August 11, 2012

Religiosity Raises Risk Among Sex Offenders

Priest AbuseOne of the most common objections encountered by atheists who report on child rape by clergy is that it is not fair to focus on clergy since this offense occurs in many other groups. They have a valid point in that clergy are certainly not the only group to engage in this despicable behavior; however, we typically retort that the involvement of religion is relevant. Certain aspects of religious doctrine may facilitate abuse. Abuse by a member of clergy involves a deep betrayal of trust, contributes to the low rates of reporting such crimes, is more likely to be concealed in systematic ways, etc.

But what if there was actually evidence from scientific studies that religiosity was associated with increased dangerousness among sex offenders, that clergy were more likely to get away with sex crimes than other groups of offenders, and that clergy used more force when committing their crimes than other sex offenders? With such evidence, it would be difficult to argue that religion was irrelevant.

As Stop Baptist Predators recently reported, this evidence exists. Male clergy accused of sex crimes were found to be more dangerous in some important ways than matched non-clergy offenders (Langevin, Curnoe, & Bain, 2000). And religiosity was positively associated with the number of convictions for sex crimes and the number of victims among convicted male sex offenders (Eshuys & Smallbone, 2006). It was also inversely related to the age of the victims (i.e., more religious offenders tended to victimize younger children).

Parents place clergy on pedestals due to their presumed connection to some sort of "god," and they teach their children to do the same. They lower their guard because the pastor wouldn't possibly do things like that. Clergy are often viewed as morally superior to the rest of us, and the same goes for highly religious non-clergy. They are given the benefit of the doubt again and again. We couldn't possibly question behavior that would never be tolerated in other contexts. And this continues despite evidence that clergy and highly religious persons may actually be more dangerous to our children.

What can we make of this? At minimum, it seems safe to say that parents should view clergy and the religious persons as being at least as likely to molest their children as anybody else. I think most people are a long way away from accepting this. By shining a spotlight on findings like this and supporting groups like Stop Baptist Predators, we may be able to help.