Alex Blaze

Demonization and politicization are so much more fun than understanding

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 25, 2010 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Catholic church, child molestation, chris hansen, pedophilia, to catch a predator

With to_catch_a_predator.jpgall the Catholic Church scandals going on right now, most related to pedophilia, we're going to be hearing more and more gasbags on TV talking about why all these priests want to molest children. I can't even watch American TV out here, but already I've heard and read a bunch of theories from people who don't know the first thing about pedophiles, and I'm not going to pretend to be any sort of expert.

Polemicists will invariably use these scandals to advance their political agendas. Homophobes say that priests touch kids because they're gay. Liberals (using that term to refer to moral liberals, no matter their opinion on economic and foreign policy) blame celibacy, as if being told not to partake in pleasures of the flesh leads them to take advantage of children. Others looking to make the story entirely a clean victim/victimizer narrative, say that priests go after children because they can't defend themselves the way adults do. I've even see a few people on the right say that it's simply evil that caused these priests to molest children, an explanation that's nothing more than some people's Manichean minds trying to understand a complicated problem.

I remember NBC's To Catch a Predator specials from a few years back (are they still making those?) where Chris Hansen, a TV host like Ryan Seacrest more than an actual mental health or law enforcement professional, would get some people to pretend to be children online and tell grown men that they're home alone and to meet them there. When the dudes showed up, they'd be promptly arrested.

The sheer vigilantism of the show was troublesome enough, but the fact that these people were being arrested before they even did anything and being effectively tried on television without anything resembling due process, all for the entertainment of people in the comfort of their own homes was maddening. Not that child molestation doesn't hurt people, but considering how television shows get cut up and glued together and edited to the point where their relationship to reality is tenuous at best, the show's producers were still willing to attach people's names and faces to what our society considers one of the worst crimes ever.

Chris Hansen was once on Oprah to discuss his show, and I remember she asked him why he did that show. I shouted out "Ratings!" since it was the obvious answer - there's definitely an audience for that sort of thing (just as there's an audience for videos of women stepping on small animals) and I'm sure they tuned in every week.

Instead, Hansen said that he wanted to "understand" why child molesters go after children, which was probably the most idiotic and condescending answer he could have given. He wants to understand while some men want to have sex with children? Then maybe he shouldn't have them arrested and then interview them at the very moment where they're least likely to talk freely about their motivations! Maybe he should have found more opportune times to talk to these people and protected their identities if he really wanted to understand why they were child molesters! Or, going even further and making all the connections here, if he really wanted people to understand why some people are child molesters, he could have interviewed people who have actually studied the topic instead of having people arrested, ruining their families and their livelihoods, and then asking them why they did what they did.

All in all, I found Hansen's feigned stupidity (and that's what it is - if you're producing a show to help people understand a topic, you interview experts. If you interview people who've just been arrested who don't want to talk, then you're either stupid or malicious and pretending to be stupid, and Hansen didn't get his job by being stupid) much more annoying than his vigilantism. Do we as a society want to reduce child molestation? Or do we secretly enjoy the fact that there are these boogeymen out there that we can demonize but don't want to understand why they exist? The boogeymen sure are good for ratings.

That's my long criticism of our discourse on this topic, a discourse that lends itself to criticism because it's so shoddy. Why don't any of these people who say that celibacy causes child molestation on TV get laughed at on camera for their idiocy? Why don't these people who say that homosexuality causes pedophilia get more than stern press releases from LGBT orgs and instead get shunned by mainstream media? Because our pundits don't really want to understand this problem.

Anyway, I'm no expert on child molesters or pedophiles or hebephiles and I don't claim to be. But I did find a few interesting articles on the topic this week that I should link to here. First, here's Dr. James Cantor of the University of Toronto, the editor-in-chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment:

Although there have been claims that child molestation is a result of homosexuality (or of celibacy), there is absolutely no basis in science for either conclusion. The scientific evidence instead suggests that pedophilia and hebephilia are caused by atypical brain development occurring near or before birth.[...]

