount of shame and stigma around sexuality. Prize virginity above everything else. In my experience, this is the main reason that pedophiles and abusers go so long without being caught. No one wants to admit that they are no longer “pure”. And why would they, when you are told over and over that the best gift you can give your future husband is your virginity, when boys are told that they should make sure their future wife is “pure” (I’ve heard several Christian guys say that they would never marry a non-virgin, even if she was raped–and they have bible verses to back it up). While American girls don’t have to fear being murdered by their families or communities if they are raped (well, usually), a lot of us felt that murder would be far preferable that the social death that would follow if people found out that we had been sexually abused (and silence was definitely preferable). Add in the extreme homophobia that keeps male victims from coming forward, and it becomes even more unlikely that abusers will ever be found out or forced to answer for their crimes.

    I’ve heard people say that the sex abuse scandal in the church is exaggerated. I tend to think that it’s incredibly underreported. But I realize I base that opinion on a pile of anecdotal evidence and personal experience, so I could be wrong. I think a report on child sexual abuse in American churches–especially in the fundamentalist, Evangelical subculture–would be incredibly valuable. Or even a book, along the lines of Breaking Their Will. There are a lot of children in this country who are practically being groomed for abuse, and who will never encounter the (frankly, inadequate) safety measures that are in place, such as mandatory reporters like doctors, teachers, and coaches.

  10. 10
    David Hart

    Marcus @2: Yes. And if your surname is Death, you’re automatically entitled to receive a goverment grant to train in medicine, so that you can become a ‘Dr. Death’ :-)

    Although to be fair, Corvus @6, it is fairly uncommon. I’ve lived in the UK all my life and I don’t think I’ve ever met one in person.

  11. 11
    hrh

    So beautifully said. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this. It cannot have been pleasant revisiting those terrible early experiences.

  12. 12
    hrh

    My comment was to EEB.

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