In the case of the priest scandal, boys were the victims of sexual misconduct much more often than girls, by a factor of about four to one, says Margaret Leland Smith of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But what has gotten scant attention is the fact that the female victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests tended to be younger than the males. Data analyzed by John Jay researchers, including Smith, shows that even though there were many more boy victims than girls overall, the number and proportion of sexual misconduct directed at girls under 8 years old was higher than that experienced by boys the same age. Specifically, between 1950 and 2002, there were 246 girls younger than 8 who were sexually abused by priests (representing 14 percent of all girl victims), compared with 236 boys (3 percent of all boy victims). However, the most likely age of victims—for girls and boys—was between 11 and 14.
The John Jay study, commissioned and financed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops after the uproar in 2002 over the priest-sex-abuse scandal, also indicates that the girl victims were more likely than boys to be the sole victims of their abuser. Priests who targeted one girl or one boy were more likely to focus on someone older than 14 than those with multiple victims. (Overall, 27 percent of the girls and 34 percent of the boys were between 15 and 17 years old.) The duration of abuse involving a sole victim was more likely to last a year or less. Priests who preyed on multiple children were more likely to continue the abuse for five years or longer. In the case of both boys and girls, most of the abuse occurred between 1960 and 1980, and fell sharply after that, but most of the charges were not reported to authorities until after 1992. Smith says that as the Catholic Church continues to turn over any newly made charges of abuse to the John Jay team, the researchers continue to see the same trends in terms of gender, age, and dates when the abuse occurred.
Researchers can’t yet explain the gender and age gaps (it’s possible it may have something to do with that particular period in society or the church). But they do know that the Catholic-priest data do not mirror national trends in child sexual abuse. Overall, experts say, it’s still very much the case that girls are much more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than boys. In fact, Ernie Allen, president of the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children says that best estimates are that two thirds of victims of molestation are girls, although offenders who target boys tend to have much larger groups of victims. “For [those offenders], this is not a lapse of judgment, it’s a lifestyle,” says Allen.