Exaggerations of abuse
Over twenty years ago, I wrote an essay exposing the outrageous overstatement of the problem of child sexual abuse in our society. Titled “Exaggerations of abuse”, that essay is as relevant today as when it was first published by Life Ministries as a pamphlet in 1995. Indeed, the abandonment of basic principles of justice by the National Redress Scheme and its supporters (see my essay, “Journeying into injustice”, in the last issue of Life News, available online at www.lifeministries.org.au/journeying-into-injustice-the-national-redress-scheme-the-christian-churches/#), can be attributed in large part to these massive exaggerations. In her effort to persuade churches to opt in to the Redress Scheme, the Safe Church Pastor of one Christian denomination has been telling pastors and elders that “Statistically, if you have a congregation of 100 – you will have between 20 and 25 people who experienced sexual abuse as a child.” According to this Safe Church Pastor, your church is a very unsafe place: every fourth or fifth child in your Sunday school, your youth group, and your kids club has been or is being sexually abused (either inside or outside the church). Of course, this pastor is simply, albeit inexcusably, parroting populist notions about rates of abuse. Unwittingly, she is also demonstrating the ongoing need to debunk those notions. To that end, I am reprinting “Exaggerations of abuse” below. Hopefully, readers will find it a helpful supplement to “Journeying into injustice”, and even find in it a partial explanation for why denominations and churches seem to be embarking upon that journey with such ease, if not enthusiasm. Except for one paragraph (flagged by square brackets and italic font) towards the end of the “Facts and Figures” section, “Exaggerations of abuse” is reprinted here without alteration. (Note: I have not attempted to update the official statistics taken from the 1992/93 report of the Advisory and Co-ordinating Committee on Child Abuse in WA. However, my arguments remain sound even if we arbitrarily inflate the figures by 100%. Even doubling the official figures will not produce an abuse rate anywhere near 20 to 25 children in 100!)
While talking to a young married woman one day, I was surprised to learn that she was afraid to have children, especially daughters. When I asked her why, she replied, “Well, you hear so much about girls being abused by their fathers.”
I asked her if she had any reason to believe that her husband was the sort of man who would sexually abuse a child. She replied that she hadn’t. In fact, she insisted that he was a decent and gentle man whose personal conduct was beyond suspicion. He had never given her the slightest cause to think such dreadful thoughts.
But still she was afraid. Why? Because she had heard so much …
Child sexual abuse* has been a subject of constant concern in our society for more than a decade. An impression has arisen that the sexual abuse of children is widespread, and is particularly prevalent in the nuclear family. Spokesmen on the issue routinely repeat claims to the effect that “One out of three girls, and one out of seven boys, are sexually abused by the time they reach the age of eighteen.”1 These impressions and assertions are quite frightening.
They are also quite false.
Contrary to what people generally may have come to believe, there is not an epidemic of child sexual abuse in Australia. Despite the numerous media reports, community campaigns, school programs, church seminars, hospital posters, police phone-ins and prevention associations—despite all these things which arise from, and give rise to, the assumption that large numbers of children are at risk—despite all these, sexual abuse is not rife in our community. The overwhelming majority of children simply are not in immediate danger.
Before I substantiate this claim, I wish to make two things quite clear.
Firstly, I am well aware that sexual abuse does occur. Some children have been, are being, or will be, sexually abused. In fact, I am even convinced that sexual abuse is on the rise. How could it be otherwise, given the ever-increasing demand for sexual gratification independent of sexual morality? A society that approves pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality must inevitably find it difficult to hold the line at paedophilia.
Secondly, I believe that child sexual abuse is a monstrous crime which ought to be punished with the utmost severity. There is no excuse for it. A person justly convicted of it ought to be handed over to a gaoler, not a counsellor.
I am not denying or minimising the problem of child sexual abuse. Rather, I am trying to put it in perspective. Quite simply, my concern is that the problem has been grossly exaggerated; and these exaggerations are doing great damage.
In what follows, I intend to deal firstly with the exaggerations, then with the damage.
Facts and Figures
The number of children who suffer sexual abuse before they reach eighteen years of age is commonly thought to be large. While the estimates vary widely, the most popular are one-in-three or one-in-four. However, these estimates are contradicted by both common experience and official statistics.
Common experience gives the lie to the claim that, say, a quarter of all children is subject to sexual abuse. At any given time, most of us are acquainted with many children. Taking into account the children next door, the children who play with our children, the children of our relatives and friends, the children at Sunday School and Youth Group, the children at Scouts and Brownies, the children at basketball and football—taking all these into account, we might easily know 40 children aged 0-18. Of these 40, how many do we know, or even suspect, to be victims of sexual abuse? Probably none. Yet according to the one-in-four estimate, ten of these 40 children have been sexually abused. Common sense and common experience tell us that this figure is preposterous.
