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Treatment and Recidivism

As noted above, most sex crimes against children are never reported, and most sex offenders do not come to the attention of law authorities. Eighty-four percent of sexual abusers are never reported, and the National Crime Victimization Survey found that two thirds of sexual assaults against persons 12 and older are not reported to law enforcement. [xliv]

Nevertheless, since congregations need to know how to respond to people who have been convicted of sex offenses, this information is offered to clarify many of the myths around treatment and recidivism.

Although state laws and practices vary, in many states convicted sex offenders who are serving time in prisons are not granted parole until they have successfully completed a sex offender treatment program. And once granted parole, states generally require the person as a condition of their parole to participate for a length of time in a treatment program for sex offenders. State laws do vary, and congregations will want to find out what treatment is available in their county jails and state prisons as well as parole requirements for treatment.

Treatment for sex offenders typically includes “A cognitive behavioral approach, which emphasizes changing patterns of thinking related to sexual offending and changing deviant patterns of arousal; …a psycho-educational approach, which stresses increasing the offenders concept of the victim and recognition of responsibility for their offense; and the pharmacological approach, which is based upon the use of medication to reduce arousal.” [xlv] According to the Harvard Mental Health letter, anti-androgen medications are “the only reliable way, proven in controlled studies, to suppress pedophiliac urges.” [xlvi]

There is a generally held perception that sex offenders are untreatable. Indeed, when I conducted interviews with congregations about their experience with this issue, I heard repeatedly that the majority of sex offenders will re-offend. And in several cases, congregations voted to completely exclude the offender from the faith community based on this incorrect assumption. One church that dealt with these issues, wrote to their membership, “the social worker explained that while studies in the literature vary substantially on the issue of recidivism rates, she was inclined to accept that repeat offenses were rather likely.”

The problem is that it isn't true. The review of the literature for this monograph actually shows that with treatment, the majority of sex offenders will not recommit a sexual offense. [It is important in reviewing research on sex offender recidivism to separate child molesters from other sex offenders such as rapists and exhibitionists, as well as subsequent sexual offenses from all possible criminal offenses committed. Note in some studies sexual and nonsexual re-offenses are grouped together, leading to much higher re-offense rates. For this paper, only sexual re-offenses are considered. It is also important to recognize that studies are limited because they are only based on reported offenses, not those that might go unreported.] Even with the offenders who are pedophiles, treatment can help change behavior even if it does not change sexual attraction patterns. In a 1998 evaluation of 61 research studies on sexual offender recidivism (known as a meta-analysis), sexual offense recidivism was very low (13.4% of more than 23,000 offenders). The sexual offense recidivism of child molesters was slightly lower—12.7% for 9,603 abusers. [xlvii] In another study, one in five of the extrafamilial child molesters recidivated. [xlviii] The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice reports that 5.3% of sex offenders were rearrested for a sexual crime within three years of release. [xlix] Another study found that child molesters with female victims had a 10 to 29% recidivism rate while child molesters with male victims ranged between 13 and 40%, but this study included non-sexual offenses in its data. Other criminals had higher rates of recidivism—for example, 38% of those convicted of a violent crime had another offense, as did one third of those with a property offense. In other words, in each of these studies, the majority of child molesters are never reconvicted for a sexual offense. It is also important to note that many of these studies include all sex offenders, not just child molesters or pedophiles, and that they are based on reported cases. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter, “arrests and confessions don't necessarily indicate the true numbers of repeat offenders.” [li]

Treatment makes a difference. According to Stop It Now!, “there is a credible body of evidence that suggests that with specialized treatment, some sex offenders can take responsibility for their own behaviors, learn how to identify and control their triggers, and go on to lead healthy, safe, abuse-free lives.” [lii] In a 2000 study in Kentucky, fewer than one in five (17.6%) of treated non-family offenders committed another sexual offense. But, untreated offenders commit more than twice as many sexual offenses as those who have had treatment. [liii] According to the above referenced meta-analysis of 61 studies, offenders who fail to complete treatment are at higher risk for re-offending than those who complete treatment. [liv] In one study of child molesters in treatment, 18% of those receiving cognitive behavioral treatment recidivated compared to 43% who did not participate in a program. [lv]

There are also other factors besides completing treatment that are believed to reduce the risk of re-offending. These include “realizing the enormity of what they have done, admitting their responsibility and the harm their sexual violence has caused; support from family and friends on release; establishment of a social network; avoidance of situations involving contact with children; and participation in ongoing treatment and agreement to monitoring.” [lvi]

There are people with a history of sex offense(s) who have demonstrated that they are able to control their impulses, avoid triggers, and thus eliminate any subsequent sexual behavior with children.

Further, involvement with a faith community may actually lessen the chance that a person will commit another sex offense. To quote the Methodist Church of the United Kingdom, “for many sex offenders, social isolation and a failure to integrate into an adult community contribute to an emotional lovelessness and poor self esteem that serve to increase the risk of re-offending.” [lvii] To offer them appropriate support and involvement in a congregation reduces isolation and increases accountability.

An excellent review article, that is accessible to non-professionals, is “Recidivism of Sex Offenders” by the federal Center for Sex Offender Management.

For more information contact safecongregations @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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