December 30, 2008

Will “revolutionary” Diana Screen end pedophile menace?

Vatican enlisting psychologists to perform miracles

The new movie Doubt paints the issue of pedophilic priests in shades of gray. Is the priest (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) really a pedophile? Or is the head nun (Meryl Streep) just after him because, with his friendly manner and long fingernails, he fits her stereotype? Most provocative of all is the ostracized boy's mother (Viola Davis), who cares more about the priest's kindness to her son than about whether the relationship is sexual.

The movie is set in the 1960s, two decades before the pedophilia scandals sprang into the limelight to tarnish the reputation of the Catholic Church. Revelations of sexual misconduct by priests resulted in staggering financial losses - an estimated $2 billion in civil damages paid by the U.S. Catholic Church alone.

Anxious to mend its reputation and plug the money drain, the Vatican just announced a new fix: Candidates for the priesthood will undergo psychological screening to determine their suitability for the job.

What makes a candidate unsuitable, according to the Vatican? "Uncertain sexual identity," "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," and "grave immaturity" are among the factors. Painting a pseudoscientific veneer on the campaign, the Vatican said "expert" psychologists will screen select candidates on a case-by-case basis.

Mental health professionals, already flush with domain expansion into the emergent sex offender industry, are rushing into this new and potentially lucrative niche.

Leading the charge is Gene Abel, the psychiatrist who invented the controversial Abel Screen, which measures sexual proclivities based on how long men look at visual images of different types of models. Abel is promoting a new "pass/fail" test called the Diana Screen as a "breakthrough in technology" that can accurately identify men who have molested children.

"Who should use it?" asks the tool's website. "Any organization where there are professionals or volunteers who work with children," including churches, youth groups, schools, hospitals, foster care homes, and amusement parks.

In an appeal that combines sex panic emotionalism with a promise of revenue, Abel asks professionals to step forward and "make a difference" by becoming Diana Screen administrators: "You don't just add to your business opportunity, you take a stand against molestation and you help others to also take a stand."

Who can resist an appeal like that?

A quick web search found several psychologists already offering to do Diana Screens for employers. One bragged of having a "Certificate of Achievement" from Abel "in recognition of [his] knowledge about this important technology."

Child molesters are a heterogeneous bunch, with no unitary psychological "profile." So, before rushing to sign on, I decided to read the published literature on the Diana Screen to find out how it works, and whether it is reliable and valid.

Searching "Diana Screen" in an academic database, I did not get any hits. An Internet search was slightly more productive. I found several presentations by Abel. He presented the Diana Screen to the Society for Sex Therapy and Research; the Assessment, Treatment and Safe Management of Sexually Abusing Children, Adolescents, and Adults conference, and the California Coalition on Sexual Offending (CCOSO).

At these conferences, Abel reported on research he conducted with 100-plus applicants for priesthood training jobs. Unfortunately, the research does not appear to have been peer-reviewed or published, as required for admissibility in court under the Daubert standard.

Searching further, I found some strategically placed advertising; searches with the keywords "child molestation" cause Diana Screen ads to pop up on some news sites. The Screen was also a featured exhibitor at this year's conference of the Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters Society, which offers "cutting-edge tools" for "risk management professionals."

More humorously, in the blogosphere I bumped into a group of sex offenders discussing how easy it is to beat the test (and its precursor, the Abel). All you have to do, wrote one man, is ignore the instructions to rate your sexual arousal level to each slide, and instead respond at "a regular timing interval," which is what is really being measured. [PS: The link to their conversation went dead after this post was published.]

"You'll laugh when you find out just how easily the test can be beaten! The entire thing rides on the theory that no one will know what it's really testing."

Another agreed: "It's so seriously EASY to play the test like a harp."

These sex offenders would likely quarrel with the Screen developers' claim that it can identify "over 50 percent of actual child sexual abusers."