Furthermore, official statistics demonstrate that the one-in-four estimate is wildly inaccurate. Comprehensive figures on child sexual abuse in Western Australia can be found in the annual report of the Advisory and Co-ordinating Committee on Child Abuse (ACCCA). ACCCA collects and collates statistics on child abuse and neglect from welfare, health, police and education sectors across WA. In its most recent report,2 ACCCA claims that there were 1,030 cases of children who were either sexually abused or deemed to be at risk of such abuse in the twelve months from July 1992 to June 1993.
It is important to note that ACCCA lumps together the “substantiated” and the “at risk” cases. There were not 1,030 cases of sexual abuse in WA in 1992/93. That figure includes all the cases where, rightly or wrongly, health and welfare “workers felt there was a risk of abuse”.3 And although the report is somewhat unclear, it appears that at least 182 sexual abuse cases fell into the “at risk” category, leaving 848 cases that were “substantiated”.4
However, ACCCA does not apply rigorous, legal standards to substantiate a case. According to its guidelines, a case is substantiated the moment “an administrative decision is made [by the case worker] that there is reasonable cause to believe that the child has been or is being abused or neglected.” ACCCA specifically states that “Substantiation does not necessarily have to constitute sufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.”5 Or to put it another way, case workers don’t have to prove that abuse has occurred, they only have to believe that it has. And if they are convinced, then ACCCA is convinced, and the case goes on record as having been substantiated.
So it would be a mistake to think that the 848 “substantiated” cases of sexual abuse are all proven cases. Many of them find a place in the official statistics simply because a social worker or welfare officer ticked the box labelled “Substantiated”, along with the box labelled “Sexual Abuse”, on the “ACCCA Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics” form.
Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, let us accept the full figure without qualification. According to official statistics, 848 children were sexually abused in WA in 1992/93. We must say immediately that this is 848 children too many. We are appalled to think that a single child has suffered abuse, let alone 848! But the one encouraging thing about this figure is that it demonstrates that child sexual abuse is nowhere near as prevalent as we are being led to believe. In proportion to the number of children living in WA, it is a very small figure indeed.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at the end of June 1993, Western Australia had a population of approximately 482,249 children aged 0-18.6 So if it is true that 848 children were abused, it is equally true that 481,140 were not!
When we divide the number of children living in the state by the number of children recorded as abused, we discover the ratio is—not one in three, not one in four, not one in ten, not one in 100, not even one in 500, but—one in 568! According to official statistics, less than two children per 1,000 were sexually abused in WA in 1992/93.
Shifting from ratios to percentages, we discover that the number of children officially “substantiated” as abused in 1992/93 was less than 0.12%! Even if we arbitrarily quadruple this percentage, allowing for the dubious notion that “many cases are never reported,”7 we get only 0.48%. Of course, whether the percentage of children abused in 1992/93 is 0.12% or 0.48% makes no difference to the fact that it is 100% too much. But the point I am making is that 0.12-0.48% is a far cry from 25-33%.[Bearing in mind that sexual offences are categorised as child sexual abuse when they involve infants and youths aged one to 18 years, then perhaps the 25-33% claim involves the total of all instances of abuse over an 18-year period. If so, we can approximate the extended figure by multiplying the “substantiated” 0.12% of WA children abused each year by 18 years (this, of course, exaggerates the figures because it assumes that there is no duplication of abused children, that every child in every one of the 18 years is a new victim). Multiplying 0.12% by 18 gives 2.16%—which means that over an 18-year period, under three out of every 100 children have been abused, not 25 to 33 out of 100.]
Compared with popular estimates, the number of children who actually experience sexual abuse is extremely small. This needs to be stressed because the current exaggeration of the problem is itself a problem. Indeed, as I hope to illustrate, inflated perceptions of the incidence of abuse are causing great harm in our community.
One problem caused by exaggerations of abuse is fear.
Women are being made afraid of men, including their own husbands, as my opening anecdote illustrates.
Fathers are becoming afraid, not only of their own affections for their children, but also of how other people (including their children) might interpret their affections. One father told me that he had been anxious when he first had a daughter because he wondered if he might experience some form of sexual temptation towards her. “But,” he said with relief, “I haven’t felt anything like that.” Were it not for the prevailing paranoia about child sexual abuse, this father would not have felt anxious in the first place. For he would have taken for granted the reality that (with few exceptions) fathers love their children with a pure love, and do not think about them in sexual terms.
