UNH Professor Cautions About
Legacy of Clergy Abuse Scandal
Contact: Erika Mantz
UNH Media Relations
December 1, 2003
DURHAM, N.H.-- A University of New Hampshire sociologist warned
this week about possible negative fallout for future child protection
efforts as a result of the clergy abuse scandal that has dominated
the child welfare news over the last two years.
David Finkelhor, director of UNH's Crimes against Children Research
Center, who also was appointed to a special advisory commission
by Cardinal Bernard Law, expresses these concerns in a commentary
published in Child Abuse and Neglect, the leading scientific journal
of that field.
Among the concerns he cites are that other more common forms of
child maltreatment may go unrecognized, that treatment programs
for child molesters may be discredited, and that some victims may
be re-traumatized in a rush for more civil litigation.
Finkelhor also points out some of the beneficial effects the scandal
has had. He writes that it has put many organizations besides churches
on notice that they cannot just quietly dismiss employees about
whom credible abuse complaints are made without reporting, investigation
He also draws attention to the many men, including working-class
men, who came forward during the scandal to talk publicly about
their victimization, making it easier in the future for boys and
men to disclose.
But he urges colleagues in the child protection field to be critical
about the extensive publicity the scandal has generated. Sexual
abuse, he points out, makes up less than 10 percent of all child
maltreatment coming to official attention. He believes seriously
harmful physical abuse and emotional abuse have also been prevalent
in religious and other youth serving organizations, but it is getting
increasingly hard to draw people's attention to these other forms
of child maltreatment.
He also argues that the scandal reinforced many of the most insidious
and extreme stereotypes about child molesters: that they are uniformly
compulsive, impervious to treatment, and destined to re-offend.
He argues the spectrum of offenders, clergy offenders included,
is very broad, and contains many who can benefit from treatment
and, with proper management, be rehabilitated.
Finkelhor also is concerned that the successful Catholic Church
litigation may result in a tidal wave of new civil lawsuits. Unlike
child abuse treatment and investigation work, the handling of civil
litigation has not been similarly scrutinized with an eye to establishing
best practices that are minimally traumatizing to this vulnerable
victim group. In a new rush to sue, he says, victims may not truly
come out the winners.
“Public controversies are not sporting events, “ Finkelhor
writes. “Responsible advocates cannot simply root for their
team and go home happy when they win. The excesses and misconceptions
of any … public exorcism may come back to haunt the field