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  • Writer's pictureTara L Mitchell

Recidivism (How likely is a perpetrator to reoffend?)

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Summary of Sources in Annotated Bibliographies

This a summary of existing research on recidivism of sexual crimes, particularly molestation of a child within the offender’s family. Before starting, it is important to note that most research on sex offenders considers three primary types of sex offenses: rape, extra-familial molestation of a child, and intra-familial molestation of a child (incest). As little research has been done on molestation of a sibling, all of this research covers on intra-familial molestation as being molestation of a child or stepchild. The summary is meant to be brief; more information on the research covered can be learned in the annotated bibliographies. Articles in the annotated bibliography of accessible research can be obtained online. Access to library databases is needed to access articles in the annotated bibliography of scholarly research; however, I am willing to send copies of the articles listed to those that request them.

Recidivism is how often people convicted of a crime commit another crime. That is, how often does someone become a repeat offender, committing more crimes? On the surface, this is an easy question to ask. However, it becomes complicated when several factors are considered. For one, sexual crimes are extremely underreported. Some research reports that only 5% of child molestation is reported to police (Tchividjian, 2014). If child molestation is not reported, how can we know who is committing the crime once, let alone repeating it? Second, recidivism can be looked at in any of several ways: repeating an offense at all, being arrested for another offense, being charged for another offense, or being convicted of another offense. Of course, more people commit the offense than are arrested for the offense; more are arrested than are charged; and more are charged than are convicted. It’s difficult to decide when someone has “recidivated” when there are so many ways to define it.

Even with these problems, it is important to do our best to the crime of child molestation, especially factors that may increase the odds of child molestation and factors that may increase effectiveness of treatment for those who have molested children. Below are some highlights of research on child molestation, both in general and among religious communities.

1. Interviews with people convicted of child molestation reveal that many of them had molested other children prior to being convicted of child molestation (Tchividjian, 2014).

2. Research on recidivism rates show that people convicted of child molestation continue to recidivate (regardless of how that is defined) for more than 25 years, but recidivism rates of those convicted of rape tend to taper off within 5 years (e.g., Prentky et al., 1997). The risk, then, for child molestation is longer than other sexual crimes. Their peak risk is 5 – 10 years after their release. Although this has not been studied, it is possible this could be because intrafamilial child molesters are able to gain access to new victims as new children are born into the family.

3. Religious fundamentalism predicts traditional gender role adherence, which in turn predicts the likelihood Church of Latter-Day Saints male college students self-report coercive sexual behavior (Barker & Galliher, 2017). Other research shows that child molesters hold attitudes in common with rapists (Helmus et al., 2013), suggesting it is logical to assume that religious fundamentalism will predict traditional gender role adherence, which will predict the likelihood of child molestation. This is further supported by reports that more than 90% of convicted child molesters considered themselves religious (Tchividjian, 2014).

4. Research shows that authoritarian religions can create cultures that silence victims of child sexual abuse, as well as creating cultures in which perpetrators feel entitled to abuse (Nolan, 2015; Speckhardt, 2011). Further, authoritarian religions use unique methods of grooming, or ensuring children comply with abuse (Raine & Kent, 2019), and further hinder investigations of the abuse, sometimes by explicitly telling children not to answer questions (Tishelmen & Fontes, 2017).

5. Research on treatment effectiveness is inconsistent, but research shows treatment is likely only to be effective if the perpetrator truly changes attitudes toward child molestation during a treatment that is long-term (e.g., Beech et al., 2012; Durkin & DiGianantonio, 2007; Fisher et al., 2000; Hanson et al., 1993).

Annotated Bibliography of Accessible Research/Articles on Child Molestation in Religions

De Boer, W. (2019, March). The Catholic Church and sexual abuse, then and now. Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, 12(6).

1. Article details recent allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic church, including an August 2018 grand jury report from PA involving six dioceses.

2. Then details historical research of sexual scandals in the early 16th century over priests using their positions of authority to sexually abuse female congregants.