Children, too, are being infected with fear. I know of a six year old girl who screamed when her father walked into the bathroom while she was having a bath one evening. The father was both devastated and bewildered by her reaction. Upon inquiry, he and his wife discovered that the girl’s teacher had earlier in the day told the class about protective behaviours and safe touching.
In one of its many pamphlets, the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) states that we need “to help children protect themselves from sexual abuse”.8 But if sexual abuse is not a serious threat, children have nothing to protect themselves from. Why should we frighten them with Protective Behaviours Programs and Child Protection Days if they are not in danger? Of course, if two children in a thousand are in danger, we want to protect those two—but not at the expense of the innocence and assurance of the 998.
Great care must be taken to ensure that children who are safe in their homes are not made to feel unsafe. It is inexcusable to undermine the confidence of children in their parents. For while they may receive care, and even kindness, in a welfare or educational institution, children generally receive love only at home.
Another, related problem caused by exaggerations of abuse is suspicion.
NAPCAN states, for example, that “Every parent has the potential to hurt a child at sometime.”9 Although the thrust of this statement is a lie, the basic content of it is true. It cannot be denied. Every parent does have the potential to hurt a child at sometime. Thus with one sly, sweeping platitude NAPCAN casts suspicion on every parent in Australia.
How would the self-appointed “protectors” of our children like it if the statement were re-worded to include them? For surely, what is true for parents is true for others, too. Every social worker has the potential to hurt a child at sometime. Every psychologist has the potential to hurt a child at sometime. Indeed, every NAPCAN counsellor has the potential to hurt a child at sometime.
Fathers in particular are subject to suspicion. In some quarters, they are no longer viewed as protectors of their children, but as actual or potential abusers. Indeed, the popular notion is that, of all men, natural (biological) fathers are more likely to perpetrate abuse; and that they are responsible for a majority of the instances of abuse. An examination of the statistics, however, shows such a notion to be quite false.
Certainly, some fathers are guilty of sexual abuse. But these despicable men constitute an extremely small minority. According to the ACCCA report, of the 1,049 suspected or substantiated perpetrators of sexual abuse, only 245 were fathers.10 This means that 804 (76.6%) alleged abusers were people other than fathers. Furthermore, the figure of 245 fathers is inflated because (a) it includes “adoptive” fathers, who do not necessarily have the same attachment to a child as a natural father; (b) it includes the “at risk” category as well as the “substantiated”; and (c) the substantiated cases, as we have already noted, are not necessarily substantiated at all. However, even if we accept ACCCA’s statistics at face value, it is heartening to note how few abusive fathers there are as compared to non-abusive fathers. Working on the assumption that there was one father for every two of the 482,249 children aged 0-18, there were 241,124 fathers in WA in 1992/93. This means that while 245 fathers were guilty of abuse, 240,879 were not! Or to put it another way, only one out of every 984 fathers was abusive. Or to put it another way, fathers deemed guilty of sexual abuse constituted only 0.1% of all fathers.
Natural fathers who commit themselves to the mothers of their children in marriage seldom abuse their children. Children are safe with their fathers. That this even needs to be said is an extraordinary indication of the influence that the exaggerations of abuse have had on our community.
Suspicion in general is heightened by the claim that many cases of abuse are never reported. Such a claim is as misleading as it is meaningless. By definition, if a case is unreported it is unknown; and if it is unknown, then no one can say that it is unreported. Repeated references to unreported cases create the impression that the known cases are just the tip of the iceberg. This impression in turn creates suspicion within the community as people wonder and worry about the numerous unknown children who are supposedly suffering sexual abuse at the hands of numerous unknown abusers. This suspicion is cultivated by the establishment of police hotlines and welfare helplines, which encourage people, under the cloak of anonymity, to spy and inform on one another.
It is instructive to note how selectively the iceberg theory is applied. When a school teacher is convicted of sexual abuse, for example, we are assured that it is an isolated incident. But when a family member is convicted, we are told that it is the tip of the iceberg.
I was struck by the pervasive and infectious nature of suspicions of abuse while in church one Sunday morning. During his message the speaker asked in passing, “Would you trust your children with their uncle or their grandfather?” He was trying to make a point about the faithfulness of God; but in doing so he inadvertently repeated and reinforced a groundless suspicion against all men, and especially those nearest and dearest to us.
Presumption of Guilt
Exaggerations of abuse also encourage presumptions of guilt.
On one occasion a Christian counsellor phoned to inform me that someone I knew (Mr X) had been accused of child sexual abuse. I was shocked, and asked, “But what does Mr X say about this?” The counsellor responded that he had not spoken to Mr X, and had no intention of speaking to him. By way of explanation he said, “His motivation for denial is so great that challenge is unlikely to achieve anything.” In essence, the counsellor was saying that there was no point in asking Mr X about the accusation because he would never admit his guilt because he had too much to lose. The logic goes like this: If Mr X denies the accusation, then obviously he is guilty, because you would expect a guilty person to deny it. The counsellor seemed unable to understand that you would also expect an innocent person to deny it. Without speaking to the accused person, the counsellor had presumed his guilt. I have since come across other counsellors who take exactly the same approach.
I recall a woman phoning me for advice about a report of sexual abuse. Apparently, her teenage daughter had phoned from boarding school to say that her friend had told her that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather. After sharing the details with me, the woman asked, “What should I do?” I had a number of suggestions, including contacting the school counsellor and, if necessary, the police. “But first of all,” I said, “try to find out if it is true.” This took the woman by surprise, for she had instinctively presumed that the girl was telling the truth. But it turned out she wasn’t. She confessed to the school counsellor that she was making up a story—a nasty story that enabled her not only to express spite towards her stepfather, but also to gain special attention from her friends.
We should take care not to presume that an accusation is true. For to do so is to presume that the accused person is guilty. Such a presumption is wrong under both common and divine law.
Another harmful effect of exaggerating the incidence of child sexual abuse is gullibility. People seem to have become alarmingly gullible on this issue, showing an extraordinary willingness to believe any claim or accusation of abuse, no matter how improbable or impossible.
Throughout October and November 1994 I attended a trial in the Supreme Court in Bunbury of a man accused of child sexual abuse. I know this man and believe him to be innocent of all charges, a belief ultimately vindicated by the verdict of the court.
This man was accused of 130 offences by two of his adult daughters. He was committed to trial on 42 of these accusations. His daughters, who are both in their thirties, laid the charges against him after recovering memories of abuse with the help of a psychologist and a therapist.
The most alarming thing about this case is that anyone at all believed the two women. Their claims were simply incredible.
The first thing that stretched all bounds of credibility was the women’s claim that they had only recently discovered that their father had sexually abused them. Although they had supposedly been abused repeatedly throughout their childhood and into their adulthood, they claimed that they had no memory of the incidents until they underwent therapy. The younger daughter, for example, alleged that her father began to abuse her when she was about three years old, and did not stop until she was 25 years old. Now it is reasonable to believe that a three-year-old could forget an isolated act of abuse. It is less reasonable to believe that such a girl could suffer repeated abuse over many years and still forget it. But it is downright unreasonable to believe that a woman could forget being raped in her own home by her father when she was 25 years of age. Despite horrendous, repeated, prolonged—and even recent—abuse, neither daughter remembered anything about her suffering until assisted by her therapist or psychologist. (Furthermore, neither ever knew of the other’s abuse, so they were unable to confirm each other’s stories. And neither ever told anyone about the abuse, so they were unable to produce witnesses to corroborate their accusations.)
The second thing that stretched all bounds of credibility had to do with the alleged nature of the abuse. The older daughter claimed, for example, that she had been sodomised by her father and several other men when she was barely two years of age. Such abuse would have caused massive injury to a child so young, and could not possibly have been concealed. Yet, supposedly, this woman in her infancy not only endured it, but also experienced no physical harm from it. The younger daughter claimed to have had knives, scissors, screwdrivers and whirring electric drill bits inserted into her vagina—all without haemorrhaging to death, or even suffering serious harm. While some of the claims were utterly impossible, others were utterly improbable.
Yet, unbelievably, these claims were believed. Why? How could anyone be so gullible? I suggest that one reason may be the perception of the magnitude of the problem. Perhaps those who believed the claims were predisposed to believe them. Perhaps the specific allegations merely confirmed what the general exaggerations had conditioned them to believe. One-in-three girls.11 Most often fathers. Horrible things. Now these two girls and that father. Horrible. It all fits together.
This trial convinced me that (contrary to what many psychologists, therapists and counsellors advise) sometimes people should not be confirmed in their allegations and memories of abuse. They should be confronted.
If only some psychologist or therapist had said to the women involved in the Bunbury trial: “Hold on a minute, but don’t you think those incidents with the mice, the spiders, and the snakes are a bit far fetched?” Or, “Now I don’t mean to doubt you, but if you had been raped at the age of four or five you would have sustained massive, agonising, life-threatening injury, so the abuse would have become known.” Or, “I’m sorry, but the impossibility of some of your claims, and the improbability of others, makes me doubt the integrity of the remainder. I think we’d better review what’s going on here.” If only these women had been challenged they may have come to their senses and spared many people, including themselves, dreadful suffering.
