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Priests and Boys


Philip Jenkins was a fairly obscure historian until 1996, when reactionary Catholics made him an improbable star. He began his career as a professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in the debunking of alleged “crime waves.” For criminological journals he wrote four articles on what he considered the unjustified fear of serial murderers in England.1 In his 1992 book, Intimate Enemies: Moral Panics in Contemporary Great Britain, he broadened his analysis of “constructed” social fears to cover “witch hunts” over Satanism, rape, incest, pedophilia, child pornography, homosexuality, and drugs. In each case an “imaginary menace” is manufactured by “moral entrepreneurs” as a form of “symbolic politics.”

These panics, he argued, are often interconnected: “There is a natural tendency for activists who have been successful in exploiting one fruitful issue to employ similar rhetoric and examples in related causes.” Jenkins calls this phenomenon “problem convergence.” Feminists, for instance, exploit the issues of rape, serial murder, child abuse, and pornography to promote their agenda. The state is often brought in to control these nonexistent threats, creating its own real threat of repression based on hysteria. The British pedophile scare, for instance, involved “a more or less covert assault on homosexual rights.” When the pedophilia involved Anglican choirboys, fears drew upon “a powerful image of anticlericalism.”

After Jenkins had established his libertarian and permissive standards, he made one exception to it in his 2001 book, Beyond Tolerance. Despite his criticism of panic over child pornography, he found one form of real exploitation on the Internet, filmed sexual acts with real prepubescent children. Even this he did not want to outlaw, since bringing in the state is an invitation to repression—current porn- ography laws, for instance, pose a threat to legitimate portrayals of adolescent sexuality like Lolita or American Beauty. Only China and Burma have suppressed child pornography—by suppressing freedom.

Jenkins thinks that much of the panic over child abuse is derived from a confusion of two different things, each going under the same name: pedophilia. For him, real pedophilia (child-love) concerns only prepubescents. He disapproves of this, but says that restraining it may threaten quite different sex acts with postpubescents, which he calls ephebophilia (boy-love). He holds that statutory rape laws should not outlaw such youth-love, since there is nothing in nature (as opposed to local custom) to deny the power of consent to even very young teenagers: in America “the age of consent for girls stood at ten years from colonial times until the 1880s.” Pornography involving teenagers is difficult to distinguish from Gap ads, and therefore from Internet pornography in general, on whose beneficial effects Jenkins is positively lyrical, contrasting it with the false prettiness of mainline pornography:

We can, in fact, argue that the highly democratic and easily accessible nature of sex on the Internet creates a social benefit by so frequently depicting real people, with all their visible flaws and imperfections, rather than the distorted and overidealized imagery that so long characterized X-rated magazines and movies.

He notes with approval that even plain and fat women have become sex stars on the Internet, affecting the norms of female beauty “in a way that many observers would consider highly positive,” since it makes smut more egalitarian. Playboy offered the girl-next-door image. The Internet brings us the slob next door, which Jenkins considers a great step forward.

How did this praiser of pornography and boy-love become a hero to reactionary Catholics? The man who has devoted his professional life to denouncing the opportunism of those who create panics became, himself, the occasion for an anti-panic opportunism. Neglecting all the other things he has to say, and the reasons he has for saying things in general, conservative Catholic journals fastened on what they found useful in his 1996 book, Pedophiles and Priests. That book just applied to the American Catholic situation what he had said of secular and Anglican pedophiles in England. Since by his definition all such panics are artificial, one has only to apply the cui bono principle to see who is manufacturing any panic. The principal villains he found in the priest-pedophile crisis of the 1990s were anti-Catholics, greedy lawyers, self-promoting prosecutors, sensationalistic newspapers, therapists seeking clients, and feminists with their “theology of abuse.” He never seems to consider the possibility that the panic was not manufactured, or that many factors impeded rather than promoted the revelation of priestly misconduct. Reluctance to believe, report on, or expose priests is deeply built into American culture.

American bishops and their defenders gladly promoted Jenkins’s claim that there was nothing to the priest-pedophile phenomenon but bad faith on the part of those “exploiting” it. They even said that his testimony was stronger and more disinterested because Jenkins is not a Catholic. With his help they dismissed or minimized the “panic,” which allowed Cardinal Bernard Law and others to continue sending accused priests about their ordinary ministry with the results we have seen in Boston and elsewhere. When Cardinal Law in the 1990s called down God’s judgment on The Boston Globe, he was just putting in his own way Jenkins’s attack on “the political interests of the activists and groups who used the media to project their particular interpretation of the putative crisis.”


Despite the unhappy results of following Jenkins’s lead in the last decade, some conservatives continue to use his method in responding to the current situation. TV commentator Robert Novak repeats on Crossfire that Catholic liberals are just attacking Cardinal Law because of his strict stand against contraception—though it is mysterious why anyone should care about Law’s views when the vast majority of Catholics (up to 80 percent in some polls) ignore them. It is a strange liberal conspiracy against Law that has so many conservative Catholics calling for his resignation—William Buckley, William Bennett, Patrick Buchanan, and Bill O’Reilly among them. Even the far-right Manchester Union Leader has called for the resignation of New Hampshire’s Bishop John McCormack for his collaboration with Law in reassigning accused pedophiles. Others think that people need a liberal “agenda” in order to care about the molestation of the young. (“Agenda” is the current swear word—say anyone has such a thing and he or she is instantly disqualified from expressing an opinion. Apparently only the directionless or clueless are worth listening to.)