3. Although the church took steps to stop the abuse of the one individual that reported it, often by transferring the priest, the investigations were often kept within the Catholic church. This was driven, in part, by Church leaders’ desire to avoid bringing shame or scandal onto the Catholic faith. The goal was to protect the church – not the victim.

Nolan, J. (2015, August 5). What is it about religion that fosters abuse? Vice.

1. Discusses allegations of abuse in the Mormon church, Christian Science, Methodist church, Catholic church, Church of England, Islamic religious schools, and the Orthodox Jewish community. Many of the allegations are sexual

2. Those who come forward with allegations are often excommunicated or ostracized in some churches.

3. Janet Heimlich, author of Breaking their will, claims children are more vulnerable to abuse if they live in religious authoritarian cultures: one with a strict, social hierarchy, fearful, and separatist

4. The power of religious institutions allows them to convince parents not to report and convince politicians to look the other way or to handle the allegations internally

5. Katherine Stewart, author of The good news club stated “If a religion places a huge stress on obedience and parental authority, sanctions corporal punishment, and emphasizes female disempowerment or subjugation, or the subjugation of other ethnic or religious groups, it lays the foundation for abuse.”

Speckhardt, R. (2011, October 18). The religious sex abuse epidemic. HuffPost.

1. Argues that abuse is more likely in religions that have powerful clerics and becomes worse when those religions handle the matter internally rather than reporting the abuse to secular authorities

2. These religions often silence victims by forcing them from the community

Tchividjian, B. (2014, January 9). Startling statistics: Child sexual abuse and what the church can begin doing about it. Religion News Service.

1. Details recent news stories involving abuse within the church

a. Michael Bryant (COGIC pastor) was accused of raping a 16-year old; family and church members knew 2 years prior to the accusation becoming public, but felt it best to “pray” for the offender

b. Abel and Harlow found pedophiles molest an average of 12 victims, and 93% describe themselves as religious, with those abusers within faith communities having more and younger victims; Russell found that only 5% of child sexual abuse is reported to law enforcement

2. Points to the church’s culture of ignoring abuse for one reason why it continues.

Annotated Bibliography of Scholarly Research on Child Molestation (Some Involving Religion)

Barker, A., & Galliher, R. V. (2017). A mediation model of sexual assault among Latter-Day Saints. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 26(3), 316 – 333.

1. DOJ statistics: someone is sexually abused or assaulted every 109 seconds, 68% of sexual assaults are unreported, 80% of perpetrators known to the victim and 98% never incarcerated.

2. Rape myths include victim blaming, the belief that women want to be raped, and women enjoy rape. Acceptance of these rape myths lead to a greater likelihood of raping others, as well as having more rape victims.

3. Studied the role of conservative religious beliefs as predictors of rape myth acceptance and experiences of sexual assault among Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints college students.

4. Participants (77 male & 131 female) completed demographics, Religious Fundamentalism Scale, Attitudes Toward Women Scale, Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale – Short Form, and Sexual Experiences Survey – Victimization and Perpetration versions.

5. Females experienced each of the 10 coercive sex acts, but males only admitted to committing 2 of the 10 (Table 1).

6. For males, religious fundamentalism predicted higher traditional gender role adherence, which predicted higher rape myth acceptance and more reports of perpetration.

Beech, A. R., Mandeville-Norden, R., & Goodwill, A. (2012). Comparing recidivism rates of treatment responders/nonresponders in a sample of 413 child molesters who had completed community-based sex offender treatment in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 56(1), 29 – 49.

1. Considers degree to which studies relate to RNR (risk, need, responsivity) principles of What Works literature

2. Discusses research that, although recidivism reconviction rates can be low, the actual rate may be 4 to 5 times higher and that classifies child molesters as high, medium, and low need/risk

3. There are 42 probations areas in England and Wales running one of three U.K. accredited programs: Community Sex Offender Groupwork Program, Thames Valley Sex Offender Groupwork Program, and the Northumbria Sex Offender Groupwork Program. High level risk is 200 hours; lower level risk is 100 hours

4. The study was 2 – 4 years after the completion of the program

5. Thirty percent of the children were intrafamilial (children or stepchildren)

6. Used Mandeville-Norden et al. (2008) to establish reliable change indices and Jacobson and Traux (1991) to determine the cutoff between dysfunctional and functional responding.

