What do child abusers look like?

Analyzing the media coverage of the Roman Catholic sex abuse crisis has been difficult simply because of the disgusting nature of the topic. But perhaps one of the most difficult articles to read was this April Newsweek story putting the abuse by priests in context of the larger problem:

Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in 10. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it's closer to one in 5. But in either case, the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than these national estimates. The public also doesn't realize how "profoundly prevalent" child sexual abuse is, adds Smith. Even those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime). "However you slice it, it's a very common experience," Smith says.

In fact, the estimate of how many priests abuse children is something like 4%. So not only do they not abuse at a higher rate than the general population but, in all likelihood, at a much lower rate.

Shortly after I read that Newsweek story, I was traveling with my youngest to Texas. Waiting around for the airplane, I began to calculate what percentage of the men around us were child molesters. I realized that this probably wasn't a good use of my time but the horrifying thoughts have kind of stayed with me.

I've begun wondering why we see so many stories about clerical sexual abuse and so few stories about other areas of sexual abuse. Three years ago, the Associated Press ran a story that claimed three children are abused by public school teachers each day. That certainly sounds believable, if very sad. You have to wonder why the media have such outsized interest in certain types of abuse compared others. It's probably worth noting how much lawyers have driven the Vatican story if only to note that it's much harder for victims to sue public school districts.

And yet, I wouldn't be surprised to see some lawsuits over this horrendous story: The Washington Post ran a huge expose about a serial predator of teenage boys. He was a public educator and he abused boys beginning in 1978. There is evidence that he was pushed out of school district after school district for inappropriate behavior -- and yet nothing was ever placed on his record. He has finally been caught -- with a cache of pictures and stories about his many victims. It's a horrifying story, very difficult to read. In my brief time reporting on abuse by priests, I've learned a bit about how difficult it is to catch the worst offenders. They are very good at manipulating relationships. Kevin Ricks, the man accused in the Post profile, seems to have been just such an offender.

There are many more stories to tell about predators in families, in schools and throughout the community. But since I've been critical of the degree to which the media has focused the big guns almost exclusively on Catholic priests, I wanted to highlight this story -- even if it has not one ounce of religion in it -- for investigating one particularly dramatic story about the failings of the public school institution to protect teenage boys from sexual predators. It also has tough questions for foreign exchange student programs and parents who failed to be suspicious about the interest he showed in their sons. These are all important parts of the story about how we protect children and adolescents from predators.

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