Are They Really Pedophiles?

Not all the scandals involved ''molestation,'' and many did not include victims we can characterize as ''children.''

BY: Philip Jenkins


Excerpted with permission from "Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis." Copyright 1995, Oxford University Press.

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


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


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


, 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


, the erotic love of a youth (Greek,


), 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,


has fallen into disfavor as a derogatory epithet applied inaccurately to homosexuals; as late as the 1970s, the Oxford English Dictionary gave




as synonyms. Moreover,


fails to include sexual activities with young girls. These difficulties explain the recent preference for the medically precise


, 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


; 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


with all its connotations.

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