Actually, much of the defense of Cardinal Law has come from those not previously thought of as conservatives. The formerly liberal journal Commonweal has editorialized against the panic in a purely Jenkinsian mode, comparing it to “the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s.”2 Peter Steinfels, a religion editor at The New York Times who is married to the editor of Commonweal, wrote in his paper that Cardinal Law did a good job of cleaning out pedophile priests in the 1990s but made a mistake in not publicizing his effort, which gave lawyers an opportunity for “inflating charges and using the news media to play on public fears and prejudices in the hope of embarrassing the church into settlements.”3 Kenneth Woodward, the formerly liberal Catholic editor at Newsweek, told Don Imus that lawyers specializing in the defense of alleged victims should be ashamed to tell their children how they make their living.

This blackening of accusers’ reputations seems to go beyond a laudable concern for the rights of the accused, and it ignores the fact that only suits by the abused have forced the Church to reveal what was happening. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has latterly been boasting about the comprehensive plan he instituted last year for investigating and exposing pedophilia. He neglects to mention that this detailed eleven-point plan was forced on a reluctant diocese by one priest’s victim who made it a condition of settling his suit.4 He gets credit for not calling the crisis artificial—but only because legal pressure forced him to what he now calls the enlightened position. Woodward and Steinfels must, by the logic of their position, consider that the cardinal has now joined the “witch hunt.”

It is easy to stigmatize lawyers, of course, and some major firms have now taken up cases of alleged abuse. But people with small practices pioneered in bringing these suits, since the prospects of taking on the Catholic Church seemed so dim. The Dallas lawyer Sylvia Demarest took part in the effort that won record damages in a Dallas case in 1997 because she came to know the victims and their families. The jury was so outraged at what it took to be the bishop’s lies in that case that it wrote him a note of rebuke and awarded his priests’ victims $119 million. When the diocese pleaded that this would put undue hardship on it, the victims agreed to accept only a fourth of what was owed to them. But it should be remembered that private settlements involving large sums were sometimes proposed by the bishops, in order to avoid letting juries express their views by exacting even higher penalties and to make silence a part of the bargain, keeping the matter secret. That was the dynamic at play in Cardinal Mahony’s settlement involving new policies as well as an agreed-on sum of money.

There is good reason to fear false accusations, as in the attacks on day care centers that involved very young children with cultivated memory “recovery.” But most of the accusations against priests have not involved children with recovered memory but adolescents struggling to deal with shame and the minatory aura of the Church. The most recent thorough review of findings on pedophile cases in general suggests that about 5 percent of accusations have proved false.5 But that is a survey of cases with both male and female children victims, with both lay and clerical predators. It is probable that the number of false accusations is lower where only boys are at issue, where the pressures against resistance and revelation involve religious authority and familial disbelief in that authority’s errancy, and where a cultural bias against admitting to same-sex molestation is strong. Michel Dorais argues that the latter factor inhibits boy victims of men from speaking out, even where religion does not enter into the crime.6

Dorais also stresses the psychological importance of reaching financial settlements as a form of societal endorsement of their legal complaint’s validity. It is important that some authority endorse their condition, since the pedophiles rarely if ever do—and, in the case of priestly abuse, because the hierarchy has avoided admission or apology short of legal compulsion. Many parents of abused boys asked only for apology and assurance that the priest would be sequestered from children—and some sued only when they found that the apology was minimal or hollow and the assurance of sequestration was a lie. Dorais writes:

Certainly, material compensation cannot soften interior pain. It can, however, allow the seeking out of better services to help the victim face up to what he is going through. It is essential that the damages caused by sexual abuse be fully recognized. Too many abused boys feel that nothing has been done for them and never will be. Paradoxically, if they are to be allowed to turn the page, it must be first recognized that they have been victims.

  1. 1

    Myth and Murder: The Serial Murder Panic of 1983–1985,” Criminal Justice Research Bulletin, Vol. 3 (1988); “Serial Murder in England, 1940– 1985,” Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 16 (1988); “Sharing Murder: Understanding Group Serial Homicide,” Journal of Crime and Justice, Vol. 13 (1991); “Changing Perceptions of Serial Murder in Contemporary England,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 7 (1991).

  2. 2

    The Whole Story,” Commonweal, April 5, 2002.

  3. 3

    Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs,” The New York Times, February 9, 2002.

  4. 4

    William Lobdell, “Diocese’s Policies Reflect Settlement,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2002.

  5. 5

    M.D. Everson and B.W. Boat, “False Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Children and Adolescents,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 28 (1989), pp. 230– 25.

  6. 6

    Michel Dorais, Don’t Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys translated by Isabel Denholm Meyer (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), pp. 42–48.

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