|American Psychologist||© 2002 by the American Psychological Association|
|March 2001 Vol. 57, No. 3, 165-175||For personal use only--not for distribution.|
In the spring of 1999, a storm of controversy arose at the local, state, and national levels surrounding an article on the effects of child sexual abuse published in 1998 in Psychological Bulletin. The article was vehemently denounced by various media outlets, conservative grassroots organizations, members of the general public, state legislatures, and ultimately by the United States Congress. The authors chronicle these unprecedented events and related challenges faced by the American Psychological Association. The authors also describe the Association's efforts to resolve the crisis, while staunchly upholding academic freedom and scientific integrity, and review the lessons learned for the field of psychology.
The political storm of the century for the field of psychology descended on the American Psychological Association (APA) in the spring of 1999, with gale-force winds raging from the media, congressional leaders, state legislatures, and conservative grassroots organizations. At the center of the storm was an article by Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman (1998) entitled “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples,” which had been published nine months earlier in the July 1998 issue of the Psychological Bulletin. Through an unprecedented chain of events, this article emerged from obscurity to become the object of intense national media criticism throughout the spring of 1999 and ultimately to be condemned in a congressional resolution passed by the United States Congress in July of that year.
The storm developed around the authors' conclusion that, counter to widespread belief, child sexual abuse “does not cause intense harm on a pervasive basis regardless of gender in the college population” (Rind et al., 1998, p. 46). The authors even reported that some children (including preadolescents) experienced positive reactions in “willing” sexual encounters with adults. These conclusions and the research methodology were vehemently denounced by many in the media, politics, and grassroots organizations as “junk science” and a serious assault on societal values. Demands were made for corrective action on the part of the APA, the publisher of the prestigious scholarly journal in which the article appeared.
The challenge before the Association was to staunchly uphold academic freedom, the peer review system, and the integrity of the scientific process itself in the face of accusations that failure by the APA to renounce the study was tantamount to condoning pedophilia. The Association embarked on a concerted course of action consistent with its dual roles as a scientific publisher and an advocate of federal policies that are informed by psychology. APA staff sought to explain to policymakers and the media about the critical role of peer review in the scientific process and to communicate and reaffirm the Association's long-standing commitment to child protection.
The strong public reaction in the spring of 1999 to the Rind et al. article marked the first time that the APA had been called on in the public arena to explain and defend the publication of a scholarly research article and the peer review process itself. The Association also faced the challenge of navigating uncharted terrain in its efforts to quell accusations that it endorsed pedophilia, as was being claimed by partisan grassroots organizations and radio talk-show personalities. Not surprisingly, APA staff initially had difficulty developing a comprehensive strategy that could simultaneously counter the false charges of a national media figure and talk-show host, engage the media in viewing the published article within a broad scientific context, counter the efforts of various political advocacy groups that were exploiting the article for their own purposes, and inform congressional leaders of the true nature of the official APA positions on the matters under dispute.
Early in the crisis, the APA Board of Directors devoted much of their April 16–18, 1999, retreat meeting to evaluating the situation and considering a possible course of action. A number of initial questions had to be addressed: (a) Should the Association take or refrain from action? (b) If the former, should the focus of the Association effort be directed toward the media, the government, and/or others (e.g., advocacy groups, talk-show hosts, etc.)? (c) What should be the Association's primary media message—the defense of the individual article, the defense of scientific freedom of inquiry and the scientific peer review process, or a strong presentation of the Association's historic record in the area of child protection and condemnation of child abuse?
What follows provides the reader with an account of the major events in the political and media controversy that occurred in 1999 as they enfolded. It also describes actions by APA leaders and staff at various critical junctures to further understanding of the reasons why certain steps were taken and why others were not.
Several months after the July 1998 publication of the Rind et al. article in the Psychological Bulletin, it was heralded on the Web site of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) with the headline “Good News!” (quoted in Horn, 1999). This advocacy organization presented the research out of context to further its political agenda and, in the process, inappropriately used the reputation of the Psychological Bulletin to lend scientific justification to its goal of legitimizing sexual relationships between adults and children. NAMBLA was one of the first organizations to put its own spin on the research results reported by Rind et al. The APA's general counsel subsequently sent NAMBLA a cease and desist letter.
The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization that promotes psychotherapy for homosexuals to enable them to establish a heterosexual orientation, soon became aware of the nature of the NAMBLA Web site's description of the Rind et al. article. NARTH had long promoted the view that the decision of the so-called mental health establishment to support the American Psychiatric Association's removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1973) was misguided. The NARTH view was that the Rind et al. article would provide a scientific basis for a campaign to decriminalize child sexual abuse. NARTH then began advancing the false claim that the APA had a political agenda to normalize pedophilia because the APA was the publisher of the Psychological Bulletin in which the Rind et al. article had appeared (see LaRue, 1999). Thus, a second advocacy group presented its spin on the facts and likewise used its presentation in an attempt to advance a political agenda.
