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Culture of Fear BookRaw Numbers and Pedophile Priests

The news media have misled public consciousness all the more through their voracious coverage of pedophiles in another place that many Americans privately distrust and consider mysterious-the Catholic Church.

John Dreese, a priest of the diocese of Columbus, Ohio, justifiably complained that a generation of Catholic clergy find their "lifetimes of service, fairly faithful for the great majority, are now tarnished and besmirched by the constant drone of the TV reporting." Writing in Commonweal, the independently published Catholic magazine, Dreese acknowledged that some of his fellow priests abuse children, and he decried the bishops who let them get away with it. But the media, Dreese argues, "seem more and more ideological. ‘Roman Catholic priest’ or ‘Father’ are consistently used in their reporting. Rarely is the generic term of minister or simply, priest, used. Shots of the inside of a Roman Catholic church, of angelic altar boys in cassocks and surplices, and first communicants dressed in pure white dramatically highlight the bold betrayal of this crime."

Asks Dreese, "Is this responsible reporting, is it sensationalism, or is it Catholic bashing?" It is a question that warrants serious consideration by reporters and editors who have been much too accepting of evidence of "epidemics" of priestly pedophilia. The media paid considerable attention, for example, to pronouncements from Andrew M. Greeley, a priest best known as the author of best-selling potboilers, including Fall from Grace, a 1993 novel about a priest who rapes preadolescent boys. Although Greeley holds a professorship in the social sciences at the University of Chicago, his statements on pedophiles in the priesthood oddly conflict with one another and with principles of statistical reasoning to which he subscribes in other contexts. "If Catholic clerics feel that charges of pedophilia have created an open season on them," he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, "they have only themselves to blame. By their own inaction and indifference they have created an open season on children for the few sexual predators among them." Yet in a Jesuit magazine Greeley declared that the number of pedophile priests is far more than just a "few". There he estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 Roman Catholic clergy-between 4 and 8 percent of the total-had abused more than 100,000 young people.

These shocking statistics, dutifully publicized in the press, were unreliable to say the least. Greeley extrapolated the number of pedophile priests based on rough estimates from the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, which based them on their own internal study, which may or may not have been accurate, and in any event, might not have generalized to clergy nationwide. As for the figure of 100,000 victims, Greeley came up with this estimate on the basis of studies of child molesters outside the priesthood that suggest that active pedophiles victimize dozens if not hundreds of children each. Yet these studies are themselves controversial because they rely on self-reports from men who were apprehended by the police-men who might molest more children than other pedophiles or exaggerate their exploits.

Greeley’s critics suggest he exaggerated the number of pedophiles and victims by something like a factor of ten. But whatever the true incidence, the amount of ink and airtime devoted to pedophile priests clearly has created a climate in which, on the one hand, the church has reason to disavow true claims, and on the other, con artists have leverage to bring false claims. Attorneys who specialize in bringing suits against the church and have collected multimillion dollar settlements say they see large numbers of false claims.

The political essayist Walter Russell Mead pointed out a more subtle disservice of the media’s focus. In reporting on perverted priests journalists presumably believe they are raising a larger issue about the moral collapse of one of humankind’s oldest and most influential spiritual institutions. As Mead points out, however, obsessive attention to pedophile priests obscures more far-reaching problems of the church. He cites in particular corruption in political parties the church has supported in Europe, and a loss of membership in various parts of the world. These trends are considerably more difficult for the press to cover, especially in a manner that audiences will find interesting. Yet they are far more pertinent indicators of the decline and corruption of the church than are pedophile priests. "After all, the church does not teach that its clergy are saints-just the opposite," notes Mead. "Sin is with us every day, says the Catholic Church, and it deliberately teaches that the efficacy of its sacraments and the accuracy of its teachings are independent of the moral failings of its bishops and priests. From a certain point of view, the sex scandals don’t so much disprove the Christian faith as confirm our need for it."

Strange and Sinister Men

In my review of news stories about crimes against children I have been struck by the frequency with which journalists draw unsubstantiated conclusions about the pedophilic tendencies of individuals and whole classes of people.

When a man named Thomas Hamilton gunned down sixteen elementary school children, their teacher, and himself in tiny Dunblane, Scotland, in March 1996, the event took center stage in the American news media, much of which portrayed Hamilton as one in a large but nearly invisible breed of child predators, any of whom might, without warning, go out and massacre children. "The villain, all too predictably, was an embittered loner and suspected pedophile," wrote Newsweek. "He was," a columnist for the magazine said in an accompanying piece, "a slightly elderly, crazed version of the social category that now menaces our societies more than any other: the single male who has no hope."

The columnist offered up no evidence in support of this slur against solitary bachelors. He would be hard pressed to do so, in particular with regard to the danger they pose to women and children. Married men, having greater access to these groups, commit the lion’s share of violence against them. The pedophile connection is also tenuous. Child murderers may be suspected pedophiles, but only a small number are confirmed or confessed pedophiles. In the case of Thomas Hamilton, most major news outlets hinted at his pedophilia or quoted townspeople who asserted it outright, but on the basis of blatantly weak evidence. As a Reuters news agency story noted, "What really bothered people were the pictures, often showing boys stripped to the waist for physical activity-nothing sinister in that, but unsettling, neighbors and acquaintances said."

Reuters’s story on Hamilton was more balanced than many. Other print and broadcast journalists let audiences make what they would of the fact that Hamilton had been kicked out of his post as a scout leader for "inappropriate behavior." Reuters disclosed that, according to the scouting association itself, he had been sacked not for child molesting but for incompetence.

Another interesting fact came out in People magazine. Although People’s reporters made much of Hamilton’s "penchant for photographing boys bare-chested," they let it be known that when town officials shut down a boys’ club Hamilton had started, seventy parents and forty-five boys signed a petition saying he had great talent and integrity. "We are all proud to have Mr. Hamilton in charge of our boys," the petition declared. Hamilton himself, in a letter he sent to the news media just before his killing spree, professed he was "not a pervert" and insinuated that it was whispers to the contrary around Dunblane that had driven him to his heinous act.

Still, in their stories about him some journalists were no better than the small-town gossips. They rekindled age-old prejudices linking homosexuality and pedophilia. Newsweek ran a sidebar titled "Strange and Sinister," which consisted of a photograph of Hamilton standing beside a boy (fully clothed) and allegations that he was a pedophile who had been caught by police "in a gay red-light district" in Edinburgh "in a compromising position."

Homophobia is a recurring element in journalists’ coverage of mass murderers. Research by Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, shows that the media routinely emphasize the supposed homosexuality and pedophilia of men who commit multiple murders. News stories over the past quarter century about Randy Kraft, Westley Alan Dodd, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and assorted other killers included phrases like "homosexual homicide horror" and "homosexual sadist." As Jenkins notes, "Emphasizing that such individuals were gay serial killers tended to confound homosexuals with pedophiles and to support contemporary claims that homosexuality represented a physical and moral threat to children."

Studies of pedophiles solidly refute such claims, of course. One recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics indicates that a child is about a hundred times more likely to be molested by the heterosexual partner of a close relative than by a homosexual. Other research finds that many of the men who molest children not only are not gay, they despise gays. In failing to make note of such research in articles where they represent men like Thomas Hamilton as gay pedophiles, journalists do more than misguide those who read or watch their reports; they feed right-wing groups with material that is then used in interviews with the press and in membership solicitations as evidence that gays "seduce our children," as Lou Sheldon put it in a solicitation mailing for his Traditional Values Coalition.

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