Investigating sexual abuse

A 1985 calendar from the BBC shows the iconic TV host, Jimmy Savile, as Santa Claus. Savile died last year but has left the BBC mired in scandal after accusations of his serial sexual abuse came to light. (Photo from, Creative Commons license.)

Investigating sexual abuse requires a special set of skills, not least of them sensitive approaches to interviewing victims. Those who have reported on patterns of abuses have also used social-science methods, such as surveys and focus-group discussions. Others have mined public records, including court cases and crime reports, to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. In some cases, news organizations and NGOs have published searchable databases that list the offenders and their crimes, drawing from documents released in the course of judicial proceedings.

In recent years, public sympathy for – and media scrutiny of – such abuses have encouraged survivors to break their silence and muster the courage to talk about what had been done to them. The curent controversy roiling the BBC is the most recent example. It’s now apparent that for decades, the celebrity TV presenter, Jimmy Savile, was a predatory pedophile and serial sex offender even as he was host of some of the BBC’s most loved TV programs. The BBC now stands accused not only of having blocked the airing of a program that exposed Savile, but also of a culture that condoned the TV icon’s behavior.

The Savile scandal – police say that they are looking at as many as 200 potential victims – has echoes of earlier stories, among others, that of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State coach who was recently convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. A decade ago, the Boston Globe blew the lid on widespread sex abuse by Catholic priests, setting off what is said to be one of the worst scandals that has hit the Roman Catholic church in 500 years. Since then, there have been exposes of similar patterns of abuse among Catholic priests in Ireland, Australia, Belgium and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, journalist Patrick Boyle found over 1,000 abuse cases in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) by examining BSA records, court cases and news articles and interviewing more than 200 people. He wrote a book on the abuse, saying that the Scouts were a magnet for child molesters and pedophiles. Scouting abuse scandals continue: a recent court case in Oregon yielded a dossier on alleged abusers that was kept by the Boy Scouts and made public just last week (see Databases, below).

Some patterns emerge from past investigations of sexual abuse:

  • The abuses are perpetrated by men in positions of power, authority or influence.
  • Their victims are young, vulnerable and often unable or unwilling to talk about what has been done to them.
  • The organizational or institutional culture allows the abuse to happen over and over, often for years, even decades.
  • When the abuses are exposes, the organizations that have been somehow complicit in them cover up or protect the abusers.

Below are some resources that will help journalists navigate this difficult terrain:

Studies on the prevalence and causes of sexual abuse and violence

  • World Health Organization Report, Sexual Violence, part of the 2002 World Report on Violence and Health : has cross-country estimates of the prevalence of various forms of sexual violence, based on survey and other data as well s studies.
  • University of Minnesota and U.S. Department of Justice, The Facts of Sexual Violence (2009): aggregates and summarizes recent data in the U.S. on various forms of sexual violence, including those against homosexuals and native Americans.
  • John Jay College Research Team, The Causes and Context of the Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States (1950-2010), a report submitted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2011: the definitive study on the subject, a helpful guide for insights on institutional cultures that condone sexual abuse.
  •  Gene G. Abel and Nora Harlow, The Stop Child Molestation Handbook (2002) : a study of over 4,000 people in the U.S. who admitted to having sexually molested children. The findings show that child molesters only 10 percent molest children they do not know; 40 percent molest children within their own social circle.  

Tips and advice for journalists

  • Reporting on Sexual Violence, a tipsheet from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma: provides advice on how to prepare for, and approach, victims of sexual violence; what to do during the interview itself; and how to write the report. The Dart Center also has a resource page that links to helpful material on sexual violence.
  • Investigating Sexual Violence, special edition of The IRE Journal (summer 2012): includes a particularly insightful article by Kristen Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity, who has investigated these issues over many years. Lombardi’s tips include don’t cold call victims, use trusted intermediaries to make the approach, let the victim set the rules of the interview, and prepare him or her for what lies ahead. A piece by a pscychologist in the same issue provides advice on how journalists should navigate the emotional landscape of reporting on sexual abuse.
  • Telling the Truth About Rape, a collection of essays from the Poynter Institute: provides useful insights on how to tell rape stories truthfully, compassionately and humanely.

Recent articles & investigative stories


  • Sex Offender Registries: this page from the FBI website links to registries that list the name and location of known sex offenders in the all 50 states of the U.S., the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and numerous Indian tribes.
  • Dru Sjudin National Sex Offender Public Website: maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice, allows users to search multiple sex offender registries.
  • Bishop Accountability collects case records and other documents involving abuses by Catholic priests in the U.S. and maintains a database of publicly accused priests.
  • The Boy Scout Perversion Files: 15,000 pages of documents were released this month by the Oregon Supreme Court as part of a lawsuit that alleged abuse by more than 1,200 different Scoutmasters and other adult volunteers from the Boy Scouts of America between 1965 and 1985. The Boy Scouts compiled the files to identify those that are ineligible to participate in scouting because of abuse allegations. The Bay Area News group published a searchable database based on the files. The law firm that litigated the case also has an alphabetical listing of alleged abusers or what the Scouts refer to as “ineligible volunteers.”

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