Laura Schlessinger (a.k.a. Dr. Laura), physiologist turned radio talk-show host, apparently drew on the NARTH document in preparation for her attacks on the APA in March 1999. Dr. Laura began excoriating the APA on her radio show on March 22 (Schlessinger, 1999a) for publishing “junk science” and goading the APA to renounce the article or acknowledge that it was endorsing pedophilia. At the time, Dr. Laura was at the height of her popularity and influence, with a reported 18 million listeners nationwide to her daily radio personal advice talk show.
The APA immediately issued a press release (APA Public Communications Office, 1999) on March 23 in response to her charges, explaining that the APA has a long history of advocating for expanding child abuse prevention, treatment, and research; pointing out that articles appearing in APA journals are not policy statements of the Association; and noting that findings of the Rind et al. study “are being misreported by some in the media” (pp. 1–2). The press release also noted that one overall finding was that college students who were victims of child sexual abuse were on average slightly less well-adjusted than students who were not victimized as children.
Dr. Laura's sensationalized charges caught fire in the religious and conservative media. During the last week of March and the first week of April, the APA Public Affairs Office responded to dozens of media calls about the article. This first wave of media reporting involved, nearly exclusively, conservative columnists and media outlets, some of which were affiliated with religious organizations and advocacy groups. These media outlets started from a position that could be considered biased against the social sciences, and they accepted Dr. Laura's charges without question.
On March 23, The Washington Times, a newspaper with a small national circulation but widely read on Capitol Hill, ran a front-page article (Duin, 1999) on the controversy, repeating Dr. Laura's accusations nearly verbatim. The Washington Times reporter covering the controversy had interviewed Rhea Farberman, the director of APA's Public Communications Office, and quoted Farberman's defense of the APA and the Rind et al. article. As would be a pattern throughout the episode, this APA defense intensified Dr. Laura's attack on the article, the Association, and now individual APA staff members. Other national coverage of the controversy, such as in Kathleen Parker's nationally syndicated newspaper column (Parker, 1999), brought the story—through the conservative news-media lens—to a nationwide audience.
Conservative activists appeared to sense the building of an issue that would galvanize socially conservative voters in the Year 2000 elections. Political strategists were looking for salient rallying issues and thought that the Rind et al. article might provide one.
On April 7, 1999, a resolution was introduced in the Alaska legislature (H. J. Res. 36, 1999) “rejecting the conclusions in a recent article published by the American Psychological Association” (p. 1). Similar resolutions were introduced over the next two months in a number of other states, including California (S. J. Res. 17, 1999), Illinois (H. Res. 0325/S. Res. 0151, 1999), Louisiana (H. Con. Res. 215, 1999), Oklahoma (S. Res. 38, 1999), and Pennsylvania (H. Res. 183, 1999). State psychological associations in some of those states quickly contacted the APA, asking the Association to take action to resolve the controversy. They expressed alarm that the APA was being vilified in state legislatures at a time when legislation important to psychology was being advanced in those states.
U.S. Representative Tom DeLay (R) of Texas soon learned of Dr. Laura's charges against the APA and her interpretation of the Rind et al. article. On April 15, Representative DeLay issued a press release (DeLay, 1999) headlined “DeLay Is Appalled by American Psychological Assoc.,” expressing his “outrage and disgust” at the APA for publishing “a study that advocates normalizing pedophilia” (p. 1). The comments of Representative DeLay, third in line in the House leadership and arguably its single most influential member, were widely reported in conservative media and other outlets. Representative DeLay is a former foster parent, a court advocate on behalf of child abuse victims, and a leader in the House on policies affecting child abuse. His involvement was critical for two reasons. First, by virtue of his personal activism, Representative DeLay had the moral authority to reach an audience on issues involving child abuse. Second, given his position in the House leadership, he also had the political influence to make things happen. Thus, it was imperative that the APA engage with Congress immediately to try to prevent any negative legislation based on the Rind et al. article.
The APA was facing a serious challenge. The Association had to defend itself against the outrageous charge of supporting pedophilia if it was to have credibility to speak on behalf of scientific integrity. The Association was being viewed by many on Capitol Hill as seriously undermining the public trust and efforts to combat the sexual abuse of children. This was a bitter irony, given all that the APA had contributed over the years in the areas of research, education, and practice to promote the public interest and safeguard the welfare of children.
Accordingly, a letter signed by the APA's chief executive officer (CEO), Raymond Fowler, was prepared on April 15 (R. Fowler, personal communication to T. DeLay, April 15, 1999), immediately after the circulation of the DeLay press release. The letter was received by all members of Congress the following day.
Consistent with the earlier APA press release, the April 15 “Letter to Congress” asserted the APA's position as a national leader in furthering the prevention and treatment of child abuse. The letter also set forth the APA's position that “sexual abuse of children is wrong and harmful to its victims” (R. Fowler, personal communication to T. DeLay, April 15, 1999, p. 1) and referred to a 1990 resolution by the APA Council of Representatives calling for a national strategy to prevent and treat child abuse and neglect (see Fox, 1991). Finally, the letter provided an explanation of the overall findings of the Rind et al. study, indicated that they were being misreported by some in the media, and explained that journal articles reflect the views of their authors, not of the Association. The APA letter concluded by stating, “No responsible mental health organization, including the APA, endorses pedophilia or denies its negative effects on children. Any statement that suggests otherwise is a serious distortion of the truth” (R. Fowler, personal communication to T. DeLay, April 15, 1999, p. 1).
