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Priests and Boys: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Readers of The New York Review might be bemused by the venom of Garry Wills’s attack on me in the June 13 issue [“Priests and Boys”]. It would take a lot of space to rebut each specific allegation or piece of misinformation, but I want to focus on the monstrous and wholly false charge that I am a “praiser…of boy-love.” Since 1978, I estimate that I have published a total of well over three million words, counting books, scholarly articles, reviews, and journalism. I have written to Dr. Wills to invite him to cite one single statement from that substantial paper trail, any one sentence or passage, that justifies the claim that I have ever advocated, defended, praised, or promoted this type of conduct. Of course, I have received no reply, nor have I received an apology.

As far as I can tell, Wills bases his scurrilous charge on the following arguments. Firstly, “For [Jenkins], real pedophilia (child-love) concerns only pre-pubescents.” Indeed it does, since I use the definition accepted by the entire US psychiatric profession. Secondly, “[Jenkins] disapproves of this, but says that restraining it may threaten quite different sex acts with post-pubescents, which he calls ephebophilia (boy-love). He holds that statutory rape laws should not outlaw such youth-love.” I have never made such a statement, nor does it reflect anything like my actual views. If I have written or said anything to this effect, I invite him to supply chapter and verse. Where? When? By the by, ephebophilia does not mean boy-love, the term is not something I invented, and obviously I never claimed that problems like rape were nonexistent, etc., but confronting every one of his misrepresentations would require a book-length reply. And I have indeed written histori-cal accounts of how the age of consent has changed through American history: Does Dr. Wills dispute the accuracy of my statements?

In seeking the origins of his inchoate fury, we need to understand Dr. Wills’s current crusade against the Roman Catholic Church, which he dislikes because it has fallen so badly out of step with him on significant issues of belief and practice. In Dr. Wills’s view, exhibit A for systematic Catholic depravity has been the sexual abuse scandals within the American Church, which (in my view) he interprets according to the sensationalist stereotypes prevailing in the contemporary media. I have the misfortune to be the academic who has been most visibly engaged in challenging those stereotypes and bogus statistics. I have therefore committed the unpardonable sin of attempting to sideline a successful witch hunt by the application of critical scholarship. The response to my efforts can be seen in Dr. Wills’s bizarre jeremiad.

Since Dr. Wills and I share an admiration for the work of G.K. Chesterton, I hope he will appreciate a Chestertonian conclusion here: Oh, chuck it, Wills.

Philip Jenkins

Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies

Pennsylvania State University

University Park, Pennsylvania

Garry Wills replies:

A few points:

  1. My puzzle concerned the bishops, not Jenkins: “How did this praiser of pornography and boy-love become a hero to reactionary Catholics?” Bishops rarely consort publicly with libertarians who are sexually permissive on principle. I do apologize for using only one verb with two objects. I should have said “a praiser of pornography and defender of boy-love.”

  2. That Jenkins is permissive on most things he tells us at the beginning of Beyond Tolerance, where he belatedly opposes one form of sexual expression—pornography involving prepubescents: “This is a curious position for someone who defines himself as a libertarian” (p. 9). He retracts what he had earlier held, that concern over this form of pornography was “largely bogus” (p. 8).

  3. Jenkins, who came late and reluctantly to concern over prepubescent sex, has a vastly different attitude toward postpubescent sex. There he sees a “continuum” (p. 27) of social attitude, with the age of consent ranging from age ten (acceptable in some societies) and on up. The age of consent set by law is socially arbitrary, since “sexual behavior with teenagers has been considered normal in most societies” (p. 27). Again, I was not contesting this view, just wondering why Catholic conservatives, of all people, suddenly found it attractive.

  4. Within Jenkins’s framework, sex with teenagers is normal, though illegal in some societies, but hardly “monstrous.” For him to say I had leveled at him a “monstrous charge,” I would have had to be accusing him of condoning child-sex. I did not do that. I spelled out what I meant by boy-sex (pedophilia)—the same thing that the inventers of the term meant by it and that society at large has always meant by it (despite the few psychiatrists who change its meaning to apply to child-sex).

