|Learning from the John Jay Causes and Contexts Study: Part 4—Recommendations for Prevention
This series of four VIRTUS® homepage articles explores last year’s findings of the John Jay College Research Team. The four articles will examine Contextual Factors, Individual Factors, Organizational Factors, and Recommendations for Prevention.
By Monica Applewhite, Ph.D.
Last year, the John Jay College Research Team, headed by Dr. Karen Terry, released its findings on the Causes and Contexts of the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church. The study was intended to examine the reasons why the Catholic Church saw a rise in sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with a sharp decline in incidents beginning in 1985. Thus, the focus of the study was on the actual incidents that led to the crisis, not the factors that led to widespread reporting of the abuse beginning in 2002.
Within the lengthy report of findings are numerous useful pieces of information for professionals working to prevent and respond to sexual abuse, both within and outside the Catholic Church. This four-part series of articles is intended to summarize key findings and direct readers to sections of the report they may wish to read in their entirety.
Recommendations for Prevention
The John Jay researchers found that among the clergy offenders there were a small percentage “chronic offenders” and very few instances of “stranger abuse.” Most of the children and youth were highly accessible, including 17 percent of victims who also had a sibling who was abused. The location of the abuse was most likely to be the cleric’s home, followed by the home of the victim or an overnight trip. Taken together, this information means that we are dealing with a majority of situations in which an individual sexually abused a familiar child or youth who was accessible in his own or the child’s home. Prevention of this type of crime requires a very different set of precautions than preventing a persistent sexual offender from actively pursuing sexual contact with children in a variety of settings such as parks, schools, recreational centers, or churches. The researchers recommended four techniques that are part of situational crime prevention, some of which have already become part of the culture of the Catholic Church within the U.S.
Increase effort. Increasing effort means increasing the amount of effort it takes on the part of a potential abuser. In other words, “don’t make it easy.” Strategies to increase effort include education and skills-building for minors, preventing the use of facilitators such as alcohol or drugs with children, controlling access to minors by restricting overnight visits, prohibiting time alone in homes and supervising overnight and off-campus time with children and youth.
Increase risk. Increasing risk means increasing the likelihood that abuse or attempts to abuse will be detected. Strategies to increase risk include formal and informal supervision of programs and personnel, providing information to parishioners and volunteers about what to watch for in others, and directing specific educational efforts to parents and guardians about specific dangers, why they are important, and what to do if warning signs are observed.
Control prompts. Controlling prompts means addressing the behaviors and circumstances that may “trigger” the selection of a particular child or youth. Codes of conduct, awareness education, and ongoing professional development should address the content of conversations, limits of physical contact, as well as where and how time is spent in the development of private relationships.
Reduce permissibility. Reducing permissibility means being clear that sexual behavior of any kind, with minors of any age is wrong, is a crime, is harmful, and will be punished to the full extent of the law. This can be accomplished by teaching adults and young people how abuse effects a child, clearly defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and clearly articulating all consequences for policy violations and sexual abuse. While clear consequences may not be enough to prevent a persistent offender from sexually abusing, a clear understanding and expectation of punishment may give the “situational” offender just enough pause to reconsider a very damaging mistake.
In the concluding sections, the researchers stressed the need for ongoing oversight and accountability to ensure that the structures to prevent and respond properly are used consistently, with complete transparency. This principle can be applied both to adults who are working with children and youth and to leaders who have the responsibility for organizational change and maintenance of standards. The inconsistency of implementation following the publication of the Five Principles document shows that multi-level accountability structures must be in place to prevent history from repeating.
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