APA advocacy staff spent April 16 (and many days to follow) on Capitol Hill, meeting with Representative DeLay's office and with offices of other key members in the House Republican and Democratic leadership. The April 15 “Letter to Congress” and these follow-up meetings with House leaders proved particularly timely, resulting in the abandonment of plans for a congressional hearing.
On April 16, The Washington Post reported on the DeLay press release (“DeLay Attacks Mental Health Lobby,” 1999). On April 19, Dr. Laura lambasted the APA “Letter to Congress” in her radio broadcast (Schlessinger, 1999a) as “blatant lies,” and, on April 20, an editorial by her was published in The Washington Times (Schlessinger, 1999b).
The involvement of Representative DeLay made the controversy a legitimate story for reporters who were less likely to have a bias against psychology and were more likely to understand the appropriate interpretation and context of the Rind et al. findings. Because the early reporting of the controversy took place in conservative or religious organization media, that reporting focused exclusively on a narrow view of the issues—sexual relationships between adults and children. The broader issues of the definitional quandaries of childhood sexual abuse research, the peer review process, and the independence of science publishing were not addressed until the mainstream media began to cover the story. With encouragement and assistance from the APA Public Affairs staff, reporters at The Philadelphia Inquirer (Burling, 1999) and The New York Times (Goode, 1999) wrote in-depth pieces about the controversy, concentrating more on the phenomenon of a single research article becoming a cause célèbre for the conservative media than on Dr. Laura's charges. Both the Inquirer and the Times articles looked at these broader issues, and neither was critical of the APA for publishing the study.
On the congressional front, on April 21, Representative Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania sent a “Dear Colleague” letter (J. Pitts, personal communication to the U.S. House of Representatives, April 21, 1999) condemning the Rind et al. study, with a copy of the Dr. Laura editorial from The Washington Times, to all members of the House of Representatives.
The APA leadership approached the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences to join the fray as allies. Faxed material was sent and telephone calls were made to AAAS representatives from the April 16–18 Board of Directors retreat meeting. The APA sought a general statement from those organizations that the APA journals are highly respected scientific journals, that the peer review of the APA journals is rigorous, that meta-analysis is a valid statistical technique, and that the scientific process is self-correcting (hence, if the Rind et al. article were flawed, it would be uncovered and corrected in the scientific literature). Both organizations declined to make public comments on any of the issues. Their internal discussions and reasons for their final decisions are, of course, unknown to the APA. In any case, the APA was to spend the remainder of April and May engaged in the struggle without allies from other scientific societies.
Moreover, some scientific entities were, intentionally or unintentionally, giving credence to the views promulgated by Dr. Laura, NARTH, and some members of Congress. Other scientific organizations worked against the Association or, to take a more benign view, sought to separate themselves from the APA and the Rind et al. article.
The American Psychiatric Association sent a letter signed by its medical director, Steven Mirin, to the Family Research Council on May 27, 1999 (see “Pedophilia Study Draws More Critics,” 1999); this letter implied that the APA had acted irresponsibly by publishing the Rind et al. article. At the American Psychiatric Association's request, a moderate Republican member of Congress had earlier, on May 18, sent a “Dear Colleague” letter (M. Roukema, personal communication to the U.S. House of Representatives, May 18, 1999) to all members of the House to explain that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association were different organizations and stating that the psychiatric group was opposed to pedophilia. Another group, led by a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, similarly took the Rind et al. article to task in the media, bolstering the charges that the article was “junk science” and ought not to have survived peer review and asserting that the APA was acting irresponsibly by not acknowledging this. Other research societies refrained from engaging in the controversy.
In early May, at the request of the Rind et al. article's authors, APA Public Affairs staff worked with them on an “Authors' Statement” (Rind, Tromovitch, & Bauserman, 1999) that reiterated the article's actual findings and answered many of the criticisms being leveled against the article. The APA media staff also continued to conduct interviews on a daily basis, both defending the decision to publish the article and communicating the APA's strong condemnation of the sexual abuse of children.
To further public knowledge about the scientific peer review process, a briefing paper entitled “Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Scientific Journals in the Context of Public Policy” was developed by the APA Public Policy Office (2000). It has since been distributed to key congressional offices and state psychological associations. This briefing paper was later approved by both the APA Council of Editors and the APA Publications and Communications (P&C) Board.
By this point in the controversy—in early May—APA Public Policy staff had met with a number of congressional offices with whose staff they had previously had regular contact. Although concerned, the congressional staff foresaw no lasting damage to the APA or its journals as a result of the spate of bad press. Some Senate offices also counseled that the issue would pass quickly. However, that did not happen.
The Family Research Council, a conservative grassroots organization, sent letters denouncing the Rind et al. article to all members of the House on May 10 (J. Parshall, personal communication to the U.S. House of Representatives, on behalf of the Family Research Council, May 10, 1999). On May 11, Representative Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania criticized the APA during a floor speech entitled “Child Sexual Abuse Must Not Be Tolerated” (Pitts, 1999). On May 12, Representatives Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona, Dave Weldon (R) of Florida, and DeLay held a news conference at the National Press Club, joined by representatives from conservative organizations, including NARTH and the Family Research Council, plus Dr. Laura via satellite.