Also demonstrating that gay men have no more of a sexual interest in children than do straight men are studies that have measured sexual responses directly: There exists a test, called a phallometric test, in which a man is shown images of adults and children, both male and female, while he wears a device on his penis to detect even very small changes in blood volume. The procedure is routinely used with sexual offenders, and research has repeatedly shown phallometric testing to be one of the most -- if not the single most -- accurate predictor of who is the most likely to commit future sexual offenses. When regular gay men and regular straight men (not offenders) are tested, gay men respond to images of children in exactly the same way that straight men do: very little.

Out of typical men, approximately two to three percent have a sexual preference for men rather than women, and out of pedophilic/hebephilic men, approximately 20 to 30 percent have a sexual preference for boys rather than girls. It is an error, however, to conclude from this that the two to three percent who prefer men are more likely than the others to break out of their preferences to contact a child sexually. That is, the offenses against boys are being committed by the 20 to 30 percent of pedophiles who prefer boys, not by the two to three percent of otherwise typical men who prefer men.

It seems the latest research supports the idea that pedophiles and hebephiles are a group of people that are attracted to children regardless of their current environment or circumstances, independent of homo- and heterosexuality. (I've also gotten into the bad habit these last few weeks of reading comments on mainstream news sites. I love all the people who are like "This person has an argument, but my explanation that has no research or logic or study or anything to back it up is more accurate").

Here's an expert on the Catholic Church, discussing more about these specific instances of child molestation:

Some defenders of the Catholic Church's response to the abuse crisis say that homosexual priests are responsible for the majority of abuses, in part because more than 80 percent of the victims are male. They argue that true pedophiles -- adults who are pathologically attracted to pre-pubescent children -- constitute a small minority of offenders. Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone repeated this gay-pedophile link on Wednesday, and such reasoning was partially behind a 2005 Vatican policy barring gays from seminaries.

Such assertions have numerous flaws. For one thing, research shows that gay men are no more likely to molest children than straight men. (And celibacy doesn't seem to be a determining factor, either.) Yes, 80 percent of the victims were male, but many offenders assaulted children of both sexes. Maciel abused boys and fathered children with several women. Moreover, the abusers had access to boys; an adult male couldn't go on overnight trips with girls or take them away unchaperoned.

Finally, while critics of gay clerics fret that homosexuals dominate the priesthood and endanger children, in fact the ostensible increase in gay priests in recent years has coincided with a sharp decrease in reports of child abuse by clergy.

Also, I wanted to point to Father Tony's recent post on the topic, written from the perspective of someone who was clergy in the Catholic Church:

You say that some men entered the priesthood to find a cure for their gay sexuality. I suspect that somewhere there may be such a priest, but overwhelmingly, we who were ordained gay were actually not in search of a cure. We had a rather high estimation of ourselves as sexual creatures. We were joining a fraternity of accomplished and respected gay men. Gay sex was certainly not off limits to us as long as we bought the duplicity and the premise that we did it secretly. As gay culture became acceptable, the need for this fraternity withered and the priesthood stopped attracting good gay candidates.

Also, I tried hard to understand and to feel your assertion that pedophile priests see their victims as less than human. I don't think I agree with that. I think that in most cases, pedophile priests saw their victims as convenient humans. These men were largely not part of the fraternity of gay priests whose meetings would happen at gay rectories, resorts, bars and baths. As the accusations came to light, many of us who are or were gay priests were totally surprised by the names of the accused. I think that many of them felt trapped by celibacy whereas those of us who simply shrugged it off from the time of our ordinations and led active sex lives and formed healthy relationships with adults were not their associates. They conducted their pedophile sex in secret. I think the media mistakenly paint the image of a priesthood in which all priests were aware of what was happening. I, hardly a blushing flower, was among those shocked at the extent of the situation.

His observations about what how these people fit in to the larger social structure of the Catholic Church - they were unlikely to have sexual relationships with adults even though it was an option, they didn't associate with the out-ish gay priests - contradict simplistic explanations of pedo-/hebephilia created to advance certain political agendas.

