The media’s sex-abuse double standard

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Yet another Catholic diocese has come under a deluge of criminal and civil suits from individuals claiming to have been sexually abused by priests. On February 16, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia agreed to reopen 37 possible cases of child sexual abuse mentioned during grand jury proceedings. The grand jury also recommended charging Monsignor William Lynn with two criminal counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and pressing other criminal charges against three priests and a Catholic school teacher. Several priests were placed on leave of absence after having been accused.

The phenomenon of priestly sexual abuse has been a deeply disturbing problem for the Church in the United States and abroad. In the United States, Ireland, and Germany, clerical abuse and the subsequent cover-up by bishops has been a terrible source of scandal.

Certainly, no amount of child sexual predation is tolerable, and Catholic priests have to be called to a higher standard. However, the manner in which the media has reported on the matter has been both dishonest and biased. The media’s dishonesty is shown in its refusal to call the problem what it is — a problem of homosexuality among the clergy. The media’s bias is shown by its near-systematic refusal to report on the much worse problem, both in terms of volume and in terms of percentages, of sexual abuse by public school teachers.

The relationship between the abuse crisis and homosexuality among Catholic clergy is not difficult to see. According to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on clerical sexual abuse, published at the request of the American bishops in 2002, 81% of children in alleged cases of sexual abuse were males; further, most of the cases involved post-pubescent children. Thus, the problem is not even one of pedophilia, in most cases; rather, it is an issue of pederasty. A priest accused of molesting a 15-year-old boy, something much more consistent with homosexual behavior, is in a different league from someone molesting a seven-year-old.

It is well documented that after the Second Vatican Council, the Church in the United States and in many countries throughout the world began admitting more and more seminarians with known homosexual tendencies, something that would have been viewed as shocking before the Council. Studies and news reports on the subject have varied in their estimations of the number of homosexual priests, but it is consistently estimated that the percentage of homosexuals in the priesthood is higher than in the general male population. A number of books and news reports, most notably author Michael Rose’s best-selling Goodbye, Good Men, discussed the appalling lack of discipline in Catholic seminaries, which in some cases became hotbeds of homosexual activity. The Vatican attempted to combat this issue early in Pope Benedict’s pontificate by issuing a document preventing admission to seminary of men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

Beyond the mischaracterization of the crisis, the media has narrowly focused on the priesthood while ignoring more serious problems of abuse in other sectors of society, particularly in public schools. A few media reports have indicated that sexual abuse by teachers in public schools utterly dwarfs the problem of priestly abuse, in a system where dismissing a teacher is exceedingly difficult. In New York City, for example, public school teachers are ten times more likely to abuse children than are Catholic priests. Teachers, Boy Scout leaders, foster parents, counselors, and physicians all have higher rates of child abuse than do Catholic priests.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has consistently called out the media for biased reporting on this issue, believing that hatred for the Church is at the heart of much of the unfair coverage. He has particularly pointed out the failure of the New York media to report on abuse by ministers of other religions, particularly by Jewish rabbis. Clearly, the Catholic Church is being singled out beyond other religious congregations.

There is no doubt that the media has helped the Church to initiate badly needed reforms in priestly formation and child protection by shining light on the problem of priestly sexual abuse. At the end of the day, however, the media’s double standard of coverage all boils down to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and homosexual sex acts. Religious institutions that fail to take strong stances on such issues (for example, most branches of Judaism) do not undergo the scrutiny the Catholic Church does. The media would serve the public much better, and help to protect more children, if they ditched the double standard.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.