Field of Science

Should we entrust children to the care of the devoutly religious?

The Catholic Church is in the news again - this time in Germany - as a result paedophile priests being outed after years of cover-ups. Traditionally, we have entrusted vulnerable children to the care of the devoutly religious, on the grounds that, of all people, they can be relied upon not to abuse those in their care. Does that assumption hold up? We can't extrapolate too wildly from the particular problems of the Catholic Church, but there are other data out there.

So I took a look at the evidence for religion and sexual crime. Now, there is a negative correlation between religion and crime in general, especially in the USA (although the devil is in the detail). Broadly speaking, the relationship seems to hold best for property crime, rather than violent crime. But most studies don't look at sexual crime.

However, here's an interesting fact from the UK. Although disproportionately few crooks in the prison population report having a religious faith, that's not the case when you just look at felons who are in for sex crimes. According to the Times.

The proportion of all prisoners declaring any faith compared with those with none is about 2:1 but among those convicted of sex crime it rises to 3:1. The trend is marked across many faiths, including Buddhism, Anglicanism, Free Church Christianity and Judaism.

That's pretty unscientific, but I have found a few studies that have looked into this in a more rigorous way, and they both found something similar.

Donna Eshuys and Stephen Smallbone of Griffith University in Australia assessed 111 incarcerated adult male sexual offenders. They categorised them as either atheists, religious dropouts, new converts, and lifelong religious stayers.

Surprisingly, they found that this last group (those who maintained religious involvement from childhood to adulthood) had more sexual offence convictions, more victims, and younger victims, than other groups. This relationship persisted after controlling for other factors that might explain it.

A similar study comes from Israel, and looked at Jewish male prisoners. As in the UK, religious individuals were rarer in prison than in wider society (by religious they mean orthodox observant Jews, who made up 3.75% of the prison population, compared with 20% of the general population). However, those religious Jews who were in prison were more likely to be in for sex crimes.

Lastly, Ruth Stout-Miller and colleagues interviewed freshman at a Southern University, and found that those who had been sexually abused by a relative were much more likely to be affiliated with fundamental Protestant religions (while those abused by a non-relative were more likely to be non-religious).

Well, it's not much. But it is interesting that the same pattern seems to crop up in the UK, Australia Israel and the USA. There does seem to be a link between religion and sex crimes, and it seems to be particularly a problem for the more devoutly religious individuals.

We can speculate why this might be (sexual repression, perhaps) although the reasons aren't altogether clear. But I think what is clear is that we should be cautious when entrusting children into the care of devout believers.
Eshuys, D., & Smallbone, S. (2006). Religious Affiliations Among Adult Sexual Offenders Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 18 (3), 279-288 DOI: 10.1007/s11194-006-9020-5

Ben-David S, & Weller L (1995). Religiosity, criminality and types of offences of Jewish male prisoners. Medicine and law, 14 (7-8), 509-19 PMID: 8667998

Stout-Miller, R., Miller, L., & Langenbrunner, M. (1998). Religiosity and Child Sexual Abuse: A Risk Factor Assessment Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 6 (4), 15-34 DOI: 10.1300/J070v06n04_02

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. "But I think what is clear is that we should be cautious when entrusting children into the care of devout believers.

    What an ignorant thing to say! is this supposed to be funny? It's not.

  2. But I think what is clear is that we should be cautious when entrusting children into the care of devout believers.

    It's not that I don't think Isabel's comment is hysterically asinine, but I personally have difficulty entrusting my children with anyone.

    Isabel, based on the data (though scarce) why is that such an ignorant thing to say? What is Tom ignorant of, exactly?

    Why do you find it so offensive/unfunny? (I don't think it's funny either, but perhaps ironic.)

  3. Isabel is only offended because it's TRUE.

  4. "We can speculate why this might be (sexual repression, perhaps) although the reasons aren't altogether clear."
    -- Tom

    Or perhaps it could be that whatever causes sexual perversion tendencies in an individual draw them into religion also. Either way, the message is clear -- take care in entrusting your children to anyone (re: Bjorn) and especially highly (apparently) devout believers!

  5. It may be that devout believers are more trusted and therefore get more opportunities. Hard to know what's going on here. It's just clear that the religious don't seem to be particularly trustworthy.

    Catholic priests may have particular problems since they are preselected to be sexually abnormal.

  6. I suspect that part of the irony that Isabel is responding to is that devout religious belief is often treated as if it were a signal or concomitant of committment to good behavior. It is often assumed to be marker of trustworthiness. So saying that it may be a marker of untrustworthiness in some way probably strikes a lot of people as bizarre.

    I was once in a jury in a capital murder case where the defendant's only defense of himself was that he could rattle off the books of the Bible in order, a skill he had learned in prison and presumably showing his repentance and "goodness." We were more astonished that he would consider this a character defense than we were impressed with his new leaf.

  7. This goes along my personal gut feeling (that adherence to a religion promotes sexual frustration and, in consequence, sexually related crime), so I am very cautious in accepting this evidence. We should always be cautious to accept a hypothesis that we like.

    I can see three problems here. First, the studies indicate that religious people are more frequently imprisoned for sexual crimes, and not that they are more frequent offenders, right? So maybe a religious person or someone just living in a religious neighborhood is more likely to get caught or even to report to authorities (or sentenced). All this are effects that we must control.

    Second, effect sizes. Even if the differences are significant, are they really large? I haven't looked in the papers, maybe you can comment on this?