These are three articles I found interesting recently on the topic; they're not meant to be the last words. But they're better beginnings than "Gay sex leads to pedophilia," "The closet leads to pedophilia," "Celibacy leads to pedophilia," or "Child molesting priests are evil so they can only do evil."

The issue isn't purely academic, although it would benefit from some academic treatment. Because without a clearly understood genesis, child molestation is a scary problem that can be easily exploited by folks with a political agenda, and the right is always better at that game than the left.


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As the sort who responds in kind, I can readily be accused of demonizing others in response.

When I do that, however, I generally use the arguments they present to do so, as it's much easier and more readily absorbed by them.

Harm to children is more heavily politicized than most other things, because children provoke strong and lasting emotional reactions in people -- the sort that actually determine how they respond to similar situations in the future.

Facing this sort of challenge head on is something that we, as a society, will absolutely have to do. And as you pint out -- there's no time like the present.

I never watched a full episode of this because I found it so disturbing in several ways. I did not like the fact that Hansen/the police were basically setting up a trap and the men were being encouraged to get together with the "child". It is entrapment in my opinion. Then of course I was also appalled at these men for wanting to do that with some very young people. But the sheer stupidity of these guys showing up was just ignorant on their parts- not to mention sick in at least some cases. I think the age of consent laws are way too inconsistent from state to state and that it should be 16 for everyone everywhere. Why? Because most 16 year olds are having sex, will have sex, and I don't think an 18 year old having sex with a 16 year old should send them to jail. The same sex ones always seem to be treated worse too.

That's actually part of the issue for me - there's absolutely nothing sympathetic about these men. If the show actually represented reality (and that's a big "if"), these men thought they were doing something rather despicable. They aren't great victims and people at home in front of their TV's aren't likely to care about them.

Which makes it easier to turn off the parts of the brain related to fairness and justice that care about due process and start thinking, "Yeah! Get him! Arrest that perv!" It's a sophisticated concept - if you wanted to make a show where real people's lives are ruined because there's a significant audience out there for that kind of "fun," but you didn't want to be subject to any major criticism, just pick the most hated people in American and voila, TV gold.

I always just figured that child abuser priests were basically like the rest of child abusers, a mix of pedophiles and opportunists, likely to be someone who is close the child and has regular access. My issue with Hansen is that stranger molestation makes up such a small amount and the vast majority of sexual solicitiation of minors online is from other minors. Kids are most likely to be molested by a man in a heterosexual relationship with a female relative, i.e. fathers, stepfathers, uncles, grandfathers, step-grandfathers, etc. Like most rapists, child rapists pick the easiest to get, most vulnerable victim. For a priest, access to boys is easier to get than access to girls and social and religious authority make a powerful silencing tool. Pedophilia plays a role, because a certain percentage of child molesters are likely to be pedophiles, but the expectations of unquestioning obedience to religious authority and the structural cover ups play a huge role as well. I have heard a psycologist who studies rape say that 'every rapist is a serial rapist unless they get locked up the very first time'. The Catholic church made sure that priests accused of abuse were protected from punishment and created an environment where abusers knew that they could continue their crimes and get away with it over and over again.

Definitely law enforcement is an issue. The church's hands obviously aren't clean on many levels, from ignoring evidence of wrong doing to giving further access to children to these specific priests.

But what motivates these people in the first place? I'd suspect actually pedo/hebephilia plays a large role since everything that I've heard from people in the church willing to talk frankly about the matter, both male and female, shows that there are plenty opportunities for adult sexual relationships. I know a former nun who left the church with a priest she worked with and they married several weeks later.... I don't think they waiting until the big day.

Although there have been claims that child molestation is a result of homosexuality (or of celibacy), there is absolutely no basis in science for either conclusion. The scientific evidence instead suggests that pedophilia and hebephilia are caused by atypical brain development occurring near or before birth.

That's a very convenient way to excuse society.

I have no problem demonizing the Catholic Church. They, or it if you prefer to think of the system as an object so as to avoid blaming any actual people, systematically allow for abuse to happen.

