7 minute read

Child Molestation

Child molestation is a crime involving a range of indecent or sexual activities between an adult and a child, usually under the age of 14. In psychiatric terms, these acts are sometimes known as pedophilia. It is important, however, to keep in mind that child molestation and child SEXUAL ABUSE refer to specific, legally defined actions. They do not necessarily imply that the perpetrator bears a particular psychological makeup or motive. For example, not all incidents of child molestation are perpetrated by pedophiles; sometimes the perpetrator has other motives for his or her actions and does not manifest an ongoing pattern of sexual attraction to children. Thus, not all child molestation is perpetrated by pedophiles, and not all pedophiles actually commit child molestation.

Regardless of the terminology, it is illegal for an adult to touch any portion of a child's body with a "lewd and lascivious" intent. Usually, consent is not a matter of consideration, and is not available as a defense to a charge of child molestation. Even in cases where it can be proven that the minor victim was a willing participant, a sex act or improper touching is still a crime because children cannot legally consent to anything. Criminal penalties are severe for those convicted of child molestation.

According to the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT, there are approximately four million pedophiles in the United States. It is difficult, however, to accurately assess the number of child molesters because many child molesters are not caught. The Justice Department reports the alarming statistic that one in four girls and one in seven boys will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18.

There is no single profile that accurately describes or accounts for all child molesters. There are many variables among individuals in terms of their personal characteristics, life experiences, criminal histories, and reasons for committing such offenses. One common misconception is that molested children grow up to become child molesters themselves. But, in fact, most childhood sexual abuse victims do not go on to become perpetrators. In some instances, if a child is sexually victimized, and is abused in other ways as well, he or she may later molest a child. Likewise, a sexually abused child who also exhibits antisocial behavior may go on to commit acts of child molestation, although an individual's inadequate social and interpersonal skills do not make it inevitable that he will sexually abuse children.

Few criminal offenses are more despised than the sexual abuse of children, and few are so little understood in terms of the number of offenses committed, the proportion of the population who commit offenses, and the risks of re-offense. One reason is that sex crimes committed against children and teenagers are believed to be widely underreported. This assumption is supported by the reports of both SEX OFFENDERS and sexually abused children. Offenders commonly report fewer incidents of child molestation than those for which they are

An Amber Alert, a law enforcement and broadcast media response to a report of a missing child, is displayed over Interstate 80 near Omaha, Nebraska, in December 2002.

ultimately convicted. And children are often loathe to report an incident because they are ashamed or they fear REPRISAL.

Most convicted sex offenders are eventually released, giving rise to concerns over RECIDIVISM. Recidivism rates are affected by a number of factors, including differences in legal guidelines and statutes in the states; opportunities to re-offend; characteristics of the offender; treatment availabilities; and post-treatment supervision. Child molesters have been known to re-offend as late as 20 years following release into the community. Problems caused by recidivist offenders have given rise to several legislative initiatives to help manage societal risk. For example, there are various sex offender registration schemes known as MEGAN'S LAWS, which list names, addresses, and other specifics about convicted sex offenders. Such registries are available for public access. The laws take their name from a child named Megan Kanka who was abducted, molested, and murdered by a convicted child molester who lived near her home in New Jersey.

A more active scheme that gained increased attention in the wake of several national news stories of abducted and molested children is known as Amber Alert Laws. These laws were prompted by citizen concerns following the tragic 1996 KIDNAPPING and murder of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas. The "Amber Alert" involves law enforcement and broadcast media response when there is a report of a missing child, and it appears that the child has been abducted by a sexual predator. Although the scope of the Amber Alert varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the criteria to trigger it are generally consistent: the missing child falls within a certain age range; the law enforcement agency believes the child has been abducted; the agency believes the missing child is under threat of serious bodily harm or death. In all cases, law enforcement activates an Amber Alert by notifying broadcast media with relevant information about the child's identity, the description of the suspected perpetrator, and the circumstances of the abduction.

Once an Amber Alert has been issued by law enforcement, radio and television stations interrupt regularly scheduled programming to notify the public that a child has been kidnapped and to provide relevant information about the case. Because approximately 95 percent of all people driving in their cars are tuned in to a radio station, the Amber Alert is an extremely effective way of disseminating descriptions of the child, the kidnapper, accomplices, and vehicles. The goal of the Amber Alert is to notify an entire community. It adds extra eyes and ears to watch, listen, and help in the safe return of the child and apprehension of the suspect. The federal government is also working on legislation that would establish a national Amber Alert system. Legislation has been introduced in the House and the Senate, and President GEORGE W. BUSH signed a national Amber Alert bill at the end of April of 2003. [PL 108-21, April 30, 2003, 117 Stat 650. Prosecutorial Remedies and Tools Against the Exploitation of Children Today Act of 2003 (Protect Act).

For several years numerous charges of child molestation and other allegations of sexual abuse or improprieties were levied against members of the Roman Catholic clergy. These cases had been in various stages for some time, but since the late 1990s the scope of the problem became more widely known. By 2003, it was common to regularly hear a report of a priest resigning or being defrocked or censured by his bishop. These scandals originated in the United States, but spread to many other countries around the world.

In March 2002, a Polish archbishop, a friend and former personal assistant to the Pope, resigned in the wake of sexual abuse charges. In Australia, 51 priests were convicted of child molestation between 1992 and 2003. In England, 21 priests were convicted of sexual molestation between 1995 and 2002. In Ireland, taxpayers have contributed about one-fifth of $500 million to pay claims against the church relating to cases of abuse of over three thousand victims spanning 30 years. There have been hundreds of resignations, firings, or monetary settlements in many countries, particularly Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Poland, and the United States.

One of the most notorious cases that made national and international news involved a priest named John Geoghan. Over 130 men reported that they had been abused by Geoghan when they were children; the abuse cases spanned 30 years. The priest was ultimately sentenced to nine years for child molestation. What turned this story into a national and a Catholic institutional scandal was the revelation that Geoghan's bishop, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, had been privy to the allegations against Geoghan, but had quietly reassigned him to a succession of parishes. Several times, Cardinal Law even presided over secret financial settlements of claims that were substantiated or confirmed. The cardinal resigned his post in the wake of these revelations.

The Boston case opened the floodgates to hundreds of similar cases in a dozen states. Upon inquiry, similar stories of child molestation or other sexual abuse and financial cover-ups have drained the financial resources of many parishes. Already, the church has set aside $30 million just for victims of John Geoghan. In Texas, the Dallas diocese paid out $31 million to 11 plaintiffs after a Dallas priest, Rudolph Kos, was convicted on seven counts. In New Mexico, the Santa Fe diocese paid $50 million to victims of 20 priests. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the diocese settled a multimillion dollar civil case against six priests. And in Santa Rosa, California, four plaintiffs alleging sexual abuse by clergy were awarded $1.6 million. In most of the cases that have resulted in large awards, the Catholic Church itself has been implicated, accused of shielding priests it knew were molesting children.

While these revelations of priests molesting children have focused attention on the issue, the breadth of child sexual abuse reaches beyond the Catholic Church. Society is just beginning to understand its many dimensions and the legal line is being more firmly drawn to protect the rights of children.


"Amber Plan." National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Available online at <www.missingkids.com> (accessed May 7, 2003).

Szasz, Thomas. 2002. "Sins of the Fathers: Is Child Molestation a Sickness or a Crime?" Available online at <www.reason.com> (accessed May 7, 2003).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Robert Lee Carter - Further Readings to Child Molestation