I recently spoke with two local criminal justice researchers—Rochester Institute of Technology’s Judy Porter and Tony Smith—about their 2018 report analyzing 260 individuals who were on federal probation after being convicted of possessing child pornography. These individuals were being supervised in the Western District of New York, which has offices in Rochester and Buffalo.
In addition to getting detailed information about the mental health, substance abuse and personal histories of probationers, Porter and Smith received access to the self-reported sexual history audits that are done when convicts begin sex-offender treatment. Probationers cannot be charged with crimes based on these self-reported histories – and the veracity of the information is confirmed through polygraph testing – so probationers have a strong incentive to be truthful.
The richness of the data enabled Porter and Smith to test numerous potential correlations and hypotheses about those who view and share child pornography, including the typical characteristics of this group and what factors predict whether they will successfully complete probation. And while my conversation with Porter and Smith was wide-ranging and illuminating, two items in particular stood out to me.
First, as their report points out: “What is often contentiously debated … is whether viewing and sharing child pornography normalizes and encourages individuals to have sexual contact with children.” While direct causation between possession of child pornography and the commission of child sex abuse is hard to determine, 54.3 percent of the 260 probationers in the study conducted by Porter and Smith admitted to sexual contact with children that was unknown to legal authorities.
Though the RIT report is not likely to put an end to the long-running debates about whether there is a causal link, it adds further credence to the growing body of studies that have come to a similar conclusion about the considerable “cross-over” between child pornography and child sex abuse. And for those who work in the criminal justice system in Western New York, the report provides tangible, fact-based insight about the real level of risk posed to children in our communities by a sizable proportion of this group, and the need for more intensive and effective post-release supervision.
Second, the RIT report further serves to illustrate just how incredibly underreported child sex abuse has been. These 260 probationers collectively admitted to having 516 child victims that were previously unknown to authorities. That’s a stunning number of crimes to have gone unreported in our region, but it still likely represents only a small sliver of the total number since various studies have indicated that 5 percent to 15 percent of children experience sexual abuse or assault.
This aspect of the RIT report findings has special resonance given last week’s growing allegations involving sex abuse at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton, and the passage of the state’s Child Victims Act, which extends the timeframes for child sex abuse victims to sue or pursue charges. In fact, the act includes a one-year window that allows a victim of any age to pursue a civil claim no matter when the abuse occurred. This represents a onetime opportunity for some victims to seek justice.
Child sex abuse is a unique crime. In a professional context, my contact with it came when I was a prosecutor. Periodically I had to interview child sex abuse victims to determine if enough evidence existed to press charges. It was often visible how uncomfortable and conflicted these young victims were, especially since it was commonly a relative or friend of the family who they were accusing.
In a personal context, I came into contact with this issue only once (and in a comparatively minor way). When I was 7 years old, a teenager whose family was acquainted with mine got me in a room and told me he was going to show me “how babies are made.” He then proceeded to masturbate while I stood frozen. I felt confusion and dread but didn’t tell my parents that day – or in the 40 years since. In fact, other than writing about the event in this column, the only person I ever mentioned it to was my wife, who, as a former sex crimes prosecutor, has seen many cases of people waiting months or years without saying anything. There is just something about this topic that makes you want to stay quiet.
Now that the Crime Victims Act is here, child sex abuse victims of all ages may be more likely to again ponder whether to finally step forward. Ultimately, it is hard to judge anyone for not wanting to. But given what we continually learn – including from the RIT report – about the level of underreporting when it comes to this crime, hopefully enough victims will come forward in 2019 to galvanize a real and lasting movement to hold more abusers accountable and finally remove whatever stigma causes so many to stay quiet.