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Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse

Date: Aug 2018

Catholic ChurchThis excerpt is from our latest column, Prevention Now, in Psychology Today.

On Tuesday, August 14, 2018, a grand jury in Pennsylvania issued a report alleging that more than 300 priests in six dioceses abused 1,000 children over seven decades. Further, this report alleges that the bishops leading those dioceses perpetrated additional harm by concealing the abuse, rather than disclosing it. The report is the largest of any government agency in the United States on child sexual abuse within in the Catholic Church.

Over the last week, many people have asked me what we ought to do about child sexual abuse in the Church and I tell them this: We have taken an after-the-fact approach to child sexual abuse for 30 years. In this time, we made major inroads in the prevention of child physical abuse, child neglect, bullying and adolescent suicide. Consequently, we now have evidence-based effective prevention interventions for these types of childhood victimizations.

Child sexual abuse is also a preventable public health problem. And until our nation puts serious resources into the development, evaluation and dissemination of prevention efforts, we are going stay trapped in a cycle of abuse, outrage and disbelief.

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90.5 WESAThe latest child sexual abuse allegations in Pennsylvania have gained international attention. In Pittsburgh, citizens are grappling to understand why over 1,000 victims were abused and what the Catholic Church should do to protect children and communities.

Dr. Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was interviewed for this story by Sarah Boden for 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh's local NPR station.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by the TED team to weigh in on a recent TEDx talk titled “Why our perception of pedophilia has to change.” After giving the talk, the speaker received death threats and asked TEDx to remove it from their YouTube channel.

In explaining their decision to do so, TEDx noted the threats and also that they felt that the talk did not cite current research about pedophilia. TEDx further noted that the talk left many to believe that the speaker was promoting the abuse of children.

I concur that the speaker makes some statements not fully supported by the research. We do not yet know what causes some people to have a sexual attraction to children. There is as yet no intervention that has been shown to keep “98%” of patients from offending. Yet she does not in any way promote the abuse of children. What she promotes is a more thoughtful, objective understanding of people who may pose a risk to children and how to effectively address that risk and prevent the sexual abuse of children.   

Child sexual abuse is a topic that can evoke strong emotions. When professionals (or, in this case, students) speak objectively about individuals with sexual interest in children, it can sound like we are taking an “offender defender” stance. We are not. When we talk as if people with sexual interest in children are, in fact, people and not predators or monsters, some listeners react with anger. This is unfortunate because, as the speaker rightly notes, open and honest conversations about child sexual abuse are necessary if we are to move the field toward the development of truly effective prevention interventions. 

In my opinion, the speaker took some liberties with the available research. She is a student and students make this type of mistake. But the real issue is that she is promoting a very different view of people with sexual interest in children – a view that those with an unwanted attraction to children are people who need and want help to not offend. She should be applauded for making this stance public.

Elizabeth J. Letourneau, PhD
Director, Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse