Previous empirical research on child sexual offenders in youth-oriented organisations and their offending patterns
Excluding child sexual offenses committed in the Catholic church specifically (see Terry and Ackerman 2008), the bulk of empirical evidence accumulated from sex offenders working in youth-oriented organisations and their offending patterns arises from three main bodies of work (i.e., Erooga et al. 2012; Leclerc and Cale 2015; Leclerc et al. 2005; Sullivan and Beech 2004; Sullivan et al. 2011). In the UK, Erooga et al. (2012) used a sample of 19 offenders who were incarcerated or in the community under the supervision of the National Probation Service. Leclerc and colleagues used a sample of 23 Canadian incarcerated or treated offenders and, Sullivan and colleagues examined a UK sample of 41 offenders in treatment. We briefly review four key dimensions that have emerged from these studies as follows: (1) criminal histories of offenders; (2) offender access to organisations; (3) victim selection; and, (4) offending patterns. These dimensions were selected because they offer a relevant and evidence-based foundation for the current study and have implications for situational crime prevention and the prevention of this phenomenon from a criminological perspective more broadly.
In terms of criminal histories of offenders, Sullivan and Beech (2004) found that in their sample, offenders reported sexually abusing an average of 48 victims up until they were caught. At their first sex offense, 49 % of these offenders were older than 21 years of age and 37 % had never been convicted for a prior sexual offense. In Leclerc and Cale’s (2015) study, the number of victims reported per offender was on average 21 victims. Consistent with Sullivan and Beech, the average age of offenders at their first self-reported sexual offence was 23 years old. Furthermore, of all offenders, 78 % had never been arrested for a sexual offence prior to being caught and convicted for their current offences, which is as twice as many as what was reported by Sullivan and Beech. In a follow-up study, and consistent with Leclerc and Cale’s (2015) findings, Sullivan et al. (2011) added that organisational offenders were less likely to have previous sexual convictions compared to both intrafamilial and other extrafamilial offenders (16 % as opposed to 35 and 61 %, respectively). They were also more likely to abuse a higher number of victims compared to these two groups of offenders. These findings show that a large number of offenders had not been discovered before their participation in the respective studies, which may partly also explain why the number of reported victims is high.
With respect to access to organisations, Erooga et al. (2012) reported that no offenders in their study openly admitted to gaining access to organisations for the purpose of engaging in sexual contact with children. About half of these offenders (53 %) reported that they had no awareness of a sexual interest in children prior to offending, potentially suggesting that a large proportion did. For example, Sullivan and Beech (2004) and Leclerc and Cale (2015) found that more than half of offenders in their sample (57 and 52 %, respectively) sought work in a youth-oriented organisation specifically for the purpose of gaining access to children. Sullivan and Beech (2004) added that an additional 20 % indicated they were not sure whether this was part of their motivation originally and only 25 % clearly indicated that they did not seek employment in youth-oriented organisations for gaining access to children.
Interestingly, Leclerc and Cale’s (2015) findings are consistent with those of Sullivan and Beech (2004) even though the sample used is quite different. The sample used by Sullivan and Beech (2004) was mostly composed of religious-institutional offenders (n = 27), but also teachers (n = 10) and care workers (n = 4). In the case of Leclerc and Cale (2015), the setting in which these offenders committed their offenses included sporting activities, schools, foster care and a youth centre for instance (see “Methods” section below for additional details). These findings do differ dramatically from those of Erooga et al. (2012). Nonetheless, what is clear is that a potentially large proportion of offenders targets youth-oriented organisations to gain access to potential victims. For example, the sample examined by Sullivan and Beech consisted of treated offenders, which may suggest that their findings are more reflective of the reality and as a result, that a large proportion of these offenders actually chose to work or volunteer in a youth-oriented organisation for gaining access to children.
Leclerc and Cale (2015) examined how offenders select specific children in the context of youth-oriented organisations. All of the offenders reported that they would select children whom they knew had had some sort of sexual contact in the past and/or whom they perceived to know a lot about sex. Interestingly, almost all of the offenders also indicated they were likely to select children who they knew to have had attended a class at school on sexuality (94 %). These offenders’ perceptions of children’s familiarity with sexuality are congruent with the fact that offenders also perceived vulnerability in their victims such as the need for emotional support (i.e., indicated by 84 % of offenders in their sample) (Erooga et al. 2012). Taken together, emotional vulnerability in addition to perceived familiarity with sex/sexual activities seem to represent important criteria upon which these offenders are likely to select children for abuse.
