The problem is usually described as one of "molestation" or "pedophilia." For Thomas Doyle, the "single most serious problem" faced by the church in centuries was "the sexual molesting of little boys by priests." Andrew Greeley published an op-ed piece in The New York Times on the "priestly silence on pedophilia," in which he returned time and again to the evocative word: "the head in the sand reaction of most priests to the pedophile problem," "priestly reactions to a pedophile charge," and so on. Canada, meanwhile, "has been rocked by its epidemic of priest pedophilia."
The terms suggest involvement with children ranging in age from toddlers to pubescent youngsters, and pedophile implies coercion, exploitation, and even violence, so that to show any tolerance or sympathy for the condition is socially unacceptable. At the very least, the words imply a breach of trust by a crucial authority figure ("father"), and in many cases the acts involved were committed against children in institutional care, who had no alternative but to submit to the sexual desires of an adult. Using pedophile adds rhetorical momentum to the critique of the institutional failings of neglect and secrecy that permitted this situation to arise. A placard carried by a member of a SNAP at a bishops' conference during 1992 declared "Child rape is a cardinal sin." Apart from indicating that the sexual activity is both forcible and directed at small children, the phrase implicates high church authorities (cardinals) in tolerating and defending perpetrators.
The Porter case indeed involved some of the worst instances of molestation and child rape, and similar acts were involved in other notorious cases. However, by no means all the scandals involved "molestation," and many did not include victims we can accurately characterize as "children." When considered in detail, the cases often suggest sexual liaisons between priest and boys or young men in their late teens or early twenties. This behavior may be reprehensible in terms of violating ecclesiastical and moral codes of sexual conduct, and breaching vows of celibacy, and the power relationship between priest and young parishioner renders it difficult to speak of the behavior as fully consensual. However, it is not properly pedophilia, which according to the standard psychiatric manual DSM-III-R, specifically refers to "sexual activity with a prepubescent child." When a thirty-year-old priest has a sexual relationship with a sixteen-year-old male, the act may be described in many ways, but "pedophilia" is as inaccurate as "child abuse" or "molestation."
Contemporary English lacks a common word for the behaviors included in the great majority of "clergy-abuse" cases, in which the "abused" is often fifteen or sixteen years old. The best and most comprehensive term is probably pederasty, the erotic love of a youth (Greek, pais), which is etymologically very close to pedophilia but covers relationships with any young person, usually male, up to the age of full adult maturity. The difficulty is that in general usage, pederast has fallen into disfavor as a derogatory epithet applied inaccurately to homosexuals; as late as the 1970s, the Oxford English Dictionary gave pederast and sodomist as synonyms. Moreover, pederasty fails to include sexual activities with young girls. These difficulties explain the recent preference for the medically precise pedophile, but the result is that sexual activities with teenage boys have fallen into a linguistic limbo. To describe this activity as homosexuality fails to take account of the age difference between partners, and thus the inability of one partner to provide legal consent. We are therefore left with the obscure word ephebophilia; the sexual preference for boys, epi hebe, upon puberty. Not surprisingly, few writers seeking a popular audience use such a word, which until recently was not even defined in major dictionaries. They therefore fall back on the better-known but inaccurate pedophilia, with all its connotations.
The distinction is crucial, if rarely made or understood. In the words of Nova Scotia bishop Colin Campbell, following the Mount Cashel scandal, "We are not dealing with classic pedophilia. I do not want to argue that homosexual activity between a priest and an adolescent is therefore moral. Rather it does not have the horrific character of pedophilia." The case that ruined Bruce Ritter involved a man of 25 who generally passed for 19. Other incidents were said to affect somewhat younger boys, but even if all the allegations against him were true, he would not count as a pedophile. Suggesting that the church concealed or tolerated pedophiles is much more destructive than the charge that it granted a certain degree of tolerance to priests involved in consensual relationships with older boys or young men. In Catholic church law, the age of heterosexual consent is sixteen rather than the eighteen common to most American jurisdictions.
Catholic authorities were surprisingly oblivious to the rhetorical significance of the terms used. It was both inaccurate and politically unwise for the U.S. Catholic Conference to have issued a statement on clerical "pedophilia," which was portrayed as synonymous with sexual abuse or misconduct with minors. As the church struggled to deal with the problem in the early 1990s, diocesan policies on "child abuse" usually made no distinction between other underage sexual activity and pedophilia, and customarily defined "child abuse" as misconduct with anyone under the age of eighteen. In the Los Angeles archdiocese, "any sexual misconduct on the part of a priest involving a minor constitutes sexual abuse."
The problem of definition is complicated by the nature or degree of sexual contact, whatever the age of the young person involved. The Porter case involved the most extreme types of misconduct, including oral and anal intercourse, but again it is difficult to generalize. Many of the cases involved far slighter degrees of contact or interference, such as fondling or kissing. The acts may have been immoral and disturbing, but they stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from the behavior of one of the well-known predatory pedophiles. Although acts of forcible rape have been known, violence does not occur in the overwhelming number of instances.
These distinctions make it difficult to know exactly what is meant by the assertion that "five or six percent" of Catholic clergy are involved in abuse. Crucially, Sipe's much misquoted estimate was that 2 percent of priests were pedophiles and 5 percent ephebophiles, but he was referring to sexual tendencies and not actual behavior: "six percent of America's 52,000 priests are at some point in their adult lives sexually preoccupied with minors."
Although that in itself says nothing about misconduct, other sources expand the "five or six percent" to cover all priests physically involved with anyone under eighteen, or ever twenty-one. Jason Berry writes that the figure refers only to pedophiles, and takes no account of ephebophiles. In addition, the "clergy-abuse" literature sometimes subsumes into this category acts of consensual intercourse between clergy members and adults, either men or women. With the definition of the problem so vague, it is not surprising that the estimates of the frequency of clergy abuse vary so widely.