A Positive Unintended Consequence of Controversy

Mary Eberstadt notes that, leading up to the turn of the millennium, the taboo against pedophilia appeared to be next up on the list of cultural norms to undermine:

The phenomenon of pedophilia chic revealed the intensely troubling possibility that society, especially literate and enlightened society, was in the process of sanctioning certain exceptions to the taboo against sex with minors—particularly sex between men and boys. As a matter of criminal law, of course, girls are often and tragically the victims of older men. But pedophilia chic concerned not the rate of criminal conviction but rather the open public questioning of the taboo itself. What the record through the 1990s showed was that in the case of girls the taboo remained solid, and in the case of boys it did not. In other words, to take the example before us now, had Roman Polanski been arrested for the same crime a decade ago, in all likelihood we would have witnessed the same outcry that we did this fall.
So now let us ask the more difficult question: Would Polanski in 2009 still have inadvertently united almost everyone in America against him if his victim had been a thirteen-year-old boy rather than a thirteen-year-old girl? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes—and for interesting if unexpected reasons.

Winding through some indicators of that “pedophilia chic,” Eberstadt concludes that the scandal in the American Catholic Church forced “literate and enlightened society” to reposition its opinion so as to permit moral outrage against cultural conservatives. It’s an interesting suggestion, and it certainly doesn’t conflict with experience with human nature.
One might also suggest similar reactions within the Church, itself. We can hope, for example, that church leaders will be wary of the judgments and suggestions of secular society such as informed organizational decisions in the late ’60s and ’70s. (The human frailty that begets the sorts of cover-ups that we witnessed in subsequent decades is probably beyond our ability to eliminate, although we can be more watchful.)
More broadly, it may be that the Church is in the process of reevaluating its relationship with and role in American society. One needn’t enumerate the examples of public school teachers who’ve been found to have abused their positions with children and teenagers to suggest that representatives of Christ must hold themselves to a higher standard. And one needn’t engage politicians in the dispute over their claims to define Catholicism as rightfully as bishops in order to discern that religion’s role, and therefore its standards, must be of a different sort than those compiled and applied within secular spheres.
The challenge is to make the beneficial reactions to horrible actions outlast the damage that those actions did to the Church’s standing.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

I have wondered if it is not pandemic in the Church. I have known several men who told me they left the seminary because of homosexual advances. At the time, I thought “sour grapes”. Now, I am not so sure.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that the prohibition on marriage for priests does not attract a wide cross section of society.

Tabetha
Tabetha
11 years ago

Unfortunately, a few bad apples do tend to slip through the cracks – be it in the Catholic Church or the public school system. Even with extensive background checks this can happen. I think the issue with the Catholic Church was the fact that once leadership knew about guys that were abusing kids they (a)did not turn them over to the authorities and (b)moved them to other churches where they then had access to more children. Perhaps if they had at least been sent to a monastery where no kids were available, fewer children would have been molested. That is the reason why lawsuits where upheld against the church. Imagine if a public school teacher got caught molesting a child and, rather than being turned over to local police, was simply sent to another school. Wouldn’t you hold the school system responsible if your child got molested? In fact, I am sure this exact scenario has happened in the past. Once any organization knows that a person who has access to children is abusing their position by hurting kids, it is the responsiblity of that organization to protect children in their care.
As for Polanski, that is a case of the rich and famous getting away with things that ordinary folks do not. Notice that Michael Jackson – accused of molesting 13-year-old boys – did not go to jail either. It seems that money and a name prevent a person from facing the same justice as Joe and Jane Schmoe, who will surely be spending quite a bit of time on the inside of a jail cell if they choose to take up with a 13-year-old kid – male or female.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

“Imagine if a public school teacher got caught molesting a child and, rather than being turned over to local police, was simply sent to another school. Wouldn’t you hold the school system responsible if your child got molested?”
That happened at my daughter’s school, Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, in Cambridge. One of the sports people was caught molesting children. He was given a good recommendation and went to another school. He was caught there and his past became known. The headmaster at BB&N was backed a 1000% percent, and was gone the next year. He was also taken to trial for “misprison of a felony”. I think he got “community service”.

Tabetha
Tabetha
11 years ago

He should have been charged wih child endagerment. There is no excuse for sending a known pedophile back into a situation where he or she has access to children. I think he should have been charged with obstruction of justice as well for not turning the guy in.

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