Representative Salmon announced that he would introduce a bill demanding that the APA reject the conclusions in the Rind et al. article. The bill, House Concurrent Resolution 107 (commonly abbreviated as H. Con. Res. 107; 1999), was introduced later that day and referred to the House Education and Workforce Committee for further consideration. Although concurrent resolutions do not carry the force of law because they are not sent to the President for signature, their approval necessarily engages the attention of the full Congress. We know of no other prior instance in which a specific scientific article has been singled out for censure in a congressional resolution or a scientific organization chastised for publishing it. The congressional resolution provided a means for those with interests different from the APA's to keep the controversy alive and to force others in Congress to address the matter.
What costs would be incurred if the congressional resolution were to be passed by Congress? Would a U.S. Representative vote to condemn the APA for publishing the Rind et al. article and then agree to cosign a letter for the APA and other organizations endorsing the “Decade of Behavior” initiative? Would sponsors of legislation important to APA members, such as mental health parity, rethink their support of psychology?
By mid-May, the challenges facing the APA were many, coming from different fronts and addressing diverse issues. Thus, APA CEO Raymond Fowler formed a staff working group to develop, coordinate, and implement the Association's strategic response to the controversy. This staff group included the CEO himself, the director of Public Communications, Public Affairs and Media Relations staff, the chief legal counsel, Public Policy staff, Government Relations staff, the executive directors of the APA Directorates, representatives from the APA publishing program, and several staff liaisons of governance groups with expertise on the policy issues central to the controversy. It was hoped that in this way all relevant perspectives within the Association could be drawn on.
The magnitude of the complex, multifaceted political and media challenge facing the Association was beyond any ever previously experienced by the APA. To obtain additional critically needed political expertise, the Association retained a well-respected public relations firm and an attorney–lobbyist with ties to the congressional leadership and conservative grassroots organizations. It is noteworthy that several influential lobbyists, who were former members of Congress and recognized as active, knowledgeable supporters of science during their terms of office, declined to represent the APA out of concern for their political futures. Nonetheless, the newly added political resources were critical to assuring that the APA's message was responsive to all policy issues and to ensuring opportunities to discuss relevant issues with more conservative House members.
It is essential to recall the political climate in the spring of 1999 to better comprehend the salience of the child sexual abuse controversy for certain members of Congress and conservative grassroots organizations. Just four months prior to the May 12th press conference noted above, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives had expressed fury and disappointment at their failed attempt to remove President Bill Clinton from office for perjury and obstruction of justice. Although President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which ultimately led to the above charges, was variously defined, it was viewed by many as the sexual exploitation of a young intern by a powerful, married employer more than twice her age.
A link between the Rind et al. controversy and the Lewinsky matter was overtly made on May 18 by the Republican National Committee (RNC), the political and fundraising arm of the Republican Party, following a nonresponsive answer by President Clinton's press secretary to a question about the sexual abuse study at a White House press conference. The RNC sent the following message to all Republican members of Congress: “White House Still Spinning ‘Sexual Relations’ … as GOP Protects Minors From Pedophiles” (RNC, personal communication to the U.S. House of Representatives, May 18, 1999). This message, which also criticized the APA and lauded H. Con. Res. 107 (1999), served to further embarrass the President and heighten the increasingly partisan nature of the controversy.
Congressional sponsors of H. Con. Res. 107 (1999) sent multiple “Dear Colleague”
letters to each member of the House during the rest of May, encouraging them
to cosponsor H. Con. Res. 107. Some of these letters were highly sensational.
One example, sent by Representatives Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania and Jim DeMint
(R) of South Carolina on May 17 and headed in large, boldface type, read:
Charge: 50 year old man accused of sexually abusing 10-year-old boy. Verdict: Not guilty. This was just adult–child sex. It did not harm the boy; he actually enjoyed it. Does this repulse you? Then … Cosponsor H. Con. Res. 107. (J. Pitts & J. DeMint, personal communication to the U.S. House of Representatives, May 17, 1999)
A barrage of fiery press releases was then unleashed on members of Congress by conservative grassroots organizations. While expressing concern that traditional family values were under attack, leaders of conservative grassroots organizations also transformed the controversy into a vehicle for fund-raising. These organizations invested heavily in direct mailings to their members, which led to yet more letters from constituents to more members of Congress, which in turn led to the hardening (and narrowing) of opinions about the issue.
To counter this all-out effort to garner more cosponsors for the resolution, APA staff began a new round of meetings with the congressional staff of moderate Republicans and others, including staff of the committee to which H. Con. Res. 107 (1999) had been referred. APA representatives explained that science is a self-correcting process, that peer review is the gold standard for scientific publishing, that the APA's policy positions did not influence the articles published in its journals, that the authors had stated that they did not intend for their recommendations to extend to policy changes in the legal definition of child sexual abuse, and that the APA would not promote pedophilia under any circumstances. In short, the APA again attempted to broaden the overall controversy, reintroducing issues of academic freedom and science.
