Criminal Activities of Sister Norma Giannini


The following analysis presents some theoretical approaches, which are used in explaining criminal activities of Sister Norma Giannini who was involved in molesting boys. It is often astounding when horrible cases of child sex abuse happen such as the one for Sister Giannini. Criminologists, politicians, media, and other members of the society often asked themselves why such events have occurred. This prompts the society to propose various causes of sexual molestation crimes. These causes can be attributed to economic imbalance, drug abuse and urban decay. An internet search for the explanations behind a child sexual abuse often find reference to a theoretical perspective of criminology that is linked to human behavior, which is known as the social learning theory. Some crimes are often linked to imitation that affects a person’s social learning process.


Social learning approaches have been widely used in criminological and social researches on rape and other forms of sexual aggression. According to various research findings, it has been revealed that corporal punishment is a form of sex violence and harassment because it encompasses sexual fantasies that include rape and child spanking (Warr, 2002). Through the social learning theory, imitation plays a crucial role in sexual violence because many people have been found to admire their peers who use violence on their partners and spouse. There are some perceived rewards and costs associated with sexual abuse. The conduct of sexual abuse can be well understood under the social learning mechanisms.

Social Learning Theory

This theory explains that human behavior is often learned through an interactive process with the media, peers and family members. Therefore, child molestation is a form of a sexual aggression that is learned. Probably, Sister Norma learned this from her family, peer or media. In fact, the influence of media on an individual’s behavior is so strong that it alters one’s way of thinking and social interaction. In the context of the social learning paradigm it can be said that individuals usually learn some behavior through observation and imitation (Warr, 2002). The behavior is grown and modeled over a period of time. Many deviants view such criminal activities as rewards to their social status. As in the case of Sister Norma, she deviated from her expected way of life since the nuns are not meant to engage in sexual intercourse instead of serving God, and to make matters worse, she defiled minors.

The social learning theory postulates that many rapists’ behaviors stem from their fathers and mothers who engaged in child molestation. Others owe the cause to their behavior on the types of literature materials read or movies watched. It can be said that Sister Norma had acquired her child molestation behavior from the movies she had watched or books read since her family history is not linked to the indecent activities. However, more research could still be carried out on her family to ascertain whether the parents were linked to her indecent behavior. Evidences supporting the social learning perspective on child molestation are given by researches, which show that lack of discipline, inadequate parental guidance, problems of family dynamics, and improper interpersonal relationships are some of the factors contributing to felony (Akers, & Sellers, 2004).

Even though, little evidence can be attached to the social learning theory in an attempt to explain the nun’s behavior, delinquent behavior and dysfunction families contribute greatly to such indecent acts.

Social Learning Theory Properties

The main social learning theoretical perspective is that an individual’s behavior is majorly influenced by the learning process. Therefore, it is important to approach the nun’s indecent behavior as a result of the learning process, and not merely through the biological determination since biologically determined behavior originates from the family and often hereditary. This argument is highly supported by the fact that learning mechanisms in a given society are always the same for both the law abiding citizens and the law breakers. In fact, this principle is highly related to another one. The other principle postulates that the learning behavior for both the criminal and law abiding acts are neither completely unpredictable nor random. However, in certain cases, these principles have been found to be more predominant than in some other circumstance. In fact, the circumstances change from one criminological theory to another, but still criminologists agree to the common view that supports the variation in the social environment as a major determinant for the distribution of various behaviors. And, it is from the different conducts that human beings learn (Akers & Sellers, 2004).

Opportunity structures, values, beliefs, socializing forces, technical knowledge, and norms are some elements of the social environment. Here, the technical knowledge refers to the methods of execution, especially carrying out child molestation crimes. Besides, the socializing forces mentioned here include, but not limited to community, family, church, peer groups, and church. It is a rather worrying fact that the nun committed felony in a church vicinity several times, but no action was taken against her by the administrators in charge ((Siegel, 2008). This is quite evidenced since the matter was reported and taken to court so many years after the incidence. Therefore, it is clear that under certain circumstances, the social environment in which an individual lives can promote certain conducts, including criminal acts.

Focusing on the application of social learning approach to the nun’s case, it is also important to study its associated variables. These variables include, but not limited to imitation, definitions, differential association, and differential reinforcement. For example, the concept of differential association is used in reference to two dimensions, which incorporate normative and interaction. Though, this concept involves modeling, it also identifies with certain groups of reference. Since normative is a learning process that is included in modeling and definition, it can as well be grouped under imitation, and to be more precise, the concept of differential association is clearly defined. This can be regarded as the quality time spent in observing and interacting with people with the aim of understanding the individual’s verbal and physical conduct. These interactional dimensions are what determine the nature of relationship between an individual and the rest of the society members. Therefore, an individual’s conduct can be best understood with the use of the above mentioned dimensions, and this would form the basis of a criminological research (Siegel, 2008).

