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
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
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
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.