A Forgotten Study: Abuse in School 100 Times Worse than by Priests
By James Tillman and John Jalsevac
WASHINGTON, DC, April 1, 2010 – In the last several weeks such a quantity of ink has been spilled in newspapers across the globe about the priestly sex abuse scandals, that a casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that Catholic priests are the worst and most common perpetrators of child sex abuse.
But according to Charol Shakeshaft, the researcher of a little-remembered 2004 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."
After effectively disappearing from the radar, Shakeshaft’s study is now being revisited by commentators seeking to restore a sense of proportion to the mainstream coverage of the Church scandal.
According to the 2004 study “the most accurate data available at this time” indicates that “nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career.”
“Educator sexual misconduct is woefully under-studied,” writes the researcher. “We have scant data on incidence and even less on descriptions of predators and targets. There are many questions that call for answers.“
In an article published on Monday, renowned Catholic commentator George Weigel referred to the Shakeshaft study, and observed that “The sexual and physical abuse of children and young people is a global plague” in which Catholic priests constitute only a small minority of perpetrators.
While Weigel observes that the findings of Shakeshaft’s study do nothing to mitigate the harm caused by priestly abuse, or excuse the “clericalism” and “fideism” that led bishops to ignore the problem, they do point to a gross imbalance in the level of scrutiny given to it, throwing suspicion on the motives of the news outlets that are pouring their resources into digging up decades-old dirt on the Church.
“The narrative that has been constructed is often less about the protection of the young (for whom the Catholic Church is, by empirical measure, the safest environment for young people in America today) than it is about taking the Church down," he writes.
Weigel observes that priestly sex abuse is “a phenomenon that spiked between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s but seems to have virtually disappeared,” and that in recent years the Church has gone to great lengths to punish and remove priestly predators and to protect children. The result of these measures is that “six credible cases of clerical sexual abuse in 2009 were reported in the U.S. bishops’ annual audit, in a Church of some 65,000,000 members.”
Despite these facts, however, “the sexual abuse story in the global media is almost entirely a Catholic story, in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as the epicenter of the sexual abuse of the young.”
Outside of the Church, Shakeshaft is not alone in highlighting the largely unaddressed, and unpublicized problem of child sex abuse in schools. Sherryll Kraizer, executive director of the Denver-based Safe Child Program, told the Colorado Gazette in 2008 that school employees commonly ignore laws meant to prevent the sexual abuse of children.
“I see it regularly,” Kraizer said. “There are laws against failing to report, but the law is almost never enforced. Almost never.”
“What typically happens is you’ll have a teacher who’s spending a little too much time in a room with one child with the door shut,” Kraizer explained. “Another teacher sees it and reports it to the principal. The principal calls the suspected teacher in and says ‘Don’t do that,’ instead of contacting child protective services.”
“Before you know it, the teacher is driving the student home. A whole series of events will unfold, known to other teachers and the principal, and nobody contacts child services before it’s out of control. You see this documented in records after it eventually ends up in court.”
In an editorial last week, The Gazette revisited the testimony of Kraizer in the context of the Church abuse scandal coverage, concluding that “the much larger crisis remains in our public schools today, where children are raped and groped every day in the United States.”
“The media and others must maintain their watchful eye on the Catholic Church and other religious institutions,” wrote The Gazette, “But it’s no less tragic when a child gets abused at school.”
In 2004, shortly after the Shakeshaft study was released, Catholic League President William Donohue, who was unavailable for an interview for this story, asked, “Where is the media in all this?”
“Isn’t it news that the number of public school students who have been abused by a school employee is more than 100 times greater than the number of minors who have been abused by priests?” he asked.
“All those reporters, columnists, talking heads, attorneys general, D.A.’s, psychologists and victims groups who were so quick on the draw to get priests have a moral obligation to pursue this issue to the max. If they don’t, they’re a fraud.”