The main problem would be the social methods applied in converting the interactional relationships to moral conduct or criminal behavior. In order to understand this better, it is important to know that the social learning theory engages the use of some significant processes whereby an individual influences another person. This major social process is often called the definition. The definition dimension embraces the techniques of the socialization phenomena. The socialization engages definitional learning when interactive groups of individuals converge with the motive to teach and pass on certain information that they deem important to them. The conveyed and taught messages are meant for a certain social role. The theme of such messages could be centered on societal beliefs, values, attitudes, and norms (Warr, 2002). In such incidences of social interactions, individual can succumb to learning and embracing ideas, which are regarded as immoral by the society. For instance, gay activist supporters can organize seminars to teach and recruit more members in that community. Though, it is debatable whether such acts are immoral or not, practices of defiling minors like the nun’s case should never be condoned in the community since they promote social and moral degradation (Warr, 2002).

Another social learning theory element that could have could have contributed to the nun’s child molestation behavior is imitation. Imitation is the act of copying certain behaviors owing to some rewards or lack of outburst and rebuke from another individual. This observational learning prompted the nun to continue with her indecent behavior for many times since no one came out early enough to stop her from the act. And, since Sister Norma enjoyed the reward, in form of sexual satisfaction from the boys, she continued with the act. Probably, the nun had watched some movies on the same, which eventually led to the imitation. However, such vicarious acts can still be avoided by following what an individual says and not what he/she does. Good example are the parents who teach their young children norms to follow what they say and not what they do so as to avoid copying behavior that is not appropriate to their ages. The imitation can be dangerous, if it is misused, and it is majorly influence by both the print and electronic media.

In fact, when other processes of learning mechanisms are put under a controlled experiment, the imitation mechanism contributes significantly to sexually defiling minors. This learning process can be attributed to the rampant increase in pornographic literature, videos and internet sites. This makes individual to admire porn stars, an activity that lures them to engage in some unplanned sexual intercourse (Warr, 2002). The dire urge to satisfy their burning sexual desire forces individual to engaged in sexual intercourse, even if it means defiling minors, they have to do it.

Differential reinforcement is the other mechanism based on the social learning theory. The differential reinforcement can help in understanding the nun’s felony since it provides a link to the human behavior and some potential rewards, punishments and consequences that come as a result of an individual’s conduct. It is important to note that the differential reinforcement perspective encompasses both the social and physiological mechanisms. Therefore, the nun’s behavior could not be tied to the social factors alone, but to the physiological ones as well. The differential reinforcement stresses on punishments and rewards as consequences of an individual’s behavior. Here, the reward reinforcements and punishment inhabitants are managed by other persons. It is clear that social differential reinforcement encompasses the reaction of one individual to another person’s verbal or physical conduct. Indeed, such social reactions are often accompanied with descent messages on appropriate values, attitudes, beliefs, and social norms, which would be appropriate in condemning the nun’s indecent behavior (Akers & Sellers, 2004).


In a bid to discourage child defilement, cultural standards that promote respect and good behavior in the society should be upheld. In fact, failure to teach such cultural standards, which are promoted through learning ultimately lead to moral decadence in the society. Any level of opposition to the standardized culture should be discouraged since the contradicting sub-cultures often result into societal respect loss and moral decay. Lack of self-respect made the nun engage in indecent acts of felony that are not in line with the Christian moral teaching. Importantly, children can avoid falling into temptation of engaging in pre-mature sexual contact by avoiding private meetings in secluded place with people who are not closely related to them. In such private places, there is the temptation to learn and imitate some indecent acts. Parents should play a leading supervisory role on what their children watch and read to avoid incidences of imitating pornographic acts.

Finally, the social learning best explains the nun’s behavior because it analyses both the rewards and punishments as consequences of an individual’s behavior. Within the social learning theoretical framework, sexual harassment behavior is seen as a social interaction that links an individual conduct to what is learnt and copied. This can emanate from literature and movies. However, the opposing sub-culture of child sexual abuse and rape are not accepted in the society, but due to the perceived rewards such self-satisfaction even nuns are driven to engage in such conducts. According to the social learning theoretical perspective, there are also punishments that come as a consequence of one’s behavior. It is such punishment that made the nun to go behind bars as a consequence of her felony. In addition, the theory postulates that there are two groups of individuals in the society, the law abiding and the law breakers, and this calls for establishment of rewards (enforcers) and punishments (inhibitors).


Akers, R. L. & Sellers, C. S. (2004). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. Los Angeles, California: Roxbury Publishing Company.

Siegel, L. J. (2008). Criminology, (10th edition). Belmont: Wadsworth Thomson Learning Publisher.

Warr, M. (2002). Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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