Responding to the heightened controversy, several television stations requested interviews with APA spokespersons. APA staff welcomed the opportunity to respond to the charges and attempt to broaden the ever-narrowing interpretation of the Rind et al. article beyond the simplest notion that the only issue was acceptance or rejection of pedophilia. On behalf of the APA, Raymond Fowler appeared in a taped interview on Fox News (Zahn, 1999) and in another on MSNBC (1999) with Representative Dave Weldon, one of the congressional resolution's chief sponsors. Representative Weldon, a physician, attacked the methodology of the Rind et al. study and challenged its conclusions in a heated on-air confrontation that continued after the cameras were turned off.
Troubled by Fowler's statement in the television interview that the Rind
et al. article had been peer reviewed and was “a good article” (MSNBC, 1999),
Representative Weldon and another physician member of the House, Representative
Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, wrote a letter on May 19 to the APA, addressed
to the editor of Psychological Bulletin and raising questions about
the Rind et al. article (T. A. Coburn & D. Weldon, personal communication
to the APA, attention Editor of Psychological Bulletin, May 19, 1999).
They stated that preadolescents, by virtue of their age alone, are not competent
to provide informed consent for sexual encounters with adults under any circumstances.
They also raised concerns about the appropriateness of the studies used in
the meta-analysis and the interpretation of the data. Although the areas of
disagreement raised by the two representatives can be and have been discussed
in other publications, their letter concisely framed the perceptions that
the APA had to confront (and was, thus far, confronting unsuccessfully). The
final three paragraphs of their letter read as follows:
Psychological Bulletin presents itself as a professional scientific journal, and more than that, as an official publication of the American Psychological Association. It has a very serious responsibility to uphold the standards of scientific integrity. When those standards are not honored, not only the Bulletin but also the entire psychological profession falls into disrepute. Regrettably, that has happened in the present instance.
Our concern is not merely that we disagree with the conclusions of the authors. It is, rather, that the Association has evidently betrayed its obligation to maintain scientific integrity. If the scientific community does not exercise self-discipline by filtering “junk science” such as this article out of professional journals, it invites external control from the popular media and from the organs of government.
As scientists who also serve in the House of Representatives, we are deeply troubled by such a prospect. The only thing more dangerous to scientific inquiry than external control is the substitution of propaganda in the place of research. (T. A. Coburn & D. Weldon, personal communication to the APA, attention Editor of Psychological Bulletin, May 19, 1999, p. 2)
Two apparent misunderstandings were immediately evident. First, even though the Psychological Bulletin is an official publication of the APA, it cannot be considered a mouthpiece of the APA. Second, the APA's touting of the rigorous peer review process of its journals was clearly not understood, believed, or valued.
Beyond those points, however, the Coburn–Weldon letter revealed concerns that the APA's message was not addressing: First, Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman's credibility was undermined by a perceived association with pro-pedophilia publications, leading to the Rind et al. article being construed as an advocacy or propaganda piece. Second, the self-correcting nature of the scientific enterprise was perceived as too slow to correct an article that was seen to pose immediate harm. Third, given that there were scientific experts supporting the assertions of the members of Congress (and that Representatives Weldon and Coburn represented themselves as scientists), the APA had to weigh the pros and cons of getting into a “my expert can beat your expert” fight with a Congress that might well still be considering the prospect of imposing external controls on the APA's scientific publishing.
Part of the challenge in this particular controversy was related to the framing of the issues. The APA message was complex compared with that of its detractors (whose argument was straightforward and simplistic). Moreover, the situation was not a simple dialogue between the APA and several members of Congress. There were at least four responding parties when the media and other advocacy groups are considered. Actions by one party had effects on all other parties. The APA had control only over its own actions, and many others were trying to frame the issues to serve their own political agendas.
The challenge facing the APA was not helped by the ease with which certain quotes from the Rind et al. article could be used as sound bites to support offensive opinions. A striking example of this was the suggestion by Rind et al. to use the “value-neutral” terms of “adult–child sex” and “adult–adolescent sex,” rather than child sexual abuse, to describe sexual relationships between adults and minors in certain instances involving “willing” encounters with “positive reactions” (Rind et al., 1998, p. 46). The terminology and implications were regarded by some APA detractors as incendiary. As a result, the focus of the public debate narrowed early in the controversy, with little or no attention given to the context or stated intent of the recommendation (which was to reconceptualize the construct of child sexual abuse for research purposes so as to enhance its scientific validity).
The conservative news media in particular transformed the controversy into a simple black-and-white debate about the merits of adults having sexual encounters with children (as if there were such a debate in the mainstream mental health community). Their story line was not about the inner workings of the scientific publishing process but rather about something much more inflammatory and distressing to readers—the sexual abuse of a child. For the APA to talk only about the strength of its peer review process in the face of accusations of condoning pedophilia was viewed as nonresponsive.