7. Offenders were categorized based on 3 levels of need and on response to treatment (based on posttreatment scores)

8. Between 2 and 4 years after treatment, 12% recidivated, with 86% (n = 44) of those being sexual offenses

a. Twelve (9%) of the treated offenders recidivated sexually, and twenty (15%) of the untreated had done so. Although this was not statistically significant, it was deemed practically significant (40% difference).

b. There was no significant difference in recidivism rates for high level risk offenders and low level risk offenders; this suggests that a longer treatment is more effective in reducing recidivism for high risk individuals.

c. The categorization of people who respond and do not respond, based on actuarial data (the results of psychological tests) may be a more beneficial method of determining treatment effectiveness than simple completion of a program.

Durkin, K. F., & DiGianantonio, A. L. (2007). Recidivism among child molesters: A brief overview. Mental Health Issues in the Criminal Justice System, 45(1 – 2), 249 – 256.

1. This was a qualitative review of the research.

2. Much research shows negative effects of child sexual abuse, especially when the molestation occurs repeatedly: physical injuries, fear, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, poor academic performance, aggressive behavior, social maladjustment, and sexual acting out.

3. Discusses research on the problems with rearrest or reconviction being used to measure recidivism, given that an anonymous survey given to sex offenders showed that the sex offenders reported committing at least twice as many offenses as they had been arrested for committing.

4. Langevin et al. (2004) estimated a long-term recidivism rate of 50% for intrafamilial child molestation and 70% for extra-familial child molestation

5. Historic and dynamic factors were discussed.

a. Historic factors: having previous offenses, early onset of offending, victimizing boy, young victim age, extra-familial

b. Dynamic factors: deviant sexual arousal, psychopathology, personality disorder, impulsivity, lack of empathy, cognitive distortions, alcohol abuse, learning disability

6. Treatment is only effective if offenders understand the urges involving children are inappropriate, accept responsibility for their actions, and express remorse. Short-term treatment is not effective, but, even with long-term treatment failure rates increase over time.

Fisher, D., Beech, A., & Browne, K. (2000). The effectiveness of relapse prevention training in a group of incarcerated child molesters. Psychology, Crime, and Law, 6, 181 – 195.

1. Discussed evaluation of effectiveness for Relapse Prevention techniques as part of a cognitive behavioral model of change in child molestation behaviors, based on its success in treatment of other addictive type behaviors.

2. This was done in the context of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP) in the U.K., which was updated at the time of the study to increase from 80 to 160 hours.

3. Based on 49 male child molesters who agreed to complete all study measures at pre-treatment, immediately post-treatment, and nine months post-treatment. (This was a subset of 74 who agreed to complete all study measures at pre-treatment and immediately post-treatment.)

a. There was a significant increase in awareness of risk, development of coping strategies, and perception of risk from pre-treatment to immediate post-treatment. Further, there was no significant change in immediate and nine month follow-up post-treatment measures.

b. However, there were marginally significant differences in the awareness and strategies abilities of those who completed the 180 hour program and the 80 hour program. Further, men released during the 9 month follow-up where more likely to have worse recognition of risk and generation of coping strategies, especially when they underwent the short program. The sample was also divided into those who showed a response to the treatment and those who did not; although both groups showed improvement immediately following treatment, those who did not respond to treatment were significantly worse at follow-up

Hanson, R. K., Steffy, R. A., Gauthier, R. (1993). Long-term recidivism of child molesters. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(4), 646 – 652.

