One aspect of the sex-abuse crisis that rocked the Church last year seemed very suspicious. The children seemed to be forgotten. Yes, there was long overdue concern for the victims of priests. And yes, there was well-deserved anger about the 0.5% to 1.8% of priests accused of sex abuse of minors.

But shouldn't the scandals have sparked outrage over the massive sex-abuse problem outside Church doors? Where is the clamor to go after the estimated hundreds of thousands of abusers who don't happen to be priests?

Planned Parenthood's deliberate cover-up of statutory rape (see our Page One story in this issue) caused barely a ripple. Ditto the case of Samantha Geimer. She was the 13-year-old who was excited about becoming an actress when the famous director Roman Polanski drugged and raped her. He has been avoiding U.S. authorities for years as a result. But in mid-March, Hollywood gave him an Oscar.

Imagine the outrage if former priest pedophile John Goeghan were given an award by the Catholic Church. Where is the outrage now?

The entertainment industry seems downright fondof sex abusers. Remember the movie The People v. Larry Flynt?It portrayed the Hustlerpublisher, accused child molester and creator of simulated child-pornography as a principled hero of the First Amendment. Now Liam Neeson has agreed to play the starring role in a film by Francis Ford Coppola about the “genius” sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. The film's hero once wrote, “It is difficult to understand why a child, except for its cultural conditioning, should be disturbed at having its genitalia touched, or disturbed at seeing the genitalia of other persons, or disturbed at even more specific sexual contacts.”

The April 17, 2002, issue of USA Today featured an article titled “Sex Between Adults and Children,” which is a euphemism for abuse. Under the headline was a ballot-like box suggesting possible opinions that one might hold on the subject: “always harmful, usually harmful, sometimes harmful, rarely harmful.” The newspaper's answer: “Child's age and maturity make for gray areas.”

In two Weekly Standardmagazine articles, Mary Eberstadt exposed several examples of what she called “Pedophilia Chic” — from Calvin Klein underwear ads to mainstream defenses of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. Many in the media have welcomed Judith Levine's new book on The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Its foreword is by Joycelyn Elders, the former surgeon general who thought masturbation should be taught in elementary school.

It was into this brave new world last spring that the Supreme Court, in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition,struck down a Clinton-era law banning “virtual child pornography.” That means it's legal to sell images of children having sex as long as pornographers assure us it is really just doctored films and photographs.

No wonder that when rock superstar Pete Townsend was caught with child pornography so many in the entertainment community came to his defense.

Common sense tells us that lowering our guard against child pornography will lead to more sex abuse of children. It's no surprise that more than 80% of convicted child molesters admit to being fans of child pornography.

Abuse of children is already at frightening levels. The National Victim Center in 1992 estimated that 29% of all forcible rapes in America were against children under the age of 11. Ten years later, an estimated one in four girls and one in seven boys likely are victims of unwanted sexual acts.

In such a climate, the deep evil of sex abuse by priests is even worse. The Catholic Church should be one of society's great defenders against this new assault on children. But our own problem priests have given the world the opportunity to neutralize the opposition.

We shouldn't let them. The Catholic Church should show how seriously it takes the protection of children by leading the charge against a culture that really is deeply stained by sex abuse, from the Academy of Motion Pictures to the Supreme Court.

We have learned a principle that the rest of the world has yet to imitate: zero tolerance for sexual abuse of minors.