The gravity of the charges began to weigh heavily on APA staff and members. Staff were not only fielding concerned calls from congressional staff and psychologists but also from neighbors, family members, and friends who wondered why the APA had suddenly gone from being a defender to an exploiter of children. APA scientists were watching the saga unfold with great trepidation, fearing a congressional attack on the peer review process. The APA Science Directorate received concerned messages from scientists who worried that their community research participants would drop out of their studies.
Most congressional staff members were initially sympathetic to psychology's predicament. After reading portions of the Rind et al. article, however, they understood why the charges of the grassroots organizations had gained so much momentum. Even congressional staff members with social science backgrounds (and prior positive relationships with the APA) expressed dismay at the article's conclusions. The news that Bauserman had published an earlier article in a pro-pedophilia Dutch journal (Bauserman, 1989) was interpreted by many as evidence that, despite the Rind et al. article's one-line protestation to the contrary, Rind and his coauthors were indeed laying groundwork for a potential shift in policy that would decriminalize pedophilia in some instances.
Although most congressional staff members were willing to meet with APA representatives throughout the spring of 1999, several were overtly hostile. In this regard, one chief of staff threatened to forcibly remove an APA staff member from the office, even if she were to arrive there with a constituent from that representative's home district. APA Public Policy staff rectified this situation by seeking the intervention of an influential former staff member of the congressional office. In other circumstances, APA staff overtures served to open doors that were rapidly closing. By the end of the controversy in July, APA staff would have had personal contact with about 40 congressional offices, many on multiple occasions.
As preposterous as it may seem to APA members that anyone could believe the Association would promote pedophilia, some of those on Capitol Hill examining the Rind et al. article had no firm basis of experience for believing otherwise. Some of the more conservative members of the House had relatively little contact with APA members or APA staff to familiarize them with the APA's broad goals and mission. Furthermore, psychological data had provided the basis for the APA to advocate views at variance with conservative positions (e.g., federal support of needle exchange programs to slow the spread of HIV–AIDS).
These members of Congress were thus suspicious of the Association's scientific credentials and harbored distrust of—or, at best, unfamiliarity with—the APA's peer review system. Skepticism and lack of scientific understanding led many congressional offices to discount the assertions of APA staff. To these offices, the only indicator of the quality of the peer review system was the reputation of the Association, which was being undermined by the storm raging around the Rind et al. article.
Given the ever-increasing number of cosponsors for H. Con. Res. 107 (1999), it was painfully evident by late May of 1999 that there was little chance of preventing passage of the congressional resolution. The leaders in this controversy were determined to see it through to its natural conclusion—that is, passage of H. Con. Res. 107 in some form. The only viable option was for the APA to persuade the sponsors to introduce and support a less extreme substitute resolution.
With the growing likelihood of the resolution's passage, APA staff were concerned that subsequent broader attacks would ensue, possibly against psychological research budgets in such federal agencies as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Defense. It was also feared that the independence of the APA's journals' peer review process was in potential jeopardy. This fear was confirmed in a conversation Fowler had with Representative Weldon, who clearly believed that peer review, at least as practiced by the APA, was an old-boys' “you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours” network. Representative Weldon elaborated on the implicit threat in his earlier letter by stating that if the peer review process continued to allow publication of articles such as Rind et al., congressional oversight hearings might be necessary.
The APA's goal was not just to end the immediate controversy over the Rind et al. article but to reaffirm the integrity of the scientific enterprise and to enhance the Association's credibility as a scientific resource for federal policymakers. Accordingly, the Association looked for a solution consistent with its values both as a publisher of the best psychological research articles and as a purveyor of psychological research findings to inform public policy. The APA needed a new strategy to form and strengthen relationships that could be maintained even when the Association and conservative members of Congress took opposite sides on specific policy questions.
Could the APA reach some reasonable accord with its detractors? The APA's newly added political consultants advised in late May that approaching the House leadership was a critical step to resolve the crisis. The key member was Majority Whip Tom DeLay. The irony was that if there was an issue on which Representative DeLay and the APA should have been able to see eye to eye, it was child abuse. Representative DeLay's strong interest in this issue and his personal credentials provided an entrée for the APA. It was this recognition of a common concern and commitment that formed the basis for a workable solution.
On June 9, the APA sent a letter signed by Fowler directly to Representative DeLay (R. Fowler, personal communication to T. DeLay, June 9, 1999). Carefully written and reviewed by a group of senior APA staff representing all of the Association's directorates and approved by the APA Board of Directors, the letter referred to several actions the APA had taken and planned to take to put to rest the charges that the Association supported “normalizing” pedophilia (or that, by publishing the article, the Association was allowing its prestige to contribute to such an outcome). First, the June 9 letter noted that a resolution representing official policy of the Association, recently passed on May 19 by the APA Board of Directors, had unambiguously condemned child sexual abuse (Levant, 2000). Second, it promised that the APA general counsel would prepare materials that could be used to counter any potential court argument claiming that the Association had put its imprimatur on efforts to “normalize” pedophilia. Furthermore, the APA proposed the creation of a new public information brochure on ways to protect children from child sexual abuse.
The remaining two proposals in the June 9 letter were received by the APA's congressional detractors as a reasoned response. However, these proposals provoked a backlash of criticism from some psychologists.
