| THURSDAY, Feb. 6 (HealthScoutNews) -- A new British study disputes the common belief that someone who is sexually abused as a child will become a sexual predator as an adult.
The researchers found that only 12 percent of 224 boys who had been sexually abused as children later became sexual abusers themselves.
They also discovered that abusers shared similar risk factors growing up, such as abuse from a female or a history of cruelty to animals.
"Most males who are sexually abused are unlikely to become sexual offenders," says the study's author, Dr. David Skuse, a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the Institute for Child Health in London.
"But it is possible to identify boys who are at higher risk, and thus to make sure we intervene with those most vulnerable children to prevent them from becoming the pedophiles of the future," he adds.
The findings, published in the Feb. 8 issue of The Lancet, were challenged by at least one expert who says the percentage of abused-turned-predator is probably too low.
Skuse and his colleagues followed the lives of the 224 boys, who had been referred to a sexual abuse clinic between 1980 and 1992, through social services and criminal justice records. Most of the boys were white and their average age at the time of referral was 11. In 1999, the researchers searched national and local police records to look for evidence of any of the boys becoming abusers.
Twenty-six of the sexual abuse victims went on to become sexual abusers themselves, according to the study. Almost all of the abusers had victimized children. About half of these men abused females exclusively. Another quarter abused both males and females; the remaining quarter abused only males. Nearly two-thirds abused someone outside their own family.
The researchers say they were also able to identify some common risk factors for the abusers, including physical neglect and a history of cruelty to animals.
"Sexual abuse by a female was a specific risk for males who became abusers later in life," Skuse says. "And the witnessing of extreme and persistent violence at home -- usually the father or the male partner of their mother was the source of this violence -- [was also a risk factor]."
Dr. John Markey, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., says, "The number of individuals who were abused and became abusers is less than what we would expect. There's generally a fear that someone who has been abused is in a high-risk category to victimize someone later."
But, Dr. Kenneth Skodnek, chairman of the departments of psychiatry and psychology at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, N.Y., believes the study may have missed a large number of abusers.
"There is an assumption here that all abuse situations get involved with the criminal justice system," Skodnek says. And that, he adds, is often not the case.
"The better the victim knows the perpetrator, the less dramatic the abuse, the less likely it is that there would be any criminal justice evidence," he says.
"I think the 12 percent figure is quite low," Skodnek says.
Skuse acknowledges that could be a possibility. "We do not know that the other 88 percent were innocent, merely that we had no evidence they had abused from official records," he says.
Whether the figure is low or not, Markey says that someone who has been abused still runs a high risk of becoming an abuser as an adult, and shouldn't be placed in situations where they are alone with children.
"If you know somebody has a history of sexual abuse in childhood, you probably wouldn't want to have that person be a babysitter," Markey says.
To learn how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse in children, visit the Child and Family Institute or KidsHealth.
SOURCES: David Skuse, M.D., professor of behavioral and brain sciences, Institute for Child Health, London, England; John Markey, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist, Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; Kenneth Skodnek, M.D., chairman, departments of psychiatry and psychology, Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, N.Y.; Feb. 8, 2003, The Lancet
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