Sex Abuse in the Church: Girls Also Victimized

We thought we knew the script in the Catholic-priest sex-abuse scandal. Both the victims and the perpetrators were male. But a recent story in The New York Timesseemed to suggest that this scenario ignored a whole segment of victims: young girls. The Times reported on a Catholic priest who was permitted to move to India instead of facing accusations of molesting two Minnesota girls. Meanwhile, Slate's June Thomas asked, "Is anyone else wondering if young women have been left out of this story, and if there's some agenda that's driving that absence?" a question that Andrew Sullivan's readers have also been discussing. (Slate and NEWSWEEK are both owned by The Washington Post Company.)

In the case of the priest scandal, boys were the victims of sexual misconduct much more often than girls, by a factor of about four to one, says Margaret Leland Smith of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But what has gotten scant attention is the fact that the female victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests tended to be younger than the males. Data analyzed by John Jay researchers, including Smith, shows that even though there were many more boy victims than girls overall, the number and proportion of sexual misconduct directed at girls under 8 years old was higher than that experienced by boys the same age. Specifically, between 1950 and 2002, there were 246 girls younger than 8 who were sexually abused by priests (representing 14 percent of all girl victims), compared with 236 boys (3 percent of all boy victims). However, the most likely age of victims—for girls and boys—was between 11 and 14.

The John Jay study, commissioned and financed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops after the uproar in 2002 over the priest-sex-abuse scandal, also indicates that the girl victims were more likely than boys to be the sole victims of their abuser. Priests who targeted one girl or one boy were more likely to focus on someone older than 14 than those with multiple victims. (Overall, 27 percent of the girls and 34 percent of the boys were between 15 and 17 years old.) The duration of abuse involving a sole victim was more likely to last a year or less. Priests who preyed on multiple children were more likely to continue the abuse for five years or longer. In the case of both boys and girls, most of the abuse occurred between 1960 and 1980, and fell sharply after that, but most of the charges were not reported to authorities until after 1992. Smith says that as the Catholic Church continues to turn over any newly made charges of abuse to the John Jay team, the researchers continue to see the same trends in terms of gender, age, and dates when the abuse occurred.

Researchers can't yet explain the gender and age gaps (it's possible it may have something to do with that particular period in society or the church). But they do know that the Catholic-priest data do not mirror national trends in child sexual abuse. Overall, experts say, it's still very much the case that girls are much more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than boys. In fact, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children says that best estimates are that two thirds of victims of molestation are girls, although offenders who target boys tend to have much larger groups of victims. "For [those offenders], this is not a lapse of judgment, it's a lifestyle," says Allen.

Barbara Blaine, 53, the founder and president of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a national support group, was one of several girls who were abused by Chet Warren, a Toledo priest who was defrocked. in the mid-'80s after she and others filed complaints. She said Warren would take girls out of class at the Catholic school she attended and rape them in his bedroom off the rectory. The first time it happened, she said she was in seventh grade. The abuse continued until she was a senior in high school, when she says she was finally able to break free of Warren's psychological hold on her and realize that her feelings of shame and guilt were misplaced. It was almost another decade before she told her parents, and even then, she says her father's initial response was that she should just confide in the local bishop. Her experiences have led her to conclude that there is "far more urgency when the victim is a male."

Barbara Dorris, a victim of priest abuse as well as the national outreach director for SNAP, concurs: "In part because of sexism and homophobia, journalists, police, prosecutors, attorneys, and sometimes even parents feel even more outraged when a boy is sexually abused by a powerful man than when a girl is assaulted, and are thus more apt to take action, pursue charges, file lawsuits, and talk publicly." Dorris says she's come to believe that church officials are "more apt to write down, save, and take seriously an allegation by a boy than a girl, and that's one reason the bishops' stats on this are skewed."

Today, about half of SNAP's 9,000 members are female and include victims (male and female) of nuns as well as priests. There's never been a formal study done of sexual abuse committed by nuns, says Smith of John Jay, and no one really knows how prevalent it is. Blaine says the church has yet to address this issue seriously enough, perhaps because society still finds it difficult to accept that women can be predators too.

While research shows that 99 percent of sexual predators who abuse children are men, the bigger point is that it's rarely a stranger who is a threat, and all children may be at risk. Allen puts the national rate of abuse at about one in five girls and one in 10 boys, while Smith says her review of the data puts it closer to one in three girls and one in five boys. In any case, there's no arguing with Smith's assessment that the "behavior is profoundly widespread."

Abusers are typically trusted family members—fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, uncles—as well as friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, youth-group volunteers, doctors, or priests, ministers, or rabbis. If we are to learn anything from these disturbing stories of sexual abuse by priests, it should be this: it's up to parents and schools to make sure our kids know that adults stand ready to protect them against those who would prey upon them. We need to make it clear to children that they can talk to us or another trusted adult about any situation that doesn't feel right to them. And no one—no one—is beyond suspicion.