One of the world’s most prominent atheists, author and provocateur Richard Dawkins drew ire from child protection agencies and others after downplaying a recent child sexual abuse scandal in the United Kingdom.

While promoting his new autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, Dawkins last week told Times magazine that he’d been molested by the same teacher at an English school implicated in the scandal — when he was a boy in the 1950s. Comparing the scandal of child sexual abuse to racism, the 72-year-old Dawkins sought to frame the issue in a historical context, noting the changing mores of society and otherwise adding nuance to an issue typically seen in terms black and white.

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours,” Dawkins told Times magazine. “Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same ways as we could condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

Dawkins recalled a day of his boyhood at a boarding school in Salisbury, England, when one of the schoolteachers “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts," he said. He and others were molested by the same teacher. However, Dawkins said, “I don’t think he did us any lasting harm.”

Dawkins then suggested in the interview that “mild touching” should not be held in the same category as more aggravated forms of sexual assault, provoking anger from advocates for child sexual abuse. Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, castigated the evolutionary biologist’s comments as a “terrible slight” to victims of abuse who often suffer for decades afterward. “Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt told reporters. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, told the newspaper that he found Dawkins' comments disturbing, too, as a victim of childhood sexual abuse. “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong,” he said. “Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs."

Dawkins' book was released on Thursday.