They're complicit. They're not only complicit when it's a priest, but when a father of 8 children confesses to molesting his own kids and the priest doesn't alert authorities, I blame the priest, the Church, and the whole system that demands such a confession be kept secret.

For a priest to break the seal of confession is serious. If a priest reports abuse they learn of in a confession, they can be excommunicated. And the law respects that privilege in most states.

The Church's solution to the scenario I outlined was to grant the father an annulment--which is rather unusual after 8 kids with his wife--so that he could go marry an 18 year old woman, the same age as his eldest daughter. This would surely cure him of his lust for his own kids. But then he had 3 more kids with his new younger wife.

So...you were talking about brain scans...

I am admittedly biased. I have no research to support whatever. Just my experience. And I wouldn't call it fun.

Abuse obviously happens outside the Church as well. What's scary about it happening within the Church is that it has the ability to act outside and above the law. Except for a handful of states, we pretty much let them because we assume they're more moral.

We give religion exceptions in anti-discrimination laws, child abuse reporting laws, taxes and more, and I see no rational reason for it.

There is no scientific data that supports faith healing either. They can't heal pedophiles or other sexual predators. They're not licensed therapists. All they can do is forgive them. So why should the law should respect clergy-penitent privilege when another person is in danger, child or otherwise?

The catholic church is complicit. Totally agree.

I'm wondering why, and maybe they think that their teachings or celibacy or evil itself caused these priests to molest children, so they became more worried about PR than about the children's well-being. Or just that they thought they were above the law. Or they just didn't care.

Either way, they'll still be around a hundred years from now and them enacting some type of reforms (like turning over sexual aggressors to authorities when they know about them, and they knew about quite a few from outside of confession), and reforms should be based on the best science available.

There's nothing wrong with placing fault for certain aspects of these abuses on people, my issue was more that people are using it for their personal gain or to advance an ideology.

The church is clearly complicit in the rape and abuse of countless thousands of children. But it should be no surprise - for the church has a long history of, well, being on the wrong side of it.

Not that I had much to begin with, but I lost my last speck of respect for the Catholic church when the Pope told AIDS ravaged Africans not to use condoms.

There is nothing more despicable, or evil, than that.

Understanding? Well maybe that should start with the simple recognition that humans develop sexually much younger than 18 yet socially lines have been drawn. I am not going to "blame the victims" but simply pointing out that human sexuality often creates dynamics that differ from the regulation of conduct that is so necessary for some semblance of any organized society. I think part of the problem (certainly not all of it) is that our society needs to be very "in your face" about these lines but it is such a taboo topic that basic education is lacking. What I mean by that is we need to be openly saying "look, here are lines in the sand that are not precise in terms of human sexuality but we have drawn them and if you cross them you will be prosecuted swiftly and harshly". This should be the message by society itself and certainly the churches as well as any other organizations. This should be taught in schools, literature, media and in every possible venue. We should all know that the rules change on our 18th birthday and we should all be very aware of the repercussions. Heck, as far as I'm concerned the churches can even label it an abomination but for gosh sakes preach it to the young so that when a person becomes 18 no one has any doubt about living under different societal obligations and requirements.

This is a cogent tack on the scandal and mention of "To Catch a Predator" is on point. What seems to run through these disparate sites is the relation between institutions (Church), politics (Vatican City/UK/USA) and the legislation of desire. Beyond this, as Deena notes above, the sexuality of children is treated as universally null whereas Freud would say that kids are the "original" perverts. Children as a group don't develop sexuality in one static timeline and the political designation of consent is at best arbitrary, especially through varying jurisdictions and age limits.

My thinking leads me to argue that legislation against "adult"-"minor" sexual relations is wrong. Clearly, there are some persons pushing middle age who don't possess the interpersonal faculties necessary for what society presumes as a precondition for rational sexuality. And this has nothing to do with the legal classifications for disability. Admittedly I'm coming from a different standpoint. I don't believe a cause-effect analysis will give us anything productive. The implications of personal-societal relations should be foregrounded to show the ways that all of us are "guilty" of our desires in one way or another.