It is not good enough for psychologists or therapists to claim that they are only concerned with “narrative truth” (ie, “truth” as the client perceives and portrays it). When “narrative truth” has the potential to ruin a person’s life, it is immoral and unjust to accept it without a serious attempt to test it against “historical truth”.
While writing this article, I learnt of a woman who visited an iridologist. After gazing into her eyes, the iridologist told the woman that she had been sexually abused by her father. What the woman ought to do is report the matter to her father so that he can take civil action against the iridologist for slander. What she may well do is worry. For without doubt, she has heard so much . . . Being troubled, she may turn to a therapist who will assure her that the abuse is not only possible but also probable. After all, one out of three girls . . . With her therapist’s help, she will review her childhood. Then she will recover memories of abuse. Next she will “confront” her father, shattering her relationship with him forever. Lastly those around her will begin to treat her with the compassion and awe appropriate to a “survivor”. Thus exaggerations of abuse create fantasies of abuse which compound the exaggerations.
If this cycle of fear, suspicion, gullibility and injustice is to be broken, we need to expose and discredit the exaggerations. To that effect, we should remind ourselves and inform others that relatively few children suffer sexual abuse, and considerably fewer fathers are guilty of it. We should affirm that the overwhelming majority of children are safe in their own homes, and must not be unsettled by suggestions of abuse from school teachers and social workers. We should urge counsellors, therapists and psychologists to link “narrative truth” to “historical truth”, and convey to them our contempt for recovered memory theories and therapies.
We also need to find ways to strengthen and extend the security that most children presently enjoy. To do this we will need to encourage people to recognise the moral and social beauty of the traditional marriage relationship, which joins sexual pleasure with sexual fidelity, and provides a supportive environment for the conception and nurture of children. We will also need to insist on the severest possible punishment of convicted perpetrators of abuse. Such people are not sick, but sinful. Let them receive justice from the courts. As for mercy, if they repent, let them receive it from God.
- Ellen Bass & Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (London: Cedar, an imprint of Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990; rpt 1993), p.20.
- Western Australian Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics Report July 1992 – June 1993 (Subiaco: Advisory and Co-ordinating Committee on Child Abuse, 1994). The 1992/93 Report is the latest and last report produced by ACCCA. It collates statistics on all forms of child abuse, not just sexual abuse.
- ibid, p.10.
- In an effort to separate the “at risk” cases from the “substantiated” cases, I spoke by telephone in June 1995 to the programmes officer who compiled the Report. Unfortunately, she was unable to recall the exact break-up of the two. She indicated, however, that the figure of 848 in Table 34 (p.38) would approximate the number of substantiated cases. This table lists the number of “Sexually Abusive Actions” that were substantiated. The programmes officer noted, however, that the 848 figure would be somewhat inflated, as it cites abusive actions, and some children would have been subjected to more than one action of abuse. In its figures for 1992/93 the WA Department for Community Development claims that there were 493 children “substantiated” as sexually abused (with a further 185 deemed “at risk”). I have deliberately kept to the higher, ACCCA figure so as to avoid any suggestion that I have chosen statistics to suit my arguments.
- Appendix to the ACCCA Report, “Background Notes for Completion of Case Record Form A” (Section B). Case Form A is the “Child Abuse and Neglect Statistics Case Record” that the various agencies fill out for ACCCA’s statistical report.
- The Australian Bureau of Statistics records population figures in five year age groups—0-4, 5-9, 10-14, and 15-19. The number of children aged 0-19 years is 507,419. I have subtracted 25,170 (1/5 of the children in the 15-19 age group) from this figure to approximate the number of children aged 0-18, which is the age group covered by the ACCCA report.
- ACCCA Report, p.1.
- “Sexual Abuse” (Sydney: NAPCAN. Publication date unknown, but in circulation in 1994).
- “Child Abuse: Whose Problem?” (Sydney: NAPCAN. Publication date unknown, but in circulation in 1994). This pamphlet discusses all forms of abuse, not just sexual abuse.
- ACCCA Report, p.39. Presumably the discrepancy in the total of 1,049 alleged perpetrators against 1,030 alleged victims arises from the fact that in some instances more than one person was involved in perpetrating the abuse.
- The psychologist who treated the older daughter seems to believe that one-in-two girls are sexually abused before reaching adulthood. Commenting several months after the trial on the plausibility of the alleged abuse, he said on 60 Minutes: “Now days we know—some of the more recent research says that 54% of women report being exposed to some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. So now it’s no longer improbable.”