Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, by Philip Jenkins

Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, by Philip Jenkins

David Ross

PEDOPHILES AND PRIESTS: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis
by Philip Jenkins

(Oxford University Press, 2001, 214pp, $35.95. Available from AD Books)

If we can believe the six o'clock news, there has been an epidemic of sexual abuse among the clergy, and especially among the Roman Catholic clergy. We have certainly seen many well-publicised cases, with front-page photos of priests led off to jail, and television interviews of parents afraid to let their children associate with clergy.

But did the news media get the story right? Is there really an epidemic of clergy sex abuse? And is there, as some charge, something about the institution of the priesthood itself that attracts or creates pedophiles?

Neither an exposé nor an apology, Pedophiles and Priests takes a close, dispassionate look at the entire history of this mushrooming scandal, from the first rumblings to today's headlines. Philip Jenkins has written a fascinating, exhaustive, and above all even-handed account that not only puts this particular crisis in perspective, but offers an eye-opening look at the way in which an issue takes hold of the popular imagination.

Jenkins argues convincingly, not only that clergy sex abuse is far less widespread than the headlines suggest, but that there is nothing at all particularly Roman Catholic about the problem.

What then led to the media's portrayal of a Church in crisis? Jenkins begins by noting a number of factors - increased concern over the sexual abuse of children, changes in media attitudes towards the churches, the explosion in litigation in general - which combined to generate more accusations involving ministers of every denomination, with more publicity and more serious repercussions than ever before.

Jenkins's study makes it abundantly clear that this problem exists in other faiths as well as in secular institutions - indeed in any institution where it can be expected that adults come in regular, systematic contact with children enstrusted to their care.

Although the anti-Catholics among us may be disappointed to learn that the incidence of molestation by Catholic clergy is lower than in Protestant denominations or in society as a whole, Jenkins's findings make it clear that we do our children a disservice by writing this issue off as a "Catholic problem" related to the celibacy of its clergy.

By doing so, we fail even to begin to understand the root causes of such conduct, which means that our children entrusted to the care of other institutions, including secular institutions, remain at risk of abuse by their adult supervisors.

If we ignore Jenkins's findings, we will make few true advances in understanding what causes such conduct, who is susceptible to such conduct, and how to prevent adults with such pre-dispositions from being placed in positions of responsibility and care over our children.

Contributory factors

Jenkins also explores why clergy abuse came to be seen as a peculiarly Roman Catholic problem, underscoring a number of contributory factors. There is a long-standing anti-Catholic stereotype of priests as lascivious predators and the Church is a more attractive target for lawsuits than other denominations since one can sue not only the local congregation but also the archdiocese and even the national Church.

Perhaps most important, however, dissidents within the Roman Church itself - those in favour of married clergy and women priests - have seized upon the issue as a rhetorical weapon, arguing loud and long that priestly celibacy has led to homosexual and other disordered behavior such as pedophilia (a claim that flies in the face of current psychological thinking on sexual preference).

If Pedophiles and Priests reassures us about our local clergy, it also delivers a disturbing message about how vulnerable we are to the news media, and how easily the media can be manipulated by special interests. Meticulously documented and dispassionately argued, this volume marks a watershed in the discussion of an issue of enormous current interest, one that will not disappear from the headlines any time soon.

David Ross is an American Catholic writer

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