Experts: Most sexual abuse happens at home

Psychologists say parental involvement, communication with kids, are keys to both preventing and overcoming trauma of sexual abuse - Ana Rodriguez-Soto (Miami)

While the headlines scream about child abductions and pedophile priests, the fact is that "incest is the most common sex offense," said Dr. William Samek, a recognized expert in the field.

"You need to be more concerned about Uncle Joe than about a stranger grabbing your child off the street," agreed Dr. Edward Sczechowicz. "The father next door who fondles his 13-year-old daughter’s breasts doesn’t make the headlines. And that happens every day."

Samek chairs the Family Violence and Child Abuse Committee of the Dade-Monroe chapter of the Florida Psychological Association. Both he and Sczechowicz are forensic psychologists who specialize in treating victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. They also conduct evaluations and testify in legal proceedings.

In their 20-plus years of practice, both men have treated priest offenders as well as people who have been sexually abused by priests. They agreed that the percentage of priest offenders is probably no greater than that of the general population.

"There is no typical offender. You hear in the media your father, your neighbor, your cousin. That’s all true," said Sczechowicz. "We have doctors. We have a number of policemen. We have an even greater number of teachers, all in treatment here."

It is not their profession that makes them abusers, he emphasized.

"A very small number of priests will always molest children. That will continue forever. I know of no way to screen that out. A certain percentage of teachers will always molest children; a certain percentage of police officers; a certain percentage of parents. It’s not because they’re priests. It’s because they’re human beings."

Abuse is seldom reported

At the request of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, using statistics provided by U.S. dioceses, counted 4,392 priests who had been accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002 in the United States — about four percent of the total number of priests who served the church during that time period.

No other institution or professional group has done a similar study. Even statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Justice and child protection agencies are regarded as incomplete.

"How does one do a study to know what truth and reality is in an area where people don’t want to talk about it?" said Samek, citing estimates that only five percent of sexual abuse incidents are ever reported.

"There’s so much abuse where the perpetrator is never caught or prosecuted. It’s difficult to pin it down," said Sczechowicz.

He said some studies have found that between one-third and 40 percent of all girls are sexually abused by the time they reach age 18. For boys, the figure is between 20 and 25 percent.

According to statistics compiled by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Human Services, approximately 903,000 children were found to be victims of child maltreatment in the United States in 2001. About 10 percent of that number — 90,000 — were sexually abused.

The Florida Department of Children and Families verified 2,859 minors as victims of sexual abuse in the fiscal year from July 2000 to June 2001.

In many cases, the perpetrators are dads and step-dads. But Samek said women molest too.

"Eighty-five percent or so of the sex offenders that I treat have been molested sexually as children. They’re all abused, but it’s not always sexual abuse. The shocking thing I’ve discovered is that half of that molestation was done by females."

Some children also are abused by older children, often babysitters, said Sczechowicz. "Approximately 35 percent of adult sexual offenders engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviors as minors."

Abusers’ traits

While there is no such thing as a typical abuser, adults who abuse children share certain traits, the psychologists said. Often, offenders are people who are very good with kids — almost too good to be true.

"They are really involved in helping children. Other than in their sexual exploits with the children, they really are a positive influence on the kids. That does not counterbalance the damage and evil they do in their molesting," Samek said.

Sczechowicz said parents should beware of adults who try to spend time alone with the kids, are secretive about what they do, and are constantly "giving favors, money, gifts to a child."

Victims are not chosen at random, the psychologists agreed.

"Many offenders look for vulnerable children. Children who tend to feel isolated. Children whose parents tend to neglect them. Children who are looking for a friend," said Sczechowicz.

While parents are not to blame when abuse occurs, "poor parenting is, in large part, what produces the abuser in the first place," Samek said. Good parenting "dramatically decreases the chance that your kid will be abused or be abusive."

He suggested that parents talk to their kids about sexual abuse, "about private parts of one’s body and about the fact that others should not be touching these," adding that parents should tell their children, "If you let someone do this, that does not mean that you did something wrong, but it does mean you need to let us know."

Sczechowicz said, "The best way to keep a child from either being sexually abused or, if they are sexually abused, from keeping it inside is having open communication, being able to talk about sex.

"Sex is a natural human function. There’s a big difference between being open about sex and sexuality and advocating having sex," the psychologist said.

Don’t overreact

If a child is a victim of abuse, the parents’ reaction also makes a difference.

"I frequently see kids who are more damaged by the parents’ reaction to the sexual assault than they are by the sexual assault itself," said Samek.

Parents should listen to their children, look for changes in sleep patterns or behavior, and not be afraid to report the abuse.

"Most victims are too reluctant to report," Samek said. "I think victims need to do a lot more honest disclosing and not feel bad, and not feel ashamed, and not feel responsible for the consequences of what happens to the abuser."

"We know that one of the things that acts as a preventive is not having a secret. That’s why when you call the police and get it out in the open, it is therapeutic for the child," said Sczechowicz.

While the statistics on child sexual abuse are grim, the danger is not overwhelming, the psychologists agreed.

"You cannot go through life distrusting everyone. It doesn’t work," said Sczechowicz.

The Florida Catholic - March 4, 2004
The Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami

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