  5. Accepting that sex with teenagers is normal destroys the rationale for statutory rape laws (I did not mention rape in general, as Jenkins claims). From this position it would be easy but not inevitable to become a defender of pedophiles. The evidence that Jenkins takes that natural step is the way he has defended pedophiles in practice. He does this by vilifying every critic of the pedophiles, calling their concern with victims mere excuses to promote their agenda as anti-Catholics, feminists, lawyers, therapists, or journalists.

  6. Since these are witch hunts, the priest-predators they target have no more reality than witches, and in all his millions of treasured words Jenkins expresses no genuine concern for their victims.

  7. His treatment of me illustrates his method. There was nothing ad hominem in my review. I know nothing personally of Jenkins, and was not even interested in him except for bishops’ odd reaction to him. I discussed his books. He discusses my motivation, which he claims to know: I just hate the Church. I suppose that protecting pedophiles would prove I love the Church—a position some bishops have taken. That must be why they find him so useful.

To the Editors:

Gary Wills [sic] accuses me of reading selectively in researching Harmful to Minors [Priests and Boys,” NYR, June 13]. But his reading—and his representation—of the book is selective at best. Discussing my chapter on a relationship between a 13-year-old and a 21-year-old, he quotes me saying the defendant had a “hefty sheet of charges pending against him.” But he leaves out the succeeding sentence: “What [the press] neglected to say was that all those charges were related to his consensual relationship with one person,” his underage girlfriend.

Wills implies that I believe the girl’s parents “had no responsibility for trying to save their daughter from the consequences of an irresponsible choice.” In fact, the chapter demonstrates that statutory rape law, which the parents turned to, rarely achieves this aim. It is a blunt instrument for adjudicating what are almost always family disputes over teenagers’ (usually daughters’) sexual choices. By categorizing minors as unable to consent to sex, the law undermines education in real decision-making. By forcing a minor to testify as the victim of a chosen lover, prosecutors often do more psychological harm than good.

And increasingly, the law is applied hysterically. “It’s perfectly understandable for parents to go crazy if their 13-year-old daughter is dating a 21-year-old guy,” says one psychologist I quote. “But the legal system is supposed to sort things out rationally and justly.” A 12-to-24-year sentence for a consensual relationship—what this young man is serving—is neither rational nor just.

Wills says I listen selectively, too, believing a girl who says she consents but not one who says she regrets sex. But I take neither as unproblematic truth. In considering the priests and their underage sexual objects, neither should he. Sexuality is always shaped by history. Our definitions of “victimization” reflect little about minors’ ability to consent and little even about the harm sex with an adult might bring to a minor, and everything about current religious and psychological politics.

Then again, if he had read less selectively, he might have gotten the author’s name right. It’s Levine, not Levin.

Judith Levine

Brooklyn, New York

Garry Wills replies:

In her sentimentalization of the twenty-one-year-old “Romeo” with a history of alleged abuse of other women, abandoned children, mental trouble, inability to hold a job, and, yes, hefty criminal charges (on the record, no matter how reported), Levine does not think there was anything the thirteen-year-old had to be saved from. In her letter she mentions the ineffectuality or draconian application of statutory rape laws. In the book, she deplores their existence. That was my only point.

I would lament my misspelling of her last name had she not misspelled my first one.

To the Editors:

Garry Wills explains etymologically why there is no difference between pedophilia—sexual desire for children—and ephebophilia—desire for adolescents [“Priests and Boys,” NYR, June 13]. His argument collapses nine pages and two articles later in the fourteen-year-old face of Lorna Sage. Sage, as pictured in James Fenton’s article “The Woman Who Did,” was beautiful (“dangerously beautiful,” says Fenton), sexually attractive, and physically mature. An adult male who was interested only in fourteen-year-olds might be considered an ephebophile. But an adult male who included the likes of Ms. Sage in his catalog of preferences could only be described as normal.

Why does it matter? As Wills points out, adult sex with either a child or an adolescent can have terrible consequences for the victim. But sex with an adolescent is merely a crime. Pedophilia is a disorder, and can be grounds for lifetime civil commitment under the nation’s “Sexually Violent Predator” laws.

The Supreme Court upheld “predator” laws in Kansas v. Hendricks, provided that they “adequately distinguish” disordered individuals such as Mr. Hendricks “from other dangerous persons who are perhaps more properly dealt with exclusively through criminal proceedings.” Prisons are full of people who gave in to temptation, whether to commit murder or insider trading. They are merely criminals. So is the priest or alleged predator who gives in to the temptation of sex with a fourteen-year-old like Lorna Sage.

People sexually abuse children for many reasons: accessibility, vulnerability, fear of adult relationships, even “dangerous beauty.” Hendricks, on the other hand, is a true pedophile, sexually attracted to children as young as seven (and, unlike some pedophiles, is unable to control his urges). If we are to maintain any distinction between mental disorder and mere criminality, then therapists, courts, and commentators must reserve the word “pedophile” for people like Hendricks, and avoid using it to describe everyone who has sex with someone under legal age.

Wills is right, then, to suggest that “ephebophilia” (or its synonym, “hebephilia)” is not a very useful term—but for the wrong reason. It is not, as he maintains, that ephebophiles should be lumped with pedophiles. The problem is that they’re too hard to tell from everybody else.

But Wills’s misuse of etymology pales next to his misuse of statistics. “The most recent thorough review of findings on pedophile cases in general suggests that about 5 percent of accusations have proved false,” he claims. He has things backwards. In this country, we try not to condemn people unless accusations are proved true. In the 1980s, victim advocates promoted the theory that alleged sex-abuse victims must always be believed. The theory was a corrective to the Freudian idea that most incest allegations were a product of female hysteria. It may have been necessary for treatment purposes, but it corrupted basic constitutional principles. Most advocates eventually abandoned it, but not before dozens of lives were ruined in sex-abuse witch hunts in places such as Jordan, Minnesota, and Wenatchee, Washington.

Wills’s statistics make little sense, however you look at them. What does “proved false” mean? Does it include cases where a genuinely abused child accuses the wrong person? How about cases, such as those in Jordan and Wenatchee, where overwrought investigators convinced children to invent ever more outrageous crimes and then helped convince juries to believe them?

Here’s an analogy: The Death Penalty Information Center reports that 101 people have been released from Death Rows since 1973 upon discovery of evidence establishing innocence. Center Director Richard Dieter points out that “many of these cases were discovered not because of the normal appeals process, but rather as a result of new scientific techniques, investigations by journalists, and the dedicated work of expert attorneys, not available to the typical death row inmate.” The Information Center published these statistics to make us consider how many other innocent people might remain on Death Row, waiting for accusations to be proved false. But if we look at these statistics the way Wills looks at child sex-abuse cases, we must conclude that everybody else on Death Row is guilty.

Proof of innocence is even harder to come by in sex-abuse cases. The states have largely eliminated statutes of limitations for sex crimes against children. In some cases, they have made child hearsay admissible, thus denying the accused the right to confront and cross-examine their accusers. That means prosecutions can go forward with no physical evidence, no DNA—nothing but the alleged victim’s alleged word. Go ahead: prove you didn’t molest that five-year-old twenty years ago.

Witch hunts happen only when the scene is set for them. The Catholic Church has done a remarkable job of scene-setting. Wills has good reason for being outraged at the Church hierarchy. But it doesn’t help when he embroiders the scenery.

By the way, Wills tells us that the word “pedophilia” originally pertained only to men having sex with boys. The latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual distinguishes between pedophilia “sexually attracted to males,” “sexually attracted to females,” and “sexually attracted to both.” Current usage matters. Etymology is interesting, but proves nothing more than that “salary” once had something to do with salt.

David Hirsch

The Defender Association

Seattle, Washington

Garry Wills replies:

David Hirsch rambles, but glances at five things:

  1. He prefers usage to etymology—so do I, but the usage that is widespread, everyday, and ancient, and based on the meaning (old and new) of pais, not the small and recent usage out of ordinary discourse.

  2. Pedophiles in the wider sense are, Hirsch says, “merely criminals.” Telltale adverb. Try it on the victims.

  3. Irrelevant to this crime are the dayschool charges of the 1980s, not only because they affected prepubescent (often preschool) children but because, as he admits, “most advocates eventually abandoned” the questioning techniques that are also barred from court proceedings now. Equally irrelevant to the priest pedophile cases is the issue of children not confronting the accused. These victims want the confrontation that bishops denied them.

  4. He answers a statistical study with anecdotal observations like the reference to the irrelevant day-school scandals.

  5. Some have been falsely convicted of murder (and other charges). Do we stop prosecuting the crime of murder? Hirsch would make pedophilia an unprovable, therefore unprosecutable, crime. Some crime. “Mere” crime.