The June 9 letter stated that neither the reviewers nor the Association had evaluated the Rind et al. article on the basis of its potential for misinforming the public policy process but ought to have done so. The letter went on to propose that the Association would strengthen procedures to address the social policy implications of journal articles on controversial topics. This comment has been misconstrued by some in the scientific community as a move toward censorship and a threat to editorial autonomy. To the contrary, this statement was in no way intended to indicate that the APA would apply a political litmus test to its publishing process. Rather, it referred to action to be taken after acceptance of a potentially controversial manuscript to prepare for potential attacks by external third parties and to better inform the public about the actual meaning and implications of the article in question.
In a subsequent letter to the APA Council of Editors on June 30, Fowler clarified that the APA would not interfere in any way with the scientific peer review process by which journal articles are selected for publication but would consider ways to review articles in collaboration with journal editors for policy relevance after the publication decision has been made (R. Fowler, personal communication to the APA Council of Editors, June 30, 1999). Thus, APA journal editors and APA staff together would identify potentially controversial articles after their acceptance but prior to their appearance in a journal. Then, if appropriate, they would help the journal editors and the authors communicate their findings in a way that anticipated the likely public response and impact on policy and lessened the potential for distortion and misuse of their research. Such a joint policy review process might result in developing news releases, companion articles, or editorial notes that would place controversial articles in a context in which they might best be understood and evaluated. In this regard, it was anticipated that only a very tiny percentage of the articles published by the Association would ever raise such concerns or need such supplemental communications. It should also be noted that such practices are already implemented in well-respected scientific journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and Science.
The final and most internally divisive proposal involved the APA's request to the AAAS to review and evaluate the scientific quality of the Rind et al. article. This action has been regarded by some as the APA's vote of “no confidence” in its own peer review processes. To the contrary, the APA request to the AAAS was intended to convey to the APA's critics that the Association had such complete confidence in its journals' peer review procedures that it was willing to subject them to the scrutiny of the most appropriate and qualified outside body. The request for the AAAS independent review was not a means to second-guess the editors who handled the Rind et al. article or the reviewers who had reviewed it.
Readers may wonder why, having been spurned once before, the APA approached the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility with the sensitive request to review this article. First, the AAAS was, and still is, viewed by Congress as an objective, nonpartisan organization that upholds high scientific standards. Second, the AAAS committee has a history of grappling with controversial science policy issues. Furthermore, the request for review of the Rind et al. article was not a precedent-setting decision. As recently as 1995, the AAAS committee had served as an appellate body in a dispute between a nonpsychologist author and one of the APA journals. Thus, actions of the APA, including the handling of manuscripts, can be and have been appealed to the AAAS, albeit in rare instances. Such a referral is only appropriate after all other internal reviews and appeals within a given discipline have been conducted. In the case of the Rind et al. article, the APA concluded that no further internal APA reviews would resolve the matter in the eyes of Congress and thus invoked the existing mechanism of AAAS review (which the APA reasonably believed would be credible to Congress).
The June 9 APA letter reached Representative DeLay at about the same time as a direct mailing to over one million homes by the Family Research Council urging the congressional resolution's passage (C. Donovan, personal communication to nationwide supporters of the Family Research Council, June 7, 1999). As a result of these direct mail campaigns by conservative grassroots organizations, the APA received thousands of postcards from the general public demanding that the Association denounce the Rind et al. article. One can only imagine how many petitions the House of Representatives received.
While the controversy was still roiling throughout the country, the House leadership decided to schedule H. Con. Res. 107 (1999) for a vote. Because the bill's sponsor and his colleagues appreciated the APA's efforts to resolve the controversy, APA staff were afforded the opportunity to suggest changes to the resolution's language. Although not all of the APA's edits were accepted, the final product acknowledged the APA's contributions in the fight against child abuse and no longer denounced the APA or the Psychological Bulletin for publishing the Rind et al. article.
Once the decision was made to schedule the resolution for a vote, APA staff, on the advice of political consultants, made the judgment call not to try to organize on short notice a nationwide effort to get psychologists to lobby their representatives to vote against the resolution. It was clear that the APA's ability to generate congressional letters from its grassroots was orders of magnitude below the ability of the Family Research Council and the Traditional Values Coalition to do so.
Members of Congress have keen radar for what their constituents will understand and accept. They do not take off their “everyman hats” when they read a scientific article about child sexual abuse. They also knew that a vote against H. Con. Res. 107 (1999) would be viewed by their colleagues and constituents as a vote for normalizing pedophilia. The odds were overwhelming that the resolution would pass.
On July 12, 1999, the resolution passed 355 to 0 in the House, with 13 members voting “present,” and it passed by voice vote two weeks later in the Senate. No member of Congress voted against the resolution. The commentary of Representative Brian Baird (D) of Washington (Baird, 2002, this issue), psychologist and APA member, details the price he paid and the reasons for his vote of “present.” Although all of the 13 House members who voted “present” were reelected in 2000, a significant number of them (including Representative Ted Strickland [D] of Ohio, the other APA member in Congress) suffered conservative grassroots and media attacks similar to those described by Representative Baird.
