Treatment for people who sexually abuse children often works, say experts quoted by the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families. “Contrary to what the public thinks, the recidivism rate for sexual offenders is lower than for other crimes,” said Dr. Fred Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. The largest follow-up study ever done of sex offenders found that four to five years after an arrest, only 13 percent had re-offended, said David Burton of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers and faculty member at the Smith College of Social Work. Among child molesters, the recidivism rate was 9.9 percent. A study by Johns Hopkins researchers of 400 pedophiles being treated in a community-based program found that the recidivism rate five years after arrest was less than 8 percent.
Experts say the most effective treatment for those who sexually abuse children is cognitive behavioral therapy and “relapse prevention.” Therapists first work on getting the subject to accept responsibility for his behavior, to change mistaken beliefs (such as thinking the victim meant “yes” when she said “no”), and to examine what the pattern of the offenses were in order to change them. Treatment typically lasts from six months to a few years. “We still look at this as a moral problem,” said Berlin. “But it's also a major public health problem. Society has to realize you can't punish sexual abuse away, just like you can't punish alcoholism away.”