To the Editors:

Though he is not the first to do so, Garry Wills, in “Priests and Boys” [NYR, June 13, 2002], the second of what is described as two articles on “pedophilia and priests,” manages to transform the venerable form of the essay-review into a rant with footnotes. A main, though hardly the only, point of Wills’s piece is that “reactionary Catholics,” a catchall category in which he includes this correspondent as a “defender of the bishops,” have seized upon a distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles made in Pedophiles and Priests, a 1992 book by historian Philip Jenkins, in an effort, one gathers, to deny what Wills has chosen to identify, in Papal Sin, as “structures of deceit” in the Catholic Church. In the course of his essay, which purports to be about books, Wills alludes dismissively to comments of mine made on radio and television—surely a reach in a review essay. This letter is a response to his personal and, in my judgment, neuralgic attacks.

The main, though hardly the only, difference between Wills and me is that where I see individual cases of clerical abuse and cover-up he sees evil “structures” that inhabit and inhibit Catholicism as an authentic expression of Christianity. To be sure, the American bishops, as a group, have sought to protect offending priests and fend off public scandal, as Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US Conference of Bishops, has so forcefully acknowledged. But this hardly justifies Wills’s determination to retain the label of pedophile for every priest who abuses a minor of either sex. This is not only wrong but destructive if, as I think Wills does not, one cares about the victim and the victimizer, in these cases of abuse.

As it happens, I have not read Jenkins’s book. Nor, I would guess, have most Catholic bishops. To accuse me—and the bishops—of adopting distinctions made by an author (Jenkins) whose other works would be considered uncongenial to Catholic morality strikes me as profoundly deceitful coming from Garry Wills. Wills himself has in several essays for The New York Review over the years repeatedly cited one of my own books, Making Saints, to draw conclusions, especially about motives he imputes to the current pope, that I regard as wholly unwarranted by my own reporting. In effect, he has decided that I cannot see the larger implications of my own work. Of course, any author can expect his or her work to be used for another’s ideological purposes. It is the risk every writer takes.

Speaking for myself, I have emphasized the distinction between pedophilia and ephebophilia because psychiatrists and other therapists who work with both victimizers and victims have found the distinction intellectually significant and clinically validated. Nothing in what Wills has written suggests that he has bothered to talk to these central players in the current “crisis” in the Catholic Church. Nor do I think that they would be impressed by his vain (in both senses of the word) display of linguistic analy- sis suggesting that no distinction should be made between those adults, whether heterosexual or homosexual, who are psychosexually attracted to prepubescents (pedophiles) and those attracted to postpubescent minors (ephebophiles).

Based on interviews with therapists, my understanding is it is much, much harder to treat victims who were abused prior to pubescence and “impossible” (their word) to “cure” (also their word) the pedophile. By the same token, they find postpubescent victims more susceptible to therapy and therefore more likely to overcome the effects of sexual abuse. They also find that their victimizers, whom they identify as ephebophiles, more susceptible to therapy and thus more likely to be treatable. In other words, the distinction is one that they have found to be clinically demonstrable.

Of course, individual cases differ depending not only on the nature of the abuse but also—as Wills points out—on the status of the victimizer in the eyes of the victim. For many adolescent boys, especially of a generation ago, when most of the cases so far brought to public notice occurred, a priest represents “the sacred” and one can well imagine that abuse by such a figure would cause psychic damage second only to that caused by a perpetrator who is the victim’s own father. In both cases, we have sexual abuse by a psychologically powerful authority figure and a profound betrayal of trust. We are not talking about morality here but about different kinds of sickness in the victimizers and differing chances for successful treatment of the victims. As a father and grandfather, I would find this information highly relevant if an adult child of mine were an abuser, or if a grandchild of mine were abused. I should think Mr. Wills would too. Righteous indignation is fine, but too easily assumed. There is much about child abuse that we still do not know and much more to be learned than his preoccupation with the “structures” of the Catholic Church is likely to yield.

