One of the major achievements of the past quarter century has been the growing awareness of the prevalence and damaging psychological consequences of the sexual abuse of children. State child protection authorities substantiated 63,527 cases that involved childhood sexual abuse in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control of more than 17,000 adult Kaiser-network members, generally well educated and middle class, found that 16 percent of men and 25 percent of women said they had experienced childhood sexual abuse. And yet, it is remarkable how recently the sexual abuse of children was not taken seriously. Not until 1974, when Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, were states required to establish reporting requirements in suspected cases.

Sexual abuse of children is far from new. Historians of the family have discovered that adults in elite households in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe sometimes treated young children as sexual playthings. A striking example involves the future King of France, Louis XIII. According to a diary kept by the royal physician, members of the French royal court fondled his genitals and ladies in waiting played sexual games with his tiny fists.

But if the sexual abuse of minors is anything but a recent phenomenon, only intermittently has this country focused on the problem. Three conclusions grow out of the historical study of the sexual abuse of minors. The first is how slowly and unevenly American society has come to recognize the simple fact that the sexual abuse of minors is wrong and inflicts lasting trauma. The second is that in attempting to understand the sexual abuse of minors, expert opinion has often shown more understanding for the perpetrators than the victims, overemphasizing victims’ resilience and minimizing the abusers’ responsibility and the corporate cultures and institutional arrangements that facilitate abuse. The third key finding is that bureaucratic institutions that operate outside public scrutiny have dealt consistently with the sexual abuse by denying its reality, ignoring its existence, claiming that it is an anomaly and aberration, castigating accusers, and failing to hold perpetrators to account.

That the young were sexually abused was well known to nineteenth-century Americans. In New York City, between 1790 and 1876, between a third and a half of rape victims were under the age of 19; during the 1820s, the figure was 76 percent. The historian Lynn Sacco found more than 500 published newspaper reports of father-daughter incest between 1817 and 1899. An 1894 textbook, A System of Legal Medicine, reported that the “rape of children is the most frequent form of sexual crime.”

In his landmark study of female sexual behavior, published in 1953, Alfred Kinsey reported that fully a quarter of all girls under the age of 14 reported that they had experienced some form of sexual abuse, including exhibitionism, fondling, or incest (at rates roughly similar to those reported today). Yet when these findings were reported, they evoked virtually no public interest, although Kinsey’s statistics about pre-marital sexual activity and adultery provoked a huge public outcry.

Public attention to the sexual abuse of minors has waxed and waned repeatedly over time. Concern was greatest following the Civil War, during the Progressive era, during and immediately after World War II, and in our own time (see Elizabeth Pleck and Linda Gordon). Public concern does not appear to reflect increases in the incidence of abuse, but rather broader social anxieties, especially over the entry of women into the workforce, and the influence of groups willing to bring a pressing problem to public light. Following the Civil War, the rapid growth of cities, a massive influx of immigrants, and a sharp rise in the divorce rate provoked fears for the future of the family and alarm over the supposed impact of the breakdown of the family upon children. During the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, anxieties over mass immigration, divorce, child labor, and juvenile delinquency helped stimulate public concern over the abuse of children. During World War II, concerns about working mothers, latchkey children, and absent fathers sparked public anxiety. During the 1970s, a sharp increase in divorce, single parenthood, and working mothers contributed to a heightened sensitivity to childhood sexual abuse.

At first, public concern focused on the very young, those ten or younger. But beginning in the late nineteenth century, philanthropists and reformers brought attention to a somewhat older group of those aged eleven to seventeen. Reformers fought to raise the age of consent to sixteen and to enact laws to prevent those younger than sixteen from entering any place that sold intoxicants, pool halls, and dance halls. It comes as a surprise to contemporaries to discover that raising the age of consent required concerted political battles.

In courthouses, the treatment of sexual abuse was colored by a young person’s age, gender, and willingness to conform to cultural stereotypes. For a long time, jurors treated young girls very differently from boys and older girls. Sexual activity with young girls was clearly regarded as pathological by the late nineteenth century, but proving cases of abuse proved very difficult. Jurors expected a young girl to reveal her innocence by using vague, simple, euphemistic language, while expecting older girls to put up resistance or demonstrate immaturity and a lack of sexual understanding. Interestingly, men charged with sodomizing pubescent boys were convicted in the same proportions as those whose victims were young boys, but this was not the case with girls.

At first, the focus was on physical harm to the young person or the ruin to their reputation; nothing was said about the psychological scars caused by abuse until the 1930s. 30 percent of statutory rape cases from 1896 to 1926 sought to resolve the case by marriage or financial payment.

For much of the twentieth century, sexual abuse of children was treated as an anomaly and aberration perpetrated by moral monsters who were increasingly understood in psychological terms: as dirty old men, sexual fiends, perverts, predators, pedophiles, or sexual psychopaths. Evidence—such as venereal infections in children—indicating that sexual abuse of children was not confined to a small number of sex predators was dismissed and blamed on such non-sexual causes as unhygienic toilet seats.

The twentieth century witnessed a number of attempts to understand the sexual abuse of minors. The emergence of theories of young peoples’ psychosexual development and especially the embrace of the Freudian notion of the sexual child had ambiguous consequences for understanding of sexual abuse. Among some experts, there was a tendency to deny that sexual abuse had lasting consequences. But among others, there was a growing sense that abuse, even abuse short of genital penetration, caused long-term psychological damage. It is important to stress the contestation that surrounded the impact of abuse. Race and class colored expert opinion on the sexual abuse of minors. By mid-century, expert opinion tended to regard working-class, and especially black, children as more prematurely sexualized and more endowed with sexual instincts and desire than their middle-class white counterparts. Meanwhile, offenders were regarded mentally ill and treatable through psychotherapy. Their problem, purportedly, was that they lacked emotional and sexual maturity. Within the courts, there was a tendency to substitute prosecution of sexual molestation for prosecution for rape. On the one hand, this meant that adults could be prosecuted for crimes of touching. On the other hand, punishments tended to be less severe than the law suggested. During the 1990s, there was a backlash against the trend toward vigorous prosecution of sexual abuse cases. A panic over allegations of sexual abuse in day care centers, in which over a hundred day care workers were convicted of abuse only to have the prosecution claims overturned in virtually every instance, raised questions about repressed memories, the suggestibility of young witnesses, and issues of consent.

The problem with the “psychologizing” of the sexual abuse of minors was the failure to understand the cultures of sexual abuse—including the clerical culture of the Church—which allow abuse to take place. Sexual abuse flourishes in environments with unequal power relationships. Factors that allow sexual abuse to flourish include isolation and social disconnection, both of the abused and the abuser; emotionally needy and disempowered young people; a self-validating ideology that rationalizes abuse; institutional settings that shield individuals from public scrutiny; and institutions intent on protecting their reputation and safeguarding themselves from liability—and that do so in part by decentralizing decision-making about crucial issues.

Defenders of the church’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals often insist that the church’s problems were no greater than those found in other institutions; that only a tiny proportion of priests were ever accused of abuse; and that the church hierarchy dealt with abuse in line with the received wisdom of the time. These defenders also maintain that the abuse was a historical problem linked to a specific era, which has now past, and that the church was especially vulnerable because it maintained detailed records. There is some truth to each of these claims. Yet none of them in any way mitigate the abuse that took place. The church is held to a higher standard precisely because it has a moral obligation to meet the highest moral standards. Because the Catholic Church recognizes that all human beings are sinful, it should have recognized that even its clerics can sin and that only strict supervision and accountability can minimize it.