LONDON, DEC. 22, 2000 ( A widely publicized recent study on sexual child abuse only helped to feed media misconceptions about the dangers of family life for youngsters, the Sunday Times reported.

Media reports of the findings by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) generally gave the impression that families were the main culprits in the area of sexual abuse.

Picking up this portrayal was BBC2´s "Newsnight," which devoted an entire program to a horrific case of alleged systematic sexual abuse that went on for years. The program´s message, noted the Sunday Times, was that sexual child abuse is widespread within families and that parents are the chief villains.

Yet the facts are rather different, demonstrated not least by the NSPCC´s own report based on information from just under 3,000 young adults, according to the Sunday Times. Even the NSPCC was taken aback by the way its statistics were distorted by the media.

The charity, in fact, found that child sexual abuse takes place within 4% of families, a lamentable statistic in itself, but hardly one that proves an epidemic in traditional households. About 1% of children are abused by a parent, the NSPCC said. The rest of these are abused by other relatives, with brothers or stepbrothers by far the largest category.

Significantly, the researchers estimate that about 13-14% of sexual abuse involves non-relatives -- which is to say, people outside the family.

So the NSPCC´s research destroyed some potent myths about child abuse, the Sunday Times said. But the stereotype of sexual abuse of children hidden within the family has become deeply embedded in the public consciousness in Britain, the newspaper observed.

Some commentators, for instance, give the impression that the traditional family is a dangerous place for a child to be. This view was on display on "Newsnight." Forget stranger pedophiles, said the program: Child sexual abuse was rampant within the family and was perpetrated mainly by parents.

Yet the program did not acknowledge the NSPCC´s finding that sexual child abuse within families was, in fact, relatively rare. Moreover, it talked constantly of "parents" and "families" as the abusers, failing to acknowledge that its own harrowing example featured a fractured family and a stepfather.

There was no discussion of the role of family disintegration in child sex abuse, the Sunday Times noted. In fact, sexual abuse occurs mainly in families that have broken or reconstituted; marriage is actually the best protector for children.

According to the now defunct British Family Court Reporter Survey, children are no less than 20 to 33 times safer when they live with their biological parents than when they live in any other type of household.

In 1989, the University of Iowa studied 2,300 cases of sexual abuse and found that non-biological fathers were almost four times as likely as natural fathers to sexually abuse children in their care. Another report found that, although mothers´ boyfriends contributed less than 2% of non-parental child care, they committed almost half of all the child abuse by non-parents.

American sociobiologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson found that the risk of children being killed by a stepparent was 50 to 100 times higher than at the hands of a biological parent. They also found that preschool age children not living with both parents were 40 times more likely to be sexually abused than those who were. "The presence of a stepparent is the best epidemiological predictor of child abuse yet discovered," they observed.

The thrust of such findings was confirmed in Britain in 1994 by Robert Whelan, of the Family Education Trust. Drawing on research by the NSPCC and the Family Court Reporter, Whelan showed that the natural two-parent family was in a significant minority in every category of child abuse.

This was even more remarkable since the majority of children lived in such families. From the NSPCC figures, Whelan calculated that children living with a lone mother were at more than three times the risk of abuse than children living with their two natural parents; while those living with their natural mother and a father substitute were at more than eight times the risk.

The Family Court Reporter figures showed, in addition, that there was an even more remarkable and sensitive conclusion to be drawn. There was a specific risk of child abuse in cohabiting households. If both natural parents were cohabiting, the risk to the child was as much as 20 times greater than if the parents were married. In other words, although the relationship between the adults and the child was the same in both cases, what made all the difference to the risk of child abuse was marriage.

Such details about the marital status of families are no longer available in official statistics. "It´s impossible now to find out about the relative risks of biological and non-biological parents because Whitehall no longer wants them to be collected," said Whelan. "What´s needed is a proper research study which will give us the marital status of families involved in child abuse."

The NSPCC says physical abuse is more common than sexual abuse in families, and that it is mothers -- not fathers -- who are most likely to be violent to their children.

The group defines such violence as being hit with a hard implement or a fist, kicked hard, shaken, thrown or knocked down, beaten up, choked, burnt or threatened with a knife or a gun. Some 11% of children studied had been the victims of such violence, with 49% of them saying that their attacker was their mother and 40% saying that the attacker was their father.

This fits with other research that reveals mothers to be more violent toward children than fathers are. Yet the NSPCC study omits the further disturbing factor, brought out in American reports, that such physical abuse is most likely to occur among lone mothers.

In one such survey, unwed mothers reported a rate of "very severe violence" toward their children that was 71 times higher than the rate among mothers who lived with fathers.

Richard Gelles, a leading American expert on family violence, says that this is not surprising. Mothers tend to spend more time than fathers with their children; and unwed mothers are under extra pressure because they have to rear children without assistance, and also because they are likely to be poor. And this seems to indicate once again the value of stable marriages for children.