Anecdotes, data and definitions

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone answers a question during a news conference in Santiago

Were you thinking that the Vatican Media Frenzy had gotten a bit stale? Well, you’re in luck. Roughly eleventy billion media outlets are running a story about something Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said at a Chilean press conference yesterday:

The Vatican’s second-highest authority says the sex scandals haunting the Roman Catholic Church are linked to homosexuality and not celibacy among priests.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, made the comments during a news conference Monday in Chile, where one of the church’s highest-profile pedophile cases involves a priest having sex with young girls.

“Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true,” said Bertone. “That is the problem.”

Ruh-roh! For what it’s worth, this quote is a bit different than the quote that Reuters gave, which didn’t include the last seven words above but includes this additional information:

“This pathology is one that touches all categories of people, and priests to a lesser degree in percentage terms,” he said. “The behavior of the priests in this case, the negative behavior, is very serious, is scandalous.”

Now, it will be interesting to see whether Bertone was accurately translated. This could not be a hotter issue on a normal day and adding in claims surrounding sexual orientation only make the matter more controversial and emotional.

It will be very important to watch how everyone defines terms. For instance, was Bertone talking about pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent children) and hebephilia (attraction to pubescent children) or ephebophilia (attraction to children in late adolescence)? Do those terms matter? What are the data on the various rates of child sexual abuse?

Perhaps most importantly, the press should be cognizant of that the fact that, in America at least, psychologists don’t identify pedophiles by sexual orientation. In other words, they won’t say that a man who rapes a girl is a heterosexual pedophile and they won’t say that a man who rapes a boy is a homosexual pedophile. And, to be clear, they won’t say that a pedophile who abuses both boys and girls is a bisexual pedophile.

And that’s an important issue since there are studies out there that show how many girls have been abused by men and how many boys have been abused by men. (Child sexual abuse by women occurs at much lower rates.) According to this federal web site, “about 1 out of 6 boys and 1 out of 4 girls are sexually abused.” Again, the vast majority of abusers are male. Women are the abusers in about 14% of cases against boys and 6% of cases against girls, according to the Feds.

So if male abusers of male children were identified as homosexual or bisexual, it would tell a different story than studies that identify abusers simply as pedophiles. But studies do not identify male abusers of female children as heterosexual or male abusers of male children as homosexual.

And that means that studies do not show a correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia. (Or, heterosexuality and pedophilia.) Noting that psychologists don’t identify child abusers by sexual orientation is an important part of the story. It’s also important to explain, in context, what data we have on the larger problems of child sexual abuse.

Anyway, back to the AP journalism. I suspect that the fuller quote from Bertone wasn’t included because it didn’t fit the narrative the reporter wanted for the story.

Rather than get into any data or discussion of studies that prove or disprove what Bertone is saying, we move immediately into thirteen paragraphs taking issue with Bertone’s claim. And of those, nine paragraphs are devoted to a single Chilean priest who had sex with teenage girls.

And unless Bertone was saying that no heterosexual ever has sex with a teenager and that pedophilia is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals, that’s just a completely disproportionate response. For a story that runs all of 19 paragraphs, that is.

Even if the reporter wanted to refute Bertone’s claim, rather than do his job as a journalist and present the news and the response in a more evenhanded manner, anecdotes about one priest having sex with teenage girls aren’t really the way to do that.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m still puzzled as to WHY the media regularly uses psycho-babble to divide same sex abuse of those in their early or late teen years into subcategories such as ephebophilia and hebephilia.
    Was there some sort of scientific-genetic breakthough discovery that made these subcategories necessary for accurate reporting??? Or just label whitewashing of the word homosexual???
    When I was in college taking World History courses there were many accounts of Turkish sultans, byzantine emperors, English kings, etc. who had a prediliction for early and older teen-age boys and they were all described as homosexual rulers or rulers with homosexual preferences.
    Is all this psycho-babble in the media, a cover-up of its own in order to avoid using the word homosexual???

  • Jerry

    Now, it will be interesting to see whether Bertone was accurately translated. This could not be a hotter issue on a normal day and adding in claims surrounding sexual orientation only make the matter more controversial and emotional.

    You said a mouthful and then some. If we thought that proposition 8 in CA was hot, this could make that controversy look like nothing at all.

    But unfortunately it probably does not matter if he was accurately translated or not as we’ve seen about all the anti-Obama rumors spread by the right. Treating rumor as fact and news stories as gospel is a problem for every group, left or right.

  • Mollie

    Deacon Bresnahan,

    I actually don’t think the media uses these terms that much. They tend to chalk all childhood sexual abuse whether it happens to children aged four or 17 as pedophilia. That’s technically incorrect and it may or may not play a role in this discussion.

  • Dave

    Deacon, the value of these distinctions is that they divide those sexually attracted to children who are not themselves sexually developed, from those who are sexually attracted to youngsters who are themselves somewhat sexually developed but deemed underage. If we denote the norm as sexual attraction to those who are fully sexually developed, these divisions serve to demarcate the severity of deviation from that norm.

