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 Register.

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, he said.

“Was JonBenet 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 children.”

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 arrested:

— 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 underwear;

— Additional teachers were charged with sex crimes with minors in Vacaville, Calif., Chapel Hill, N.C., and Newport News, Va.

“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.

Lori Plante is the wife of Santa Clara’s Tom Plante. She’s a practicing child psychologist and member of the Stanford University psychology faculty.

“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.”

Lori Plante 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 have.”

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 better story.”

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 murder.

“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.