Saturday, October 27, 2007

Seek and Ye Shall Find ... Torts, Crimes & Sexual Misconduct

Tortious misconduct, criminal misconduct, and sexual misconduct are everywhere. This was always so. It is even more so today, in this age with its innumerable legal proscriptions and regulations, a large fraction of which are known (if at all) only to certain legal specialists in certain fields of law.

The Associated Press has looked -- for six months -- and it has found (so the AP proclaims) widespread sexual misconduct by secondary and and primary school teachers. See Martha Irvine & Rovert Tanner, Sexual Misconduct Plagues US Schools.

This "discovery" of sexual misconduct by teachers naturally invites the question: How real singular or extraordinary is the "clergy abuse scandal" -- whose "discovery" won a Pulitzer Prize for some Boston Globe reporters?

The authors of the AP article indirectly raise the question themselves:

The findings [of the AP investigation] draw obvious comparisons to sex abuse scandals in other institutions, among them the Roman Catholic Church. A review by America's Catholic bishops found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002.

Clergy abuse is part of the national consciousness after a string of highly publicized cases. But until now, there's been little sense of the extent of educator abuse.

A quick reading of the AP article might suggest that there is no real comparison between the two scandals: the article reports that 2570 educators were sanctioned for sexual misconduct 2001-2005 and that 4,400 of 100,000 priests were accused of sexual misconduct from 1950 through 2002, but the article notes there are roughly "3 million public school teachers nationwide." However, there is a difference between a charge or accusation of abuse and an official finding of sexual misconduct. Moreover, the sanctions against teachers cover only a five year period, and not a fifty-two year period. (One might surmise that perhaps ca. 25,000 teachers were reported to have been "sanctioned" from 1950-2002.)

The AP article itself notes the following (thoroughly hyperbolic-sounding) claim:

One report mandated by Congress estimated that as many as 4.5 million students, out of roughly 50 million in American schools, are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Well, there's a stunner for you!

In the next sentence, however, the AP article notes: "That figure [4.5 million] includes verbal harassment that's sexual in nature."

Where does this qualifier -- the estimate includes verbal abuse -- where does this qualifier leave us? If we (i) split the baby -- i.e., the estimated total number of incidents of abuse --, (ii) prune away "school employees" who are not teachers, and (iii) somewhat reduce the estimated number of abusers to take into account that some (indeterminate number of) abusers are repeat abusers, perhaps we end up with two million or so (one million?) teachers in American schools who are child sex abusers during, say, a ca. 12-year period. The number of actual incidents of sexual misconduct, one presumes (or, in a sense, hopes), exceeds the number of accusations of sexual misconduct (but one should not entertain this assumption lightly).

Even with all of these qualifications in mind, one might still have reason to speculate that the proportion of abusers among school teachers is substantially greater than among Catholic clergy.

Well now, that's an interesting bit of speculation! Suppose this speculative thought turns out to be true -- and a bit of research reveals that some serious scholars who have studied the question directly and systematically assert that it is true that school teachers are more prone to abuse children than Catholic clergy are.

If the rate of sexual predation by school teachers against minors is in fact higher than the (past or present) rate of such sexual predation by Catholic clergy, is it fair to think of the Catholic clergy as being riddled with sexual predators?

Let's go one step further: Is it possible that the incidence of sexual abuse of children by adults is much higher in the population "parents of minor children" than it is among either the Catholic clergy or school teachers? If this possibility turns out to be true, what are we to make of the "Catholic clergy abuse scandal"?

One more question: Does the American litigation system yield accurate pictures of the ailments that afflict our society? Or does it take decades of retrospection to figure out "what really happened" in our society at large? (My guess is that the latter guess is more true than the former.)

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