1. Study of offenders released from Ontario prison primarily holding sexual offenders sentenced between 1958 and 1974; many child molesters there attended specialized treatment that included counseling for social competence and aversive conditioning

2. Treatment group were treated between 1965 and 1973 (106 of 125 treated offenders); divided into boys only, extrafamilial girls, children of both sexes, and related female children only. Control group 1 (n = 31) was selected prior to treatment program being offered and control group 2 was there at the same time but not part of the program (n = 60)

3. Recidivism was defined as reconviction for a sexual or violent offense (or both)

4. The total sample was 197; of those 42% were reconvicted during the follow-up period. Twenty-three percent were reconvicted more than 10 years later, although the rate was 5.2% for the first 6 years, then dropped to 1.8% for the next 20 years.

5. Having a previous conviction, or admitting to having previously offending increased the odds of reoffending.

6. There was no significant effect of treatment, although treatment led to improvements in the offenders’ feelings of control of their lives; less depression, hostility, and subjective distress; and improved self-esteem.

7. In an overall analysis, only previous convictions – or admitted offenses without conviction – and boys as victims predicted recidivism.

Helmus, L., Hanson, R. K., Babchishin, K. M., & Mann, R. E. (2013). Attitudes supportive of sexual offending predict recidivism: A meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 14(1), 34 – 53.

1. Meta-analysis of 46 samples (total of 13,782 people)

2. Effective efforts to manage sex offenders require understanding motivations, identifying offenders likely to reoffend, and correctly intervening.

3. Targeting cognitive distortions (e.g., the child was “asking for” the abuse) is a key component of effective treatment programs; however, the group to which the individual belongs also reinforces abuse-supportive attitudes.

4. Child molesters often believe that sex with children is harmless and that children are sexually provocative. Additionally, child molesters sometimes hold rape attitudes, but rapists typically do not hold child molester attitudes.

5. Updates Hanson and Morton- Bourgon (2004) meta-analysis by looking at child molester attitudes, pro-rape attitudes, sexual entitlement, and general assessment of sexual offending

6. Table 1 has descriptive information for each study, with studies conducted between 1986 and 2011. Table 6 has the critical findings.

7. The rate of recidivism was 34.9%, with a violent recidivism rate of 13.5%. Child molester attitudes and generic sexual offending attitudes predicted sexual recidivism, but child molester attitudes did not predict violent/generic recidivism. All types of attitudes (rape, sex offending, child molestation, and general sexual offending) predicted recidivism for child molesters. However, child molestation attitudes did not predict rape recidivism.

8. Sex offenders learn from their communities; communities with attitudes that are more supportive of sexual offenses “grow” offenders.

Mercado, C. C., Tallon, J. A., & Terry, K. J. (2008). Persistent sexual abusers in the Catholic church: An examination of characteristics and offense patterns. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35(5), 629 – 642.

1. Used Nature and Scope of Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic church cases (n = 3,674) to compare priests with one allegation to those with moderate (2 or 3), high (4 – 9), and exceptionally high (10 or more)

2. Discusses fixated (exclusive attraction to children) and regressed (abuse children depending on situation)

3. Discusses difference in pedophilia (against prepubescent children) and non-pedophilia (ephebophiles, children between 14 and 18)

4. Diocesan priests working as pastors represent more than 3/4 of priests with 10 or more victims and were the majority of the accused clergy. Clerics with one allegation were most likely to have girl victims; clerics with 10 or more victims were most likely to have boy victims.

5. Clerics with one victim were less likely to be charged or convicted of a crime.

Palusci, V. J., & Ilardi, M. (2020). Risk factors and services to reduce child sexual abuse recurrence. Child Maltreatment, 25(1), 106 – 116.

1. Relied on the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System

2. Discussed research showing younger children, girls, and children who were prior victims of child maltreatment had increased risk of CSA

3. Relied on a cohort sample from the NCANDS data files from 2010 to 2015, with the first report of abuse in 2010, using variables with age, race, ethnicity, CPS report date, source, and disposition, services provided, and type of maltreatment. They also created a variable for child disability and variables for caretaker and offender characteristics.

4. There were 4,232,423 unique records across the 45 states with records in those 6 years. CA, GA, ND, NH, OR, and PR were removed for not having records all 6 years. Those records included 42,036 confirmed cases in 2010, with 1,496 (3.6%) matching cases in the 6-year period. The second report was an average of 639 days after the first report.

