With all 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.