Ignoring the Epidemic

We were wrong. In editorials and articles during the past two years, the Register pointed out insistently and repeatedly that the numbers of priests accused of sexual abuse of minors was less than half of 1% (a number The Associated Press reported) of all priests. We later changed the number to 1.8% after the New York Times’ more complete study was printed.

Now, it seems the Ash Wednesday study commissioned by the U.S. bishops — using the most complete data possible — will report a higher number. We go to press before it's released.

Once we get it, we'll look at it closely and try to see what lessons we should learn from it about the serious mistakes the Catholic Church in America has made.

But even before its release, there are serious mistakes being made in news reports about it. We thought we'd catalog a few common errors Catholics should watch out for.

It's not a “pedophile priest” crisis.

The Associated Press, USA Today and others have repeatedly referred to the crisis in the Church as a “pedophile priest” crisis.

That's simply not true. The large majority of the accusations involve homosexual seduction of teen-agers. Don't get us wrong: Homosexual seduction of teen-agers is a tragic crime that should be prosecuted severely, both inside and outside the Church. But it's on a different plane from pedophile attacks on children, which are extremely rare in the Catholic priesthood.

To really fight sex abuse, the media need a broader scope.

By focusing almost exclusively on the Catholic Church, news reports have left the impression that sex abuse of minors is a Catholic problem. But the Catholic Church incidents are the tip of a cultural iceberg that is deep and broad.

In 1992, the National Victim Center estimated that 29% of all forcible rapes in America were against children under age 11. More than a decade later, an estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys are victims of unwanted sexual acts.

Apartment complexes, medical offices and relatives’ homes are the most likely places abuse occurs — not to mention schools. Search crime reports for the key words “teacher” and “child molester” and you'll find thousands of instances.

The difference between the Church and other institutions is that the Church has been willing to investigate the problem.

The Church's teachings don't lead to sex abuse.

There is a tendency in the media to suggest that Catholic beliefs and customs make sex abuse inevitable. But Church teaching is clear: Sexual abuse of minors is always wrong. Isn't it more likely that the media's own ambivalence on the subject has contributed to the sex-abuse epidemic?

For example, the April 17, 2002, issue of USA Toda y featured an article titled “Sex Between Adults and Children” — a euphemism for child molestation. Under the headline was a ballot-like box suggesting possible opinions 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.”

And what about the popular culture? In two Weekly Standard magazine 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.

Then there's the entertainment media. The People v. Larry Flynt movie portrayed the accused child molester and creator of simulated child pornography as a principled hero of the First Amendment. This year, Liam Neeson stars in a film by Francis Ford Coppola about “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.”

It's good that this ugly problem in the Church is being investigated, exposed and dealt with. Now it's the rest of society's turn. In the face of the evidence of a widespread epidemic of abuse fed by a new morality that winks at child molestation, why is the Church the only institution under the microscope?

Sex abuse of children should be fought strenuously everywhere it's found — not denounced in the Church, and winked at elsewhere.