When future generations write the history of the Roman Catholic Church in North America, the year 2002 will loom large, since the crisis over child abuse by priests and other clergy has had such a devastating effect on the faithful.  Yet these same events also deserve to be remembered as marking a remarkable new low in the already none-too-estimable record of the American mass media.  Newspaper and television reporters covering the crisis have repeatedly indulged in a double standard so blatant that it is amazing they have not been challenged openly.  What the media have done, in short, is to denounce as monsters and fiends those men who have sex with teenage boys, but only if the men customarily wear a clerical collar.  If the perpetrators are laymen, then exactly the same behavior is laudable, desirable, and thoroughly progressive.

Ever since the abuse crisis erupted in Boston in January, it has been apparent that the much-hyped term “pedophile priest” is fatally flawed.  The notorious Father Geoghan was indeed a pedo-
phile—a man sexually interested in prepubescent children—and some other cases of this sort have turned up.  Yet such individuals account for only a tiny fraction of sexual misconduct cases involving clergy.  If there is a “typical” clergy abuse case, it involves a cleric sexually active with a young person aged between 15 and 17, more commonly a boy than a girl.  The act may be criminal as well as immoral, and it undoubtedly involves a disastrous violation of trust, but it is not pedophilia.  In many instances, it is not even criminal: In Massachusetts, scene of some of the worst scandals, the age of consent is 16.

When a man has consensual sex with a 17-year-old boy, we normally refer to the act as homosexuality rather than pedophilia or child abuse.  In the media reporting of clergy cases, however, we always hear of molestation and abuse: In one Cleveland case, the New York Times told the story of a clergyman involved in “sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy.”  In one of the more notorious cases in California, a diocese paid out several million dollars because a priest had allegedly had sex with a 17-year-old male pupil in a Catholic high school.  News stories generally spoke freely of the act as “molestation,” and the youth as a “victim.”  In general discussion, even that case is wrongly categorized together with instances of “priestly pedophilia.”

To stress that many instances of clerical misconduct involve what should properly be called homosexuality is not to minimize or excuse the activities.  Even if we assume that homosexuality should be treated as legally equivalent to heterosexual conduct, it is difficult to speak of full consent when there is such a grotesque imbalance of power and authority between the partners.  Moreover, the priest is certainly breaching an assumed bond of trust, in addition to his clerical vows.  Looking at media coverage, we might initially feel heartened at the impressive desire to enforce sexual standards, to defend vulnerable young Americans from hedonistic pederasts.

And our response would be totally wrong.  For a quarter-century now, the media have systematically responded with total approval to relationships of this sort in cases not involving clergy—for instance, when the older partner is a non-clerical authority figure, such as a teacher or coach.  In recent years, novels about youth homosexuality and teenage coming-out have proliferated, usually treating the subject very sympathetically, and often portraying an intergenerational relationship as a kind of “initiation.”  Words like “molestation” and “victim” are never used in such a secular context, except by the novel’s unsympathetic characters, the homophobic yahoos.

This perspective is reflected when the books are reviewed by mainstream media, which normally advocate zero tolerance for any such offense involving a priest.  In one recent review, the New York Times enthused about a “beautifully acted film about an introspective 18-year-old boy’s homosexual initiation.”  Another reviewer in the same paper responds to Sylvia Brownrigg’s book Pages For You, which tells the story of a relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a female teacher.  This is portrayed as an “age-old story of first love and sexual initiation,” “a gay love affair.”

In some instances, the benevolent interpretation of gay “initiation” is applied to people much younger than the 16- or 17-year-olds who commonly feature in clergy abuse cases.  In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reviewed Gavin Lambert’s Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, recording that, “since [Lambert’s] sexual initiation at age eleven with a teacher at his preparatory school, he has felt only ‘gratitude’ for realizing his homosexuality.”  In the New York Times, film critic Stanley Kauffmann notes in matter-of-fact terms that, “When Lambert was a schoolboy of 11, a teacher initiated him.”  The lack of critical comment in this instance is amazing, as is the failure to place quotation marks around “initiation.”  Others would choose much, much, harsher words.

Even in such a grossly exploitative context, journalists feel a need to avoid condemning alternative forms of sexuality.  When clergy are involved, though, they assume a stern moralism.  The contradictions are obvious.  Only in a clerical context are the media prepared to launch very traditional assaults on homosexuality and pederasty.  It is equally incongruous to read so many media accounts of priestly “perversion,” a word that for many years since has not been commonly applied to homosexual relations.

Judith Levine’s recent book Harmful To Minors suggests that a relationship between a priest and a youth “conceivably” could be positive for both parties.  Many considered her remarks shocking and insensitive, and I personally think she was dead wrong.  But at least she showed honesty in going beyond the hypocritical double standard that prevails in the media.  Levine had committed the unpardonable crime of consistency in the first degree.