In terms of the strategies adopted by offenders to sexually abuse children (sometimes labeled as ‘grooming’) in youth-oriented organisations, manipulation emerges by far as the norm (Colton and Vanstone 1996; Erooga et al. 2012; Leclerc et al. 2005; van Dam 2001). Leclerc et al. (2005) examined the strategies adopted by these offenders to gain victims’ trust and cooperation in addition to maintaining victims’ silence following abuse incidents. In order to gain cooperation, most offenders indicated giving children attention, non-sexual touching, and saying nice things about them while gradually introducing sexual touching into the relationship (100, 96, 96, and 83 %, respectively). The underlying theme emerging from this evidence on modus operandi is that offenders are in close proximity to potential victims and as a result, have the opportunity to develop a trust-based relationship with them often without the need to ask them to maintain silence once sexual activities have been introduced into the relationship (e.g., Leclerc et al. 2005; van Dam 2001). Another interesting finding is that the majority of offenders sexually abused their victims outside of the organisational setting, which again is facilitated by the nature of the relationship they have built with their victims initially. For example, Sullivan and Beech (2004) found that 85 % of their sample took the children away overnight at some point and many offenders (68 %) reported taking the children away overnight specifically for sexual activity purposes. Similarly, Leclerc and Cale (2015) found that 78 % of offenders committed their offenses offsite of youth-oriented organisations they were employed or volunteering at. In particular, these offenders most often used their own homes (52 %), took children for a drive in their car (30 %) or used other isolated places (26 %).
Although evidence based knowledge is still quite limited, we can begin to see a profile of youth-oriented organisation offenders that can be contrasted with more conventional profiles of sexual offenders against children that have emerged from research with offenders in broader incarcerated and clinical settings. For example, they have far less extensive or non-existent criminal histories upon entering youth-oriented organisations. This means that these offenders are possibly more skilled at evading detection, develop specific motivations to offend after involvement with children through work or volunteer activities, and/or possibly a combination of both. For example, a substantial proportion of offenders indicated having sought employment in these contexts for the specific purpose of creating or exploiting opportunities to offend, but many indicated they have not. Of course there is the possibility that many offenders may not provide truthful information along these lines, but this is nonetheless an important pattern to consider. Furthermore, the use of emotional manipulation facilitated by their status and emotional proximity to children is paramount in these contexts. Through the nature of the relationship they can develop with children, they gain the opportunity of exposing them to sexual activities in a manner that eventually seems normal, take them places outside the organisation for sexual activities specifically, and neutralize, to some extent the risk of being discovered. Therefore, taking these patterns and unique contexts into consideration it is necessary to consider what potential prevention strategies may look like.
Situational crime prevention and child sexual abuse
Situational crime prevention represents the core of prevention practices under the framework of environmental criminology. If environmental criminology seeks to understand crime event patterns and criminal opportunities, situational prevention seeks to dismantle them. Broadly speaking, environmental criminology is characterized by the analysis of crime event patterns in space and time, with the key aim of understanding opportunities to offend and preventing crime events from occurring in the first place (Wortley and Mazerolle 2008). This area of research primarily originated from grouping three key theoretical approaches: (1) routine activity approach (Cohen and Felson 1979); (2) the rational choice perspective (Cornish and Clarke 2008); and, (3) crime pattern theory (Brantingham and Brantingham 1978) that taken together tap into understanding criminal opportunities (Felson and Clarke 1998).
Embedded in the rational choice approach, situational crime prevention focuses on the implementation of situational measures to reduce criminal opportunities or control crime precipitators (Cornish and Clarke 2003; Wortley 2001). The main objective of this approach is to prevent crime before it occurs by manipulating the environment into which it is likely to be committed. This objective is based on the premise that the environment plays a role in shaping the decisions and actions adopted by offenders. In other words, the environment is not a passive backdrop against which offenses simply occur, but rather influences what happens during criminal events. A classification of measures has been designed over the years to provide practitioners with a template to use for guidance surrounding the design and application of situational crime prevention measures (Cornish and Clarke 2003). The most recent classification includes the following techniques: (1) Increasing efforts, (2) Increasing risk, (3) Reducing rewards, (4) Reducing provocations and, (5) Removing excuses. With these techniques alone, a total of 25 prevention measures are listed in the classification model developed by Cornish and Clarke (2003).
Situational prevention is a relatively new concept in the field of sexual offending. As a result, studies dedicated to examining situational prevention of child sexual abuse are scarce (see Leclerc et al. 2015). Based on specific type of setting in which child sexual abuse is likely to occur (i.e., organisational, public, domestic) and using the classification of 25 situational prevention measures, Wortley and Smallbone (2006) discussed a number of ways in which situational crime prevention principles could be applied to prevent child sexual abuse. In the context of Catholic Church specifically, Terry and Ackerman (2008) made a number of suggestions for situational crime prevention techniques. Through script analysis, Leclerc et al. (2011) demonstrated the relevance and utility of identifying and understanding crime-commission processes in order to stimulate thinking about potential situational crime prevention measures. Kaufman and his colleagues applied the situational crime prevention model designed by Clarke (1995) to the opportunity structure of child sexual abuse in order to better inform prevention initiatives (Kaufman et al. 2006). More recently, Kaufman et al. (2012) specifically illustrated an approach to obtain input from staff and volunteers in organisations for prevention purposes. To our knowledge, however, very few studies have previously asked offenders about how to actually prevent child sexual abuse.
