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Professor’s e-mails led to arrest, but he sees bigger problem.
BY WAYNE LAUGESENRegister Correspondent
BOULDER, Colo. — A
university professor at the center of the media firestorm about the JonBenet Ramsey case said the media is missing the true
significance of the story.
JonBenet’s story should be a warning about
the modern tendency to sexualize children, professor Michael Tracey told the
Tracey’s e-mail correspondence
with John Karr led to Karr’s extradition in connection with the 1996 murder of
the 6-year-old beauty pageant star. Tracey, a Catholic who is a former altar
server, exchanged hundreds of e-mails with the suspect. Tracey tipped police
when his e-mail correspondence with Karr raised red flags.
Tracey said he believes JonBenet’s coquettish pageant performances and costumes
probably got her killed by attracting a pedophile. The culture’s continued
fascination with JonBenet raises troubling questions,
a pedophile’s dream? Clearly, clearly she was,” Tracey said. “Her death, and
the whole circus surrounding it even 10 years later, has everything to do with
the culture’s desire to sexualize children.”
Tracey is British and has produced
three documentaries about the JonBenet case. He said
he’s considering a future documentary that would expose the evils of the
pre-teen modeling industry.
He called “pre-teen modeling”
simply pornography by another name. “It plays right into this whole child-sex
phenomenon we’re seeing,” Tracey said.
Tracey’s not alone in seeing the JonBenet tragedy as the tip of a culture-wide iceberg.
“This story in many ways
encapsulates a societal sexualization of children,”
said Tom Plante, a Catholic psychologist and chairman
of the psychology department at the Jesuit
Santa Clara University.
“All clinical evidence tells us children in the United States are being sexualized,
and are engaging in sex at earlier and earlier ages every year.”
Plante said it’s difficult for parents
to isolate their children from the culture’s obsession.
“If you go shopping with a young
girl, you’ll find that most of the fashions available for her are designed for
sexual provocation,” Plante said. “Parents are
finding that it’s difficult to properly outfit their daughters for school.
Popular music, movies, commercials — it’s all working to sexualize our
This marketing phenomenon in turn
makes children prime targets for abuse by adults. Though media reports have
focused on abuse by Catholic clergy, the problem of teachers molesting children
dwarfs the comparatively small problem in the Church.
John Mark Karr, a suspect in
connection with the murder of JonBenet, worked as a
school teacher in the United States
before taking teaching jobs in Thailand.
In the public schools, pedophiles
aren’t uncommon. A federal study of the public school system, headed by Hofstra
University researcher Charol Shakeshaft, found that
nearly 10% of public school children have been targets of unwanted sexual
attention by teachers and staff.
While most news reports about
clergy abuse focus on allegations of decades-old instances abuse, the epidemic
of teacher molestation is ongoing and unchecked. Catholic author and blogger Daniel Flynn found that in the week Karr was
— Police arrested a middle school
drama teacher in Waltham, Mass., for staging an elaborate production
designed to facilitate the molestation of blindfolded boys;
— Police arrested a New Jersey middle school
teacher for luring children into his car;
— Jacksonville, Fla.,
police arrested a teacher in the home of a 13-year-old student who was in his
— Additional teachers were charged
with sex crimes with minors in Vacaville, Calif., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Newport
“I’m not shocked that his [Karr’s]
profession is school teacher,” Flynn wrote in his blog.
Yet when the U.S. Department of
Education exposed rampant sexual abuse in public schools throughout the
country, politicians and the media ignored it.
The department’s report was
written in compliance with the 2002 No Child Left Behind
Act. It estimated that 422,000 California
public school students would be victims of sexual misconduct by educators
before graduation. The number of public school victims alone dwarfs the state’s
entire Catholic school enrollment of 143,000.
Yet, during the first half of
2002, the 61 largest newspapers in California
ran 1,744 stories about sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, referring almost
entirely to decades-old allegations. During the same
period, those newspapers ran four stories about the federal government’s
discovery of the much larger ongoing scandal in public schools.
Adult attitudes have helped create
an alarming situation among school children.
is the wife of Santa Clara’s
Tom Plante. She’s a practicing child psychologist and
member of the Stanford
“I treat children and their
parents, and I can tell you there’s a great deal of sexualization
that’s emerging earlier and earlier,” Lori Plante
said. “Children are engaging in casual sex with incredibly cavalier attitudes.”
Lori said nearly all children in
middle school know the term “hooking up,” which often means getting together
for casual sex.
“It’s not like it used to be,
where children or teenagers flirted, then dated, and
then perhaps went steady,” she said. In hook-ups, there is “no attachment, no
intimacy, no communication. They believe the less
emotional attachment that’s involved, the more power they gain from it. They
take no risk of getting hurt, or incurring any sense of commitment.”
remembered trying to instill a sense of propriety in the mind of a 14-year-old
girl who had engaging in “hook-ups” for years. It seemed hopeless.
“She said everything and everyone
around her was corrupt,” Lori recalled. “She said her parents were corrupt, the
school was corrupt, her church was corrupt and the government was corrupt. I
could see that she was telling me how top-down corruption and disorder had
filtered down to her, and she knew no other way.”
Other teens have explained living
in a hyper-competitive world, in which people get ahead by looking pretty and
exploiting their bodies for material gain.
“With our youth, the gloves have
come off and it’s a free-for-all,” Lori Plante said.
Increasingly, Tom Plante fears, adults are using children’s new attitudes to
prey on them. He said cultural and moral boundaries have been blurred. Anyone
who doubts that, he said, need only see the “Dateline
NBC” special in which men from all walks of life fell for a sting operation
that invited them to visit a home and have sex with a teen-ager.
Recently, Lori Plante
was called upon to provide emergency counseling to several members of a girls’
athletic team at a California
public high school. A male coach had engaged in sexual intercourse with several
girls on the team. Upon trying to counsel the girls, she found that they didn’t
consider themselves victims.
“They viewed it as a perfectly
appropriate way to earn the favor of the coach,” Lori Plante
said. “It was the cavalier use of their bodies to gain influence with an adult,
and they had absolutely no sense of sanctity for their bodies. Their sexuality
was to be used for personal gain.”
Father Sonny Manuel, another Santa Clara University psychologist, said it’s
always evil and violent for adults to act upon impulses toward children.
“These are not
loving acts, but acts of aggression and violence,” Father Manuel said.
“We have always been charged with protecting the most vulnerable — the unborn,
the poor, the elderly, the children. So when the most vulnerable are used and
objectified, it should represent a violation of the most fundamental values we
The media’s focus on clergy abuse
helps mask the real problem in the culture, said Tom Plante.
“The idea of a priest violating a
teenager is just more interesting to the press, because the priest represents
morality and celibacy,” he said. “Consider the JonBenet
story. Hundreds of children are murdered every year, but the media focus their
attention on JonBenet because she’s from a wealthy,
powerful and attractive family where everyone’s supposed to be safe. The
Catholic Church is considered a wealthy and powerful entity, so it’s just a
Professor Tracey said the media’s
handling of the JonBenet tragedy has become a
phenomenon worthy of study. He devotes one introductory journalism course
almost entirely to the media’s handling of JonBenet’s
“It’s one of history’s best
examples of mass dysfunction in the press corps,” Tracey said. “It’s an
important story, but perhaps they’ve missed what’s important about it.”
Wayne Laugesen writes
from Boulder, Colorado.