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.