    Whether it’s reasonable to expect the working press to keep all this straight is another question.

  • Jerry

    This could not be a hotter issue on a normal day

    I just ran into another story which is flying around and which adds even more fuel to the fire if such is even possible. I think the headline says it all but I do have to ask one question. It’s been explained to me that Bishops speak for the Catholic church and not lay people nor women etc. But it seems to me that there’s a trap in overemphasizing this point as Bishop Babini’s statement shows:

    Bishop Giacomo Babini blames Jews for attacks on Pope

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Mollie–I think you are right that the psycho-babble of choice in the media on this issue (incorrectly, as you noted)is pedophilia, certainly when referring to teen-age victims. But whether it is pedophilia or the other two words–the fact remains that until our recently politically correct era, all the history books I remember reading about world history (admittedly a few decades ago) referred to powerful world rulers who preferred teen-agers–whether early or late teens–as being homosexual.
    And I agree with Dave that it is a bit much to expect the working press to keep the various psycho-babbles straight–that is why I wonder why the simple–and well understood–as well as accurate word: homosexual (in same sex abuses of teen-agers) is not used in most media stories where it would be apt– as it was used until recently. And does the seeming determination to not use that word when it would be apt denote a cover-up of what some believe is part of the overall problem.

  • StevenJosephRotolo

    If the Vatican does not want to get boiled in hot water, they should put a muzzle on people like Bertone, who is clearly going insane due to all the pressure. To continue with the blame game (first the Vatican blamed the media, then it blamed the jews, and now it blames the homosexuals… who’s next? the overweight?) really helps no one. Bartone thinks homosexuals are to blame? what is his plan? to expell all homosexuals from the church? there would be no one left in the Vatican… And the author of this piece takes issue with the report rather than with what was actually said. Bartone was very clear: homosexuals are to blame. Period. Thank you very much.

  • CV

    This might be an opportune time to direct people to Philip Jenkins (a non-Catholic), who wrote this piece on The Myth of the Pedophile Priest for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2002:

    There are those who argue that there is little distinction between cases of true pedophilia (which involve pre-pubescent children) and most other cases of clergy misconduct in the Catholic Church, the vast majority of which involved same-sex attracted priests and teenage boys under the age of consent. This is reprehensible and immoral and very wrong, but it’s simply not the same thing as true pedophilia (and pedophile priest is a very common expression these days).

    Does it matter? Yes it does, in my view.

  • Passing By

    Jerry -

    The Guardian trumps the Times, I think; true, both place their headline over a picture of the pope, but The Guardian omits the name of the bishop.

  • Judy Harrow

    Deacon John:

    I do think it’s worthwhile to distinguish between youngsters who are pre-pubescent and those who are fully sexually mature. That’s an objective distinction, a question of fact that could be determined in any individual case by a doctor.

    Emotional maturity, the capacity to make personal decisions about sexuality, is harder to define or determine, but the law needs to draw a bright line somewhere. The age of consent actually varies from state to state.

    So those various technical terms are useful. I don’t think they are simply psycho-babble intended to distract us from homosexuality. They are getting at a different issue: the abuse of legal minors by adults, whether that activity is homo- or hterosexual. In our culture, such abuse is definitely not OK.

    I don’t think it’s any less OK to rape a 9 year old boy than a 9 year old girl — and I’d like to believe that you don’t either.

  • Jerry

    I remember reading about world history (admittedly a few decades ago) referred to powerful world rulers who preferred teen-agers—whether early or late teens—as being homosexual.

    The law calls it statutory rape and says nothing about sexual orientation because from what you wrote, a 50 year old raping a 13 year old girl would be ipso facto a homosexual.

    And that is one of the tragedies of the current situation. People make up their own definitions to words that have nothing to do with reality.

  • dalea

    Mollie says:

    Perhaps most importantly, the press should be cognizant of that the fact that, in America at least, psychologists don’t identify pedophiles by sexual orientation.

    The reason seems to be that this distinction is in use throughout the Western World, from what I have read. It appears to be rooted in the observation that with pre-pubescent children, those interested do not appear gender oriented. The terms hebephile and ephebephile first appeared in Victorian times and were part of something called chronophilia:

    Yes, there is also gerontophilia:

    a sexual preference for the elderly. These are not isolated terms used in psychobabble but rather terms devised by researchers into the subject of sexual interests. They show that sexual orientation can not be reduced to just gender preference but age preference can also be a criteria.

    One point that chronophilia also stresses is the age differential between sexual partners. This is not mentioned in the coverage. I have seen stats on the age differences between unwed mothers and fathers where 7 years seemed to be the most common. Age of consent varies all over the place, but I can remember when 14 was in force in many states. Interesting treatment here:

    The ages of consent for sexual activity vary by jurisdiction across