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  • Writer's pictureTara L Mitchell

How Common is Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

We don’t know the exact answer to that question. We do know that it is common, though. We know that about 25% of girls and 15% of boys have been raped before they turn 18. We know that people who are in jail for child sexual abuse often admit that they had abused more children than anyone knew. We also think that only 5% of all childhood sexual abuse is reported. That means that 95% of child molesters are able to stay in the community, abusing more children.

Can’t We Just Get Child Abusers Help? Why Do We Have to Report It?

The answer is that we MIGHT be able to get child abusers help, but only if it is reported.

There are plenty of studies that have looked at treatment for those who molest children. There are some studies that show cognitive-behavioral therapy and relapse prevention therapy combined can help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a special kind of therapy that helps people understand the way they think is wrong. In this case, it helps child molesters understand they are wrong to think of children as sexual. Relapse prevention therapy helps them remember that it is wrong to think of children as sexual when they have finished therapy.

However, the therapy needs to last for a long time, and it needs to be done by people who are carefully trained. People cannot get that kind of therapy UNLESS the child abuse is reported to someone. Even more, the therapy only works if the person WANTS to change. Why would someone who rapes a child want to change on their own? Reporting it is the first step in getting the person to admit they need to change.

Won’t the Abuse Just Stop?

Most likely, no. Although most people think the abuse will stop on its own, it really doesn’t. Child molesters may stop molesting one child, but they will find another. People who molest only family members will simply begin molesting another child in the family, especially if they are molesting their own children. Child molesters are likely to continue molesting for many years, simply changing the target of their molestation as needed.

But Shouldn’t I Let My Religious Leaders Deal with This?

The short answer, sadly, is no. Although religious leaders are meant to help us grow spiritually, they are still humans and do not always lead in the way they should. Sometimes, they worry more about what nonbelievers think about the faith than they do about what is happening to believers. Some religious leaders think talking about things like childhood sexual abuse will make them look bad and so they try to hide what is happening. Childhood sexual abuse happens among all groups; talking about it openly is actually what helps make it stop. Leaders that try to hid what is happening are why the abuse will continue.

Even worse, some religious leaders let their role as our spiritual advisors go to their head. They become convinced that they have the power – not God. Some of these leaders, whether they are official leaders (like pastors) or unofficial ones (like teachers), become so convinced of their own power that they begin to encourage harming others and participating in that harm too. They try to convince others to treat them as God, which goes against God’s wishes. Seeking the advice of a spiritual leader is not a bad thing, but letting that leader silence a child is.

Finally, in an effort to protect the abuser, people may tell children to lie to people interviewing them, or, at least, not to answer questions. This makes the problem even worse. Not only is it protecting an abuser and silencing a child, it is involving the child in lies. The child loses trust in everyone involved and, when the lies are discovered, the people making the child lie can get into trouble too.

These questions and answers were developed after a review of existing scientific research and news archives. If you would like to learn more, or see the articles yourself, please reach out to us.

***Dr. Tara Mitchell joined the faculty at LHU after earning a Ph.D. in Legal Psychology from Florida International University in 2005. Her teaching, research, and service to the community center around interpersonal violence and discrimination against marginalized groups, particularly based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. She has presented research on domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and human trafficking at a variety of conferences and for several local community groups.

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