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Journal Issue: Sexual Abuse of Children Volume 4 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1994

Current Information on the Scope and Nature of Child Sexual Abuse
David Finkelhor

Child Sexual Abuse Hysteria

As reports of sexual abuse have increased and particularly as some cases with false or questionable accusations have been widely publicized, some observers have alleged that the country is caught up in a hysteria of sexual abuse accusations and prosecutions.49 A factual basis for this allegation is difficult to ascertain. There may be more controversial cases today than before, but then there are more reported cases of all sorts than before.

A hysteria, if it were occurring, at least at the institutional level, might be signaled by a suspiciously high substantiation rate, as workers abandoned critical evaluation of reports, or by a suspiciously high rate of prosecution or conviction, as prosecutors, judges, and juries railroaded accused individuals.

In fact, however, to the extent that statistics are available, they suggest a fairly balanced operation of the child protection and criminal justice systems. On the one hand, a large percentage of reports—up to 60% in some states50—are declared unsubstantiated, belying the idea that reports are automatically believed. Moreover, in spite of claims that child protection workers are naively credulous of every charge lodged against day care operators, Finkelhor and Williams51 found that investigators dismiss 82% of all such accusations.

The picture of sexual abuse in the criminal justice system also suggests overall a tempered rather than hysterical response. As with most crimes, a large number of cases are dropped before prosecution. One study52 found that only about 42% of serious sexual abuse allegations (that is, those substantiated by child protection authorities and/or reported to the police) are actually forwarded for prosecution. Moreover, according to statistics from some selected jurisdictions,53 arrested sexual offenders against children are somewhat less likely to be prosecuted than are other violent offenders. This is because sexual abuse is so frequently a crime without other witnesses or physical corroboration, and prosecutors are concerned about children's credibility.54

When prosecutions occur, the majority—about 75%, according to one study52—result in convictions. However, most of these convictions (over 90%) result from guilty pleas and plea bargains. Sexual abusers are convicted somewhat more often than other violent offenders,53 but this is probably because prosecutors are more selective in the cases they choose to prosecute.

Even when accused sex abusers are convicted, their sentences are not terribly stiff. Studies suggest that 32% to 46% of convicted child sexual abusers serve no jail time.52,53,55 Only 19% receive sentences longer than one year, which is about the same as those convicted of other violent crimes.53 (There are no statistics on mandatory treatment.) None of this suggests that the criminal justice system abandons its usual standards of operation when it comes to sexual crimes against children.

There is little evidence from court or child protection statistics to suggest that a pervasive climate of hysteria makes it impossible for accused offenders to receive a fair hearing.