But my own question about the 50 percent success rate was, How can they know they are identifying half of all pedophiles? And, perhaps more importantly from an ethical point of view, what is the rate of false positives, or people whom the test wrongly identify as child molesters?

Hoping to learn more, I contact the company directly and asked for any published research. In due time, I received a packet of materials - glossy brochures and fliers, a sample report, graphs, and more promises that the Screen will help "bring an end to child molestation." No references to published research, though.

The materials did include a handout on the aforementioned (unpublished?) study of candidates for religious ordination. Of the 135 applicants screened, 18 (or about 13 percent) failed the test. Of those, 7 "were found to be true sexual risks to children" (based on followup inquiry and polygraph testing), while 2 "were found to have mental health problems" and 9 "required a closer look, but were found to have little or no risk."

Stated another way, that's a false positive rate of at least 50 percent. Even if it is just a screening test, psychologists should be cautious in administering a test with such a high false-positive rate and no published, peer-reviewed data on its reliability or validity.

More fundamentally, this type of testing raises philosophical issues about how far society should go in the name of protecting children, especially when most victimization is done not by teachers or amusement park workers but by family members. Who, for example, should be screened? As a colleague commented, it is one thing to screen airline pilots for alcohol abuse, but if priests, teachers, hospital employees, and even carnival workers will be screened, where will we draw the line? How much personal information are employers entitled to know? And what recourse will there be for those who are denied employment or lose their jobs based on their innermost thoughts, their sexual identity, an incident in their distant pasts, or - worst of all - erroneous test results?

The most pernicious problem with false positives is, how can one really know? As the movie Doubt suggests, proving innocence is difficult, and those who claim to be protecting children may have more complicated motives.

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JULY 2015 POSTSCRIPT: The Atlantic has just published an interesting article on the controversies swirling around Abel Assessment by Maurice Chammah, a staff writer at The Marshall Project.


Anonymous said...

I see you've discovered Gene Abel. He has a reputation of sorts in the sex offender treatment community although his Abel screen is somewhat controversial. Most existing sex offender risk measure focus on recidivism risk. In other words, they are only effective in evaluating risk of future reoffending in convicted sex offenders. Their value in predicting future risk in males who have never offended against children tend to be minimal. The Diana screen makes no sense.

Anonymous said...
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Jennifer said...

At issue I think is the value of the Abel screen in conjunction with other measures to assess an individual's propensity to committ sex crimes against children has any value.

Clearly, Dr. Abel is aware of false positives and the need for complete review of each individual's risk to nonconsenting persons, including measures that have passed teh Daubert standard such as polygraphs.

Is it humorous or regrettable that some online bloggers laud their collective ability to cheat the Abel? It is unfortunate, but apparently true.

Also, where is the scientific community with regard to addressing this issue, sexual violence against children? What do mental health or prosocial individuals do in response to this public health matter?

Often enough, they check an individual's work history and personal references...I guess that is "laughable" and silly too, as many sex offenders have "cheated" that supposedly objective measure as well.

Why don't Dr. Abel's peers review his work on the Diana? Much has been written about this world class researcher's accomplishments in the scientic community. Would be cheaters and detractors, check *your* facts with regard to casting aspersions on someone's reputation in his community...

I have a vested interest in the outcome of any and all measures, including the Abel and Diana screens. I find it disturbing that some bloggers and detractors wish to cheat a test that may separate the wolves from the sheep.

If you all go online, it is on the record. Just because you can see others, doesn't mean they can't see you. Where you have been and who you are is on the record with regard to cyberspace you silly folks that seemingly have a toddler's sense of the visible. You can find *me*. What is my name?

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Very objectively and well written.

Coming to the party a little late, but my defense is I was unaware of Gene Abel or his "tests," until I began researching an answer for an online Q&A site.

As a Senior Supervisor for the site, and a strong proponent for accurate, quality answers to questions, I found your article informative and unbiased.

We could use some expert answers in the same area. Let me know.