The interests of psychology, in both the long and the short term, were best served by a cooperative approach that furthered education about psychology. Most legislative and regulatory progress in Washington is determined not by the views of one party or legislator but rather by a negotiated agreement. The so-called Rind et al. controversy ended not because the APA's arguments overcame those of its detractors, nor because theirs overcame those of the APA, but rather because the APA gave careful consideration to its detractors' concerns and responded in a way that addressed them without compromising the integrity of its journals.
As a scientific and professional organization whose members depend on federal funding for their research, federal support for the training of their students, and federal regulations that govern the practice of psychology, the APA was well advised to look for common ground to stop the conflict rather than prolong it, and to do so in a manner that would help prevent or soften future conflicts. “Capitulation” (Lilienfeld, 2002, this issue) implies winners and losers. The APA sought and obtained a workable solution for all parties.
On October 4, 1999, about three months after the controversy had subsided, Irving Lerch, writing for the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (Lerch, 1999), responded to the APA's June request for an external review of the Rind et al. article. In that letter, the AAAS declined to conduct a review beyond the peer review already conducted by the APA in the selection of the Rind et al. article for publication. As anticipated by the APA, the AAAS letter was a positive endorsement of the importance of peer review performed within the scientific traditions of the disciplines themselves. The AAAS was also pointed in its criticism of some media and political figures who, in its view, either did not understand or deliberately misrepresented the findings of the Rind et al. article. By this time, however, when the attention of the media and Congress had shifted to other matters, the AAAS committee could safely make these points in a political climate much different from that experienced by the APA in the spring and early summer of 1999.
In June of 1999, even before the Rind et al. controversy was fully resolved, a new media and congressional challenge arose over another article published in an APA journal. This time, the target was an article by Silverstein and Auerbach (1999) entitled, “Deconstructing the Essential Father,” which appeared in the June issue of the American Psychologist. The authors concluded that fathers do not make a unique or essential contribution to child development and that responsible fathering can occur within a variety of family structures (e.g., involving never-married, divorced, and/or gay fathers). They also cited an earlier published article noting that there are potential costs to father presence (e.g., income loss through gambling and alcohol consumption). The bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Fatherhood Promotion, which comprised many of the APA's earlier detractors, circulated “Dear Colleague” letters and issued floor statements criticizing the article and questioning its publication. Various conservative and mainstream national media outlets featured articles and editorials on the new controversy. A new storm, with similar warning signs, was definitely forming.
With the benefit of prior experience, the APA was better prepared on all fronts to respond immediately to this challenge. First, the APA's Public Affairs staff provided assistance to the authors of the article in preparing and promptly issuing a statement explaining their conclusions that was disseminated to the media and concerned congressional offices. APA staff met early on with key congressional offices to address their concerns and to again explain the workings of peer review. APA members helped compile a list of publications illuminating the larger body of research on this issue. As a result of these efforts, the threatened congressional resolution condemning the article was never introduced. Rather, the Congressional Task Force on Fatherhood Promotion pursued the scientifically appropriate action of sending a letter on August 6 to Fowler, the editor of the journal, expressing their concerns and citing research findings in support of their position (J. Pitts et al., personal communication to R. Fowler, August 6, 1999). This letter, which was cosigned by 18 members of the task force, did not attack peer review, the field of psychology, the journal editors, or the authors but rather focused on the conclusions of the article itself. The positive resolution of this second attack can be viewed as an indicator of the Association's growing success in educating those on Capitol Hill and in the media about the workings of scientific journals.
With considerable reflection and the passage of time, we can identify some critical lessons learned from the events surrounding the spring of 1999's child sexual abuse controversy. These lessons reflect, in part, insights gleaned from formal debriefing sessions held with senior APA staff and political and public relations consultants in February of 2000.
As evidenced by the preceding description, the APA's 1999 approach to the political controversy surrounding an article published in Psychological Bulletin the previous year was complex and multifaceted. Representatives of the Association had to explain the peer review process, clarify the difference between APA policy positions and views expressed by journal authors, defend against accusations of supporting pedophilia, and build bridges between the field of psychology and the conservative end of the political spectrum. Moreover, all of this had to be done in the context of an emotionally heated political debate.
Did the APA do everything right? No. Did the Association do the best it could under the circumstances? Probably. Will the Association be better prepared if it should face yet another such situation in the future? Yes.
The outcome achieved a reasonable balance between conflicting demands both within the Association and between the Association and others without in any way undermining the credibility of APA publications or the peer review process. However, despite the well-intentioned efforts of APA staff and governance leaders to manage a difficult crisis, not all goals were fully achieved.
This special issue of the American Psychologist is a sign that science is alive and well and vital in the APA. The Association will continue to represent scientific concerns on Capitol Hill and to maintain its strong and historic links to its scientific members. Psychological scientists, likewise, have a critically important role to play in educating the public and Congress about the scientific process, methods, perspectives, and ways in which psychological research, training, and service can lead to improvements in people's lives.
Correspondence may be addressed to Ellen Greenberg Garrison, Public Policy Office, American Psychological Association, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242.