5. Several factors influenced likelihood of reoccurrence, including

a. the offender being a caretaker, especially if the offender is a parent

b. the child being female, Pacific Islander, emotional problems, learning problems, medical problems, or disability

c. the family including anyone with a disability

d. once other variables were controlled for, CPS referrals for mental health treatment, counseling, foster care, health, family preservation, and family support did not reduce the likelihood of recurrence

6. It is not possible to determine recidivism rates, as this study focuses on children and not offenders; however, this study found that 25% of the children who were revictimized were revictimized by the same person – typically, a parent.

Prentky, R. A., Lee, A. F. S., Knight, R. A., & Cerce, D. (1997). Recidivism rates among child molesters and rapists: A methodological analysis. Law and Human Behavior, 21(6), 635 – 659.

1. Massachusetts Treatment Center for Sexually Dangerous Persons sample of 265 men divided into rapists and child molesters (victims under 16). After excluding indiscriminate offenders, 251 men were left.

2. Child molesters had more prior known offenses (3.6 on average) than rapists (2.5)

3. Recidivism was based on Massachusetts Board of Probation records, Massachusetts Parole Board Records, Bureau of Identification records, Department of Correction Research Department records, Massachusetts Treatment Center Authorized Absence Program records, and FBI records

4. Out of a list of 172 criminal charges, a total of 78 charges were coded; charge was the primary method of determining recidivism.

5. Study ran from 1959 (when MTCSD was opened) to Jan 1, 1985

6. Analysis relied on survival analysis

a. For child molesters, 32% had new sexual offenses, with an average of 3.64 years before re-charge. However, the failure rate over the course of the study, which incorporated how long each person was “on the street” prior to re-charging, was 52% for sexual offenses and 75% for any charge.

b. For rapists, 26% had new sexual offenses, with an average of 4.55 years before re-charge. However, the failure rate over the course of the study, which incorporated how long each person was “on the street” prior to re-charging, was 39% for sexual offenses and 74% for any charge.

c. When looking at child molestation across time, there is a failure rate of 4% for the first three years, 3% in the 4th, 2% in the fifth. Thereafter, it is 11% between year 5 and 10, 10% between year 10 and year 15, and then 7% and 5%. This suggests that child molestation recidivism occurs over larger time frames than most expect. Specifically, while rapists may be more likely to reoffend in year 1, child molesters are more likely to reoffend in years 6 – 25.

d. Recidivism is strongly underestimated (30% – 40%) when only percentage of charges is used, rather than looking at a more multi-modal perspective like survival rate

Raine, S., & Kent, S. A. (2019). The grooming of children for sexual abuses in religious settings: Unique characteristics and select case studies. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 48, 180 – 189.

1. Discusses aspects of grooming that would be unique to child molestation within religious communities. It initially covers statistics of frequency of abuse in several countries and then discusses what grooming is

2. The article then discusses the uniqueness of grooming in religious settings: the legitimacy of religion as setting a high level of status and worldview, lack of status for children (and others) in the hierarchy, the importance of compliance in authoritarian religions, and the use of familial language as part of the religious hierarchy.

3. Finally, the article covers case studies in Catholicism, Protestantism, sects (Seventh-day Adventists), and alternative religions (the Children of God).

4. Sectarian religions, those that split from mainstream religions, are highly insular, have a distrust of societal authorities and are likely to strongly encourage (i.e., require) that members allow abuse to be handled internally by requiring victims to forgive their abusers and move on. Other movements, which are more like cults (religious movements with no official ties to organized religions), lur the lines between religion and family, such that the entire religious community is part of the grooming process and thus allows the abuse to continue.

5. The article links to the Abuse Gaurdian website, a network of lawyers working with child abuse victims; the footnote claims the lawyers have worked with Amish communities.

Tishelman, A. C., & Fontes, L. A. (2017). Religion in child sexual abuse forensic interviews. Child Abuse and Neglect, 63, 120 – 130.