    Last, effect sizes again: did the researchers look into the type of sexual crimes committed? For example, are the average serving time lengths similar? Maybe the really brutal crimes are more frequently committed by one of the groups?


  8. We should always be cautious to accept a hypothesis that we like.

    Words to live by.

    I have to say, despite being pretty anti-theistic, I still find this result surprising. I would have thought that there would be no correlation either way.

    In regards to the particular problem of the Catholic church, I have been careful to emphasize that it is not so much that there were molester priests -- any organization of that size is going to have a fraction of their members who are thieves, rapists, and/or murderers -- but that there was an institutional cover-up. Maybe it was even more than that? Hrm, disturbing at the very least...

    Unless you're Isabel. Then, even considering that your worldview might contain some inaccuracies makes you "ignorant".

  9. Very true. Even more difficult is to avoid rejecting studies that contradict our preconception. No study is perfect, and it's possible to find fault with any one study. You see it regularly.

    When I was researching crime & religion for the earlier blog post, I thought I was going to find something similar to what I've seen for other factors. i.e. religion associated with less crime at the personal level, and more crime at the societal level.

    But it's more complicated - especially with regard to type of crime. I found one paper showing that religion is linked to less property crime, no effect on violent crime, and more sexual crime. I lost the link to it (typical!) and while trying to find it again I found these other studies showing similar things.

    So I suspect there probably is a link, although it is probably to the more conservative kind of religion - fundamentalists.

    I think the Catholic Priest thing is a different ballgame, though. You take young men who are abnormal or confused about their sexuality, forbid them from normal sexual expressions, prime them with constant references to sex, and then put them in a position of trust and power over young children. It's a recipe for disaster!

    1. I suppose that you do not know the average age of the ordained priests in the Catholic Church.

  10. any organization of that size is going to have a fraction of their members who are thieves, rapists, and/or murderers -- but that there was an institutional cover-up.

    Well, yes, but you could also say that any organisation of that size in a similar situation will at least try to go for an institutional cover-up.

    Which is to say, the catholic church is just "any organisation", not more, and therefore we have a good reason not to grant it any special privileges. Especially not such that are based on the presumed moral and ethical standards of that organisation.

  11. Interesting article in the latest edition of The Scientist looking at consumption of pornography and an apparent link to a decrease in sex crime. A quote:

    "What does correlate highly with sex offense is a strict, repressive religious upbringing."

  12. Well, yes, but you could also say that any organisation of that size in a similar situation will at least try to go for an institutional cover-up.

    I'm not so sure that is true... although then again, there aren't that many centrally-led organizations at all that are the size of the Catholic church, so there's not a lot of data to go by.

    I was thinking about how some of the apologists in the wake of the Murphy report pointed out that secular schools have their share of molesters too -- which is true, but to my knowledge there is no epidemic of systematic coverups of sexual abuse in secular schools. Of course, then again, your point may still be valid, because to my knowledge there is no single centrally-led organization of secular schools that is anywhere near the size of the Catholic church...

  13. I have been researching the subject too and it seems all the Religions promote child abuse - barring some old, little-known clean traditions.

    Look at the figures within Islam, Hinduism or even Buddhism. They are staggering!

    By my conclusions, all the Religions that enhance a primacy of the male over the female (that's to say, all the patriarchal Religions) also induce a androcentric, dominant/dominated world-view that makes the weak a target.

    Check it out for yourself; there is a direct connection between Religion-induced women-scorn and child abuse.

    The worst abuses take place within Religions that, for instance, condone child marriage, like Islam or Hinduism. Once a man is led to see women as objects/slaves, he also will see any child as an object/slave/property.

    If we look at what happened in ancient Greece or Rome, where nothing was done to stop the lust of men who had been led to believe their male authority was unquestionable, we find institutionalized child abuse. In Greece, it took the form of ancient pederasty (and girls age 12 forced into marriages to men 30 years old). In ancient Rome, the banal rapes of slaves of any age and gender prevailed.

    To bar excesses, all the patriarchal Religions have tried to master men's appetites by setting various taboos on prefectly normal sexual behaviours, like, for instance, masturbation (forbidden by ALL the Religions: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc), thereby creating a whole new array of neurotic attitudes towards sex.
    Go forbid a young guy, age 14, to masturbate - of course, you get an overly anxious male. All the patriarchal Religions have worked to alienate human nature, curb it, make sexuality and womanhood danger zones. And all have got to the same point: child abuse.

    As for the Catholic Church, like Tom Rees rightly pointed out, the priests are pre-selected within sexually abnormal males. Now, child abuse in the Church has always been rampant: the history of the Papal court (that clique of misogynous, sexually freaky men covering each other) is a catalogue of every perversion you can think of. That's why it is covered up by the Pope, even nowadays - It's an age-old institution.

    Now, and I come back to that, every male-centered Religion condones and/or promotes child abuse. Wherever you see "God, or the gods, say(s) women are inferior", check (1) the age of marriage for women. (2) the rates of child abuse. You'll be surprised.

    So, as for children, yes, the word "devout" should be a red flag to concerned parents. All the more as, even if the children are not sexually abused, they can be psychologically harmed by those people, man or women, who self-righteously think they are God-guided or something of the sort (and have that superior "I'm saved, you're not" attitude).
    Who knows what brews in their minds?

    BTW, sorry about my English. I am French.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS