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Wrong Labels Inflame Fears of Catholics

By JOHN TIERNEY, New York Times March 22, 2002

Now that we in the press have so energetically contemplated "the sins of the fathers," as headline writers keep putting it, let us contemplate our own.

Thanks to coverage of the Roman Catholic Church's sex scandal, many people are afraid to let their children become altar boys or attend Catholic elementary schools. They have heard that the church is rife with sexual predators molesting children, and that church and law enforcement officials have allowed an epidemic of pedophilia to occur.

There has been serious sexual misconduct, but we have exaggerated it by mislabeling it. The image of "pedophile priests" is largely a myth, according to Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of "Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis" (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Dr. Jenkins is not an apologist for the Catholic Church or an advocate of clerical celibacy: he himself belongs to the Episcopal Church, which allows married priests of either sex. Nor does he minimize the problems of child abuse: he has published an expos of child pornography on the Internet. But he says there is no evidence that the rate of pedophilia among Catholic priests is higher than among other clergy or other professions.

Most of the church's sexual abuse cases involve older teenagers above the legal age of consent, Dr. Jenkins said. "I don't want to excuse this behavior," he said. "Having sex with a 16- or 17-year-old boy or girl may be phenomenally stupid and wrong in many ways immoral, sinful, an abuse of authority but it's very different from pedophilia, which is the exploitation of prepubescent children. In most of these cases with older teenagers, there's some degree of consent, and in most jurisdictions they're legal."

The age of consent is 17 in New York and 16 in many places.

Dr. Jenkins pointed to a study in Chicago a decade ago that concluded that about 40 of 2,200 priests, a little less than 2 percent, had committed sexual misconduct with a minor. But only one priest of the 2,200 was classified as a pedophile. Those statistics sound reasonable to me, although you wouldn't necessarily know it from my last column. In looking back on my days in Catholic schools, I wrote that we had all heard rumors about certain priests and brothers. But the rumors I had in mind were all about clerics interested in pubescent boys.

They were not pedophiles. You could call them pederasts, using a term that originally meant men attracted to boys up to adulthood, although it has come to be applied to homosexuals in general. The most precise term, Dr. Jenkins said, would be ephebophile someone with a sexual preference for boys or girls beyond puberty but don't expect to see that in many headlines soon.

THESE distinctions aren't merely semantic. "If you have a pedophile, the behavior is likely to be deeply obsessive and very hard to cure," Dr. Jenkins said. "The church is taking a suicidal risk in sending a pedophile to a parish. But when it's someone who had sex with an older teenager, then with treatment and proper supervision and restrictions, the priest might well not cause future problems."

There are plenty of heterosexual men teaching in public schools who find 17-year-old girls attractive, and some of them act on their impulses, but we don't talk about an epidemic of child molestation in the public schools. We don't usually express concerns that they will abuse third graders, as people in Washington Heights are saying about a priest there who is accused of having sex with a 17-year-old boy. (The priest denies the accusation.)

Dr. Jenkins attributes the current misconceptions partly to linguistic imprecision, partly to traditional anti-Catholic stereotypes and partly to the desire to avoid an awkward issue: homosexual priests. Although there is no evidence of disproportionate rates of pedophilia among priests, Dr. Jenkins said, surveys have found that an unusually high number of priests have homosexual inclinations.

"The issue of gay priests is very sensitive, and not just for the Catholic Church," Dr. Jenkins said. "It bears on controversies like allowing gay men in the Boy Scouts. I'm sure that most gay scoutmasters would be responsible, and I don't know that gay men are any more likely than heterosexual men to have sex with teenagers. But the experience of the Catholic Church suggests there will be problems if you send gay scoutmasters on camping trips with teenage boys."

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