It is not hard to guess why Wills wants to discredit the distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles. The most superficial reason appears to be his writerly preference for an alliterative label. As a tag, “pedophile priest” readily and simplistically summons indignation that “ephebophile,” a far more obscure word, does not. The more important reason, it seems to me, is that Wills wants to suppress—as did The New York Times for at least three months—the fact that most of abuse by priests has been perpetrated on adolescent males. Like the Times, Wills is an advocate of lifestyle liberalism, which means he is loath on principle to fault homosexuals.

While it is true that homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to sexually abuse prepubescents, it is also true that adult male homosexuals are attracted by male adolescent beauty, just as heterosexual males are attracted by female adolescent beauty. Here again, we have to look beyond putative “structures,” and even useful clinical distinctions, and examine abuse case by case to find out whether we are dealing with a sickness (psychosexual fixation on adolescent bodies with no desire for sexual relations with adults) or with homosexual rape or some combination of the two. The latter appears to be the case with ex-priest Neil Conway of the Cleveland diocese, whose story was reported in my own magazine, Newsweek, and who discussed his problems at length on ABC-TV. It matters too—again, not so much in terms of morality but in terms of the psychological consequences for the victim and his chances for successful therapy—whether what took place was rape or initiation into homosexual practices, such as mutual masturbation. Indeed, one man who brought his own experiences to me described how, as a sixth-grade student, he seduced a parish priest. “I guess that makes me an adultophile,” he said. That’s a word Wills will not find in the Greek lexicon but it may be no less apt for that.

Wills also criticizes me for telling Don Imus that some of the lawyers now specializing in abuse cases should be ashamed to tell their children how they make their living. He knows, or should know, that the lawyers I had in mind are the major players and headline grabbers: those, for example, like Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minnesota, who claims to represent 400 or 500 victims of priestly abuse (the number varies from interview to interview). If Wills is listening in to the likes of Imus for research material, then surely he can do a Lexus-Nexus search on Anderson. He will learn that Mr. Anderson is a man after the heart of the formerly conservative Garry Wills. According to published accounts he is a former hippie, a former member of SDS, a former husband once or twice over (it isn’t clear from the interviews whether he married one of the three women by whom he has sired children), and a former Lutheran who “hates institutional hierarchies.” This child of the Sixties came by his peculiar obsession, he says, because his daughter was abused at the age of eight by a psychotherapist who turned out to be a former priest. This being the case, one can reasonably ask why he decided to focus on the Catholic Church rather than, say, the American Psychological Association. Wills already knows the answer: Anderson dislikes deceitful structures, and is therefore by Wills’s reckoning a hero. In any case, this is the man who is now trying to sue the Vatican for complicity in the abuse of children by priests. He goes where the money is, which is what ambulance-chasers and other such lawyers do. Surely Wills, whose powers of research are legendary, knows of Mr. Anderson—and knew, when he heard Imus, of the lawyers of whom I spoke. And where, one might ask, was the indignant essayist Wills when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was accused—on CNN yet—of sexually molesting a former seminarian who, in turn, was represented by yet another lawyer specializing in cases of priestly abuse? Wills is manifestly wrong when he writes, “Reluctance to believe, report on, or expose priests is deeply built into American culture.” On the contrary, a recent study by an Evangelical organization, Christian Ministries Research, found that an average of seventy child-abuse cases a week are alleged against Protestant clergy and church volunteers, but apart from the Christian Science Monitor, this study has not been widely reported in the American media.

That Wills, a former Catholic seminarian himself, has personal problems with the Catholic Church is evident. Don’t we all. But more and more the previously conservative Wills sounds like a previous Catholic. Had I the intellectual energy and talents of a Garry Wills, I’d worry less about the Catholic Church than about how very gifted writers can be become trapped in their own structures of deceit.

Kenneth L. Woodward

Contributing Editor, Newsweek

New York City

Garry Wills replies:

Mr. Woodward is confused.

  1. He says that I should not call a man seduced by a sixth-grader a pedophile.

  2. Though that seems to suggest sympathy with the seduced priest, rather than the seducing sixth-grader, he proposes that I am the one lacking sympathy with the minor.

  3. Yet for all his concern over the man manipulated by the sixth-grader, he condemns me for being “loath on principle to fault homosexuals.”

  4. Finally, Mr. Woodward excommunicates me as a “previous Catholic.” He mistakes himself for the Pope. Understandably, perhaps. The Pope, too, is confused.

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