Gaining insights on prevention by talking to sexual offenders
Only in a handful studies have sexual offenders been asked about their view on how best to prevent child sexual abuse (Budin and Johnson 1989; Elliott et al. 1995). Budin and Johnson (1989) surveyed 72 incarcerated adult sexual offenders of children on the relative effectiveness of a broad range of prevention methods—what works and what does not—to prevent child sexual abuse. Offenders in this sample were almost evenly divided between incestuous offenders and non-incestuous offenders. Most prominently, offenders reported that children should be taught to report if they have been victimized, learn to say no, know about the difference between appropriate versus inappropriate touching and never get into cars with strangers. On the other hand, few of these offenders indicated that shouting, crying or not talking to strangers were effective strategies for prevention. With respect to what parents could do to prevent the sexual abuse of their children, offenders suggested that parents should be emotionally involved in their children’s lives. For example, they indicated that parents should ask their children periodically whether somebody has tried to touch them.
Elliott et al. (1995) surveyed 91 convicted adult child sexual offenders about what they could recommend to children, parents and teachers to prevent child sexual abuse. In this sample, approximately one-third of offenders did not know their victims (34 %), another third knew their victims but were not related to them (34 %), and another third were related to their victims (32 %). In terms of individual protection behaviors of children, these offenders suggested ways to prevent sexual abuse in public places. For instance, they recommended that children should avoid secluded places, never go into public toilets alone, never walk to school alone, not accept car rides/lifts by strangers, knock on the door of a house if they are being followed, always tell their parents where they are going, and tell anyone if somebody abuses them. With respect to what parents could do to prevent abuse, offenders suggested that parents should be suspicious when another adult is more interested in their child than in them, teach children about sexuality and not to keep secrets, and have family discussions about preventing child sexual abuse. Other suggestions included being aware that there is a dangerous age when girls are becoming women and knowing that some people, even family members, could ask them to do sexual things. Regarding what teachers could do to prevent sexual victimisation, offenders suggested that they should have discussions at school to prompt children to disclose abuse, make sure programs do not focus on stranger abuse, have children role play what to do if they were attacked, have advertisements in school about being safe, believe children if they report abuse, and teach sex education.
The current study is situated in a situational crime prevention framework but from the angle of offender-based research in criminology. Offender-based research involves examining data collected from a sample of offenders (Bernasco 2010). Too often overlooked in social sciences, offender-based research is arguably the most effective method to understand crime events simply because offenders are positioned to provide detailed information that could not be revealed about offending otherwise. For example, police, victim and/or archival data are limited in the ability to account for detailed information about crime events. In fact, only offenders are present from start to finish during crime events, that is, from crime preparation to completion. Therefore, only with offenders is it possible to reconstruct the complete crime-commission process and understand what may have prevented them from acting in a particular way or how they may have overcame obstacles during the course of actions leading to crime. The method of offender-based research is obviously well suited for the purpose of rational choice approach from which researchers seek to put themselves in the shoes of the offender to understand how crime events occur for prevention purposes.
Offender-based research is far from new. For example, Edwin Sutherland (1937) was among the first to investigate crime through the eyes of offenders—professional thieves in particular. During the past few decades, several scholars have interviewed offenders about the crimes they commit, how they select their targets, what may have prevented them from offending in certain situations, and also what, if any information they would provide for prevention purposes. One defining study in this area was conducted by Wright and Decker (1994) on active burglars through snowball sampling. Since then, burglary is potentially the crime that has most often been examined through the lens of offenders (e.g., Homel et al. 2013; Nee and Meenaghan 2006; Rengert and Walsilchick 2000). Other common examples of studies include car theft (Copes and Cherbonneau 2006), drug dealing (Jacobs 1999; Jacques and Bernasco 2013) and armed robbery (Wright and Decker 1997).
Jacques and Bonobo (2015) presented five ways by which offender-based research can be used for informing situational crime prevention. The first way to inform situational prevention is by determining what works to prevent crime. The second way is to find out what prevention measures should be put into place to prevent crime. The third way is to learn about the reasons why a given prevention strategy is effective. The fourth way to provide evidence for situational prevention purposes is to understand how offenders manage to overcome particular prevention measures. The last way to inform situational prevention practices is to collect data on negative outcomes of prevention measures if any, such as crime displacement. The current study focuses on the second recommendation outlined by Jacques and Bonobo. The goal is to inform what prevention measures may be adopted to prevent child sexual abuse in youth-oriented organisations. If the objective of one’s research is to think through the offender’s eyes for prevention purposes, offender-based research is arguably best placed to inform situational crime prevention initiatives.