Last Sunday’s Washington Post had a myth-busting feature about the Catholic abuse scandal. One aspect caught my eye:
Sexual abuse of minors is not the province of the Catholic Church alone. About 4 percent of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002, according to a study being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. That is roughly consistent with data on many similar professions.
An extensive 2007 investigation by the Associated Press showed that sexual abuse of children in U.S. schools was “widespread,” and most of it was never reported or punished. And in Portland, Ore., last week, a jury reached a $1.4 million verdict against the Boy Scouts of America in a trial that showed that since the 1920s, Scouts officials kept “perversion files” on suspected abusers but kept them secret.
It seems an awkward pivot from a study based on actual data to the AP project that, while valuable for exposing how porous the system for policing educators for these problems is, doesn’t produce a real estimate that can be extrapolated across the teaching profession. And the numbers AP did come up with don’t get you to 4 percent.
Applying the lens of common sense, I’m guessing that if close to one in twenty teachers were sexually abusing kids we’d be hearing about it and that the actual figure is lower than that but amplified by the large number of schoolteachers across the country. In other words, many more teachers than priests.
That’s not to say that sexual abuse isn’t a problem in schools. It’s a big one and a lot of what I saw as a state board of education member dealing with licensure issues was shocking. But, I don’t think this particular assertion as to the scale is responsible or holds up.
Update: Lively debate about this on Twitter. But even Charol Shakeshaft points out in the comments that there is no hard evidence on the number/percent of teachers and that the priest/teacher comparison itself is a lousy one. Self-reporting in her data aside, I do think that her definitions cloud rather than clarify the extent of this problem because they are so broad and somewhat ambiguous. With issues like this, once you start seeing it everywhere you see it nowhere and that hinders solutions. And per my original post above, this is a real problem. If you haven’t read the AP story it’s worth checking out.
Finally, I do know of one project in the works on this that should shed more empirical light when it’s done.