Surveying the clergy sex scandals of the past decade, one is reminded of Christ’s prediction that “from him who does not have, even that which he seems to have shall be taken away” (Matthew 25:29). The rather prurient glee with which the media have covered these cases—primarily those involving Roman Catholic priests—highlights as it exacerbates the low morale of priests in the post-Vatican II world of dwindling numbers and confusion about their role. Kick ’em when they’re down—that’s the media way.

The cases, of course, exist, though not all accusations have proved true. The notorious false accusation against Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago marked the moral low point, and tabloid circulation high water mark, of the run of priestly pedophile stories. What remains unclear from media coverage is how common priestly pedophilia actually is, whether the incidence is significantly higher than in the past, whether the incidence varies greatly among religious denominations, how they are related (or unrelated) to current political footballs like priestly celibacy, and to what extent the priestly perpetrators are rehabilitable.

Enter Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and no stranger to these pages. In Pedophiles and Priests, Jenkins (who is not a Catholic) brings great coolness and a laudable ability to make fine distinctions within a normally overheated and polemical topic. Those inhabiting the world of the clergy and religious journalism, as well as fair-minded media critics, will be glad to consult this book to understand what precisely is going on and why it is being reported in this way. Jenkins’ book is not an inventory of contemporary sexual abuse by the clergy but a retracing of the journalistic route taken by these stories and an informed look at how priestly pedophilia became, in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, a media-certified crisis.

Like many journalistic injustices, the overwhelmingly Catholic portrayal of sexual abuse by the clergy was in part accidental. It is true, as the author shows, that the celibacy/pedophilia “connection” was initially seized on by the liberal Catholic press, which had its own ax to grind, and true also that the conservative Catholic press saw in priestly sex scandals of every variety evidence that the post-Vatican II Church had fallen down on the job of properly weeding out seminary applicants and of appropriately disciplining and spiritually forming its priests. In addition, sex scandals involving priests gain a frisson of excitement from a long history of anti-Catholic material of the Maria Monk variety, full of secret tunnels between convents and monasteries, sadomasochistic scourgings, and seductions in the confessional (a very uncomfortable place for them, I would have thought).

Yet the resolve of the secular media to treat priestly pedophilia as a specially Catholic problem also owed much to seemingly neutral and nonpolitical factors, such as the greater ease in assigning responsibility upward in a hierarchical chain of blame when dealing with a highly centralized Church, and the centralized coffers that proved available for settling lawsuits by the victims of abuse. By contrast, isolated instances of abuse by ministers of local congregations were likely to remain just that—isolated—in their coverage and effect.

Jenkins argues that the vocabulary chosen by journalists in covering sex scandals by priests, the spokesmen selected, the footage used—all played off negative images of the Catholic Church as a closed secret society, a religious “Mafia.” The David-and-Goliath image of an accuser confronting a priest backed by a huge complex organization was reinforced by terms like “whistle-blowers” and references to the Exxon Valdez or Watergate. Television footage lingered on stained glass, incense, and vestments—so much more exotic than the accoutrements of the Church’s post-Reformation cousins.

Before and even into the decade of the 1970’s, the news media almost universally covered up church scandals (as they did scandals involving other reputable institutions, like the Boy Scouts, and famous individuals, like adulterous Presidents). In the post-Watergate era, news coverage became increasingly sensational, and media entertainment—novels, television, movies—more explicit. At this juncture, the liberal, hierarchy-baiting National Catholic Reporter assembled a group of priestly pedophile stories in a June 1985 issue that traced a pattern of (as Jenkins summarizes it) “uncaring and hostile diocesan authorities, of bruising litigation, and of a church that defended its priests while treating parishioners as liars or enemies.” Secular media began covering incidents of sexual abuse by clergy as part of a religious and institutional Catholic crisis. And like the National Catholic Reporter, secular journalists and the experts they chose to show off did not distinguish between true pedophilia (lusting after prepubescent boys) and other kinds of sexual abuse involving clergymen and adolescents, or young adults of either sex.

Those experts solicited for their comments in the late 1980’s helped cement the stereotype of this being a Catholic problem because they were themselves Catholics or ex-Catholics or had represented Catholic victims in litigation against the Church. They described the cases, milieus, and motivations most familiar to them. Not surprisingly, the media and their audiences came away with the impression that sexual abuse by the clergy was primarily an unfortunate result of the unwise practice of priestly celibacy and that it was reaching epidemic proportions.

In attempting to arrive at trustworthy, non-hyperbolic numbers, the author walks the reader through the distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles, who are attracted to pubescent boys, typically in their mid-teens, when questions of consent become a bit more problematic and the possibility of the therapeutic treatment and rehabilitation of priests more likely. He then moves on to a painstaking analysis of available figures, concluding that “less than 2 percent of all serving American priests are or have been involved with minors . . . with the great majority of this group being homosexual ephebophiles.” All of which indicates that the “crisis,” though horrific for those involved, is very narrowly contained. Like earlier panics over missing children and ritual abuse in daycare centers, the media’s picture of an overwhelming temptation of the Catholic priesthood issuing in large-scale pedophilia is grotesquely exaggerated. Yet the fallout in litigation costs, in disillusionment and distrust, in lowered morale for a self-questioning clergy, is immense.

In the concluding chapter of Pedophiles and Priests, Philip Jenkins writes: “Inevitability is not a concept with which historians feel comfortable, but a clergy-abuse problem was to say the least extremely likely to occur during the mid-1980s.” He bases this view on a combination of stresses within the Church and between the Church and society, as the process of assimilation undergone by other religions and partially accomplished by American Catholics was at last frustrated by a nondemocratic and international ecclesial structure that resisted going all the way with modernity. His own conclusions on the effect of clerical sex abuse on vocations, on a vibrant parish life, and on the relation between Catholic families and their priests are pessimistic—unnecessarily so, we may devoutly hope.


[Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, by Philip Jenkins (New York: Oxford University Press) 214 pp., $27.50]