1. Religious factors may increase feelings of shame in victims, the need to suffer in silence, blame for children being victimized because of sin, and promoting premature forgiveness without accompanying child protection. It may also allow abusers to claim they have a right to the child’s body.

2. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 39 CAC forensic interviewers and directors.

3. The interviewers and directors worked with Amish children, as well as several other religious groups. Participants discussed several children whose families used their religion as part of the grooming process, telling children that this is what “fathers” did as part of their role as the religious leader or their role as the father to teach the daughter how to have sex.

4. Although some clergy supported youth reporting sexual abuse, many attempted to suppress the reports and try to keep everything within the faith community. One page 124 it specifically quoted a participant discussing pressure within Mennonite communities to allow the community to handle it.

5. Many reported that family members would explicitly tell children not to say anything in interviews. Some also reported that Amish and Mennonite families did not want their child on videotape, so accommodations had to be made to record the interviews without their faces.

Walker, D. W. (2000). The treatment of adult male child molesters through group family intervention. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 11(3), 65 – 73.

1. Based on Sexual Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) in North Carolina, which relies on the therapist’s knowledge of the whole-individual and family. Therapy is provided to preschool aged children who also reside in the home, and the offender’s partner(s) also receives treatment

2. The treatment began by using relapse prevention and cognitive behavioral therapy, a group for partners, a therapy group for adult female incest survivors, and a therapeutic nursery. The design was to provide services for men circumventing the justice system.

3. Study based on archival data for 106 men

a. Family involvement, specifically participating in homework assignments, monitoring and reporting behavior to therapist, giving therapist information, participating in therapy separate from offender, participating in family/couples counseling with offender, and signing a lifetime Relapse Prevention Plan, all increase likelihood of completing treatment

b. Study does not indicate how long the treatment is supposed to last or how long they were followed to determine recidivism.

Walton, J. S., & Chou, S. (2015). The effectiveness of psychological treatment for reducing recidivism in child molesters: A systematic review of randomized and nonrandomized studies. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 16(4), 401 - 417.

1. Meta-analysis of studies involving child molestation recidivism after intervention

2. 3019 studies were found in searches, but only 10 met criteria; those 10 studies involved 2,119 child molesters

3. Table 1 has study breakdown and Table 2 has breakdown of biases; no studies were coded as strong, only 2 were good, the other 8 were weak, often due to biases

4. No clear indication of treatment effectiveness for child molesters

5. Meta-analysis was unable to separate out types of child molestation

Zgoba, K. M., & Simon, L. M. J. (2005). Recidivism rates of sexual offenders up to 7 years later: Does treatment matter? Criminal Justice Review, 30(2), 155 – 173.

1. Compares the recidivism rate of sex offenders Adult Diagnostic Treatment Center of New Jersey, the state’s only sex-offender-specific prison, to recidivism rates for sex offenders in the general population of other NJ prisons. The sample consists of all male sex offenders released from 1994 – 1997. Those released were followed until Jan 2001. Those at ADTC were repetitive, compulsive offenders who are amenable and willing to be treated.

2. Survivors of incest/familial rape are less likely to report because of the difficulty speaking out against a family member

3. Past research:

a. Rice, Quinsey, and Harris (1991) – 31% likely to be arrested for another sexual offense, and 58% for any offense

b. Rapists are more likely to reoffend than extrafamilial child molesters and familial child molesters

c. Meta-analyses suggest cognitive behavioral treatment can help, both with sexual and general recidivism

4. The majority of the 718 were in prison for incest/child molestation, although percentage of rapists was higher in general population. About 13% of the child molestation/incest sample were rearrested for sexual offenses, and about 20% were rearrested for a nonsexual crime.

5. This study looked at recidivism over 6-years; the likelihood of reoffending increases with time in the community. Treatment did not affect the likelihood of sexual reoffending, but did decrease the likelihood of nonsexual offending.

6. Offenders released between 31 – 40 years of age are 4.5 times more likely to commit a new sexual offense

***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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