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Following a credible or established allegation of misconduct by a priest or religious, (arch)dioceses and religious congregations face the challenge of developing an appropriate safety plan. The primary objectives of these plans are to minimize the possibility of recidivism and to maximize protection for the public from further harm. Ideally, these plans are developed based on a person’s specific situation. The importance of assessing risk for these plans cannot be overstated because the potential consequences of a new offense are so significant.
Effective tools are available to undertake a risk assessment that can inform a safety plan. These tools estimate the likelihood that a man who has sexually offended in the past will engage in another sexual offense in the future. These risk assessment tools are widely used and research-based.
Risk assessments incorporate both qualitative and quantitative data to estimate the likelihood that someone who has committed sexual abuse previously will re-offend. They are undertaken by a qualified psychologist, and typically take 1-2 days.
The assessment classifies the person in question into one of several risk categories (e.g., low, moderate, high) that can be used as a basis for making recommendations on restrictions and other risk reduction strategies.
The components of a risk assessment are:
The use of actuarial instruments has been shown to be superior in predicting risk than clinical judgment alone.
Studies of persons who perpetrate sexual abuse have contributed greatly to our understanding of the characteristics of sex offenders and the motivations underlying their behavior. This research has led to the identification of risk factors associated with an increased likelihood of sexual re-offense and to the development of a number of objective instruments that have been shown to help predict offenders who are at an increased risk to reoffend.
These tools assess for the presence of static and dynamic risk factors. While a number of tests are available, two very effective instruments, the Static-99R and Stable-2007, assess a comprehensive range of historical factors and current psychosocial influences on an individual.
The Static-99R is based on actuarial tables of factors that predict the risk of reoffending. Static risk factors are historical and largely unchangeable (e.g., age, relationship of the perpetrator to the victim and gender of the victim, among others).
The Stable-2007 measures risk factors that can change. These dynamic risk factors are relatively enduring, but malleable to change over time, usually with therapeutic intervention. Examples include antisocial attitudes, impulsivity and level of empathy. An effective safety plan emphasizes dynamic factors and identifies possible ways of addressing them therapeutically to increase the individual’s degree of self-control.
Each of the tools is scored individually and results in a score that determines the risk category (e.g., low, moderate, high) into which a client falls. Differences in the item content of the tools may result in different risk categories for the same individual. In those cases, the higher risk category is generally assigned.
In addition to the actuarial tools, a comprehensive risk assessment involves a thorough file review of all relevant information concerning the allegations (e.g., legal documents, details of the allegations, etc.), an in-depth interview with the alleged perpetrator and, if possible, information from collateral sources. Data from these sources yield important information, especially with regard to dynamic risk factors that can affect a person’s level of risk.
The results of the risk assessment, including a rating of the likelihood of re-offending, specific needs an individual may have and suggestions on what kind(s) of ancillary support may be necessary, are incorporated into a detailed report. This data may then be used by the (arch)diocese or religious community to guide recommendations aimed at reducing the risk for re-offense (e.g., restrictions on ministerial work, treatment, supervision) and develop or refine a safety plan.
Risk assessments are now accepted practice in the disposition of criminal sex abuse cases, and are recognized by the Church as a vital component in child protection efforts by helping prevent further acts of misbehavior.
Christopher Block, Ph.D., is a psychologist on the clinical staff of Saint Luke Center in Louisville, KY.
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