November 17th 1999
Top scientific body finds no reason to fault Rind report
The American Psychological Association has abandoned plans to commission an independent review of a controversial child sex-abuse study after the nation's largest scientific organization refused to examine the work, saying it has "grave concerns" over "politicization" of the study's conclusions.
The APA promised to ask for the review just before a resolution condemning the study unanimously passed both houses of Congress last summer. The study, written by researchers from Philadelphia and Baltimore, had become a cause celebre among conservative groups and talk-show hosts "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger and Dom Giordano.
The research, which was published in an APA journal, concluded that the long-term effects of child sexual abuse are not as serious as many believe and that scientists should classify sexual encounters between adults and children according to the age and "willingness" of the child. The report was based on an analysis of 59 previous studies involving college students who had been sexually abused before the age of 18.
Conservative groups claimed that the study was an attempt to legitimize pedophilia, or sex between adults and children, and that it could be used to justify child abuse in court. Faced with the campaign, the psychological association took the extraordinary step in June of publicly distancing itself from the research, saying that its leaders disagreed with the conclusions and that it should have considered the "social-policy implications" of the paper before publishing it. The APA said it would ask an independent organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to reexamine the validity of the study, which already had gone through the process of peer review.
The AAAS told the APA that it would not review the study last month, said Rhea Farberman, an APA spokeswoman. She said the APA had no "immediate plans" to ask any other organization to do the review.
In his letter to the APA, Irving Lerch, a physicist who chairs the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, said his committee saw "no reason to second guess the process of peer review." Although it did not do a thorough review of the study and cautioned that its decision not to take on that project should not be seen as an endorsement, the committee also "saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the article's authors." Controversy about the study would best be resolved, the letter said, by more research and discussions among scientists in the field. In an interview, Lerch had harsh words for some of the critics. "Some of the political statements were clearly self-serving," he said. "I think some politicians tried to inflame or cash in on public sentiment by purposely distorting what the authors said."
The study was written by Bruce Rind, a professor at Temple University; Philip Tromovich, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student; and Robert Bauserman, who is now an AIDS-prevention researcher for the Maryland Department of Health and Hygiene. Tromovich and Rind yesterday said they saw the AAAS decision as vindication of their work. "Their comments indicate to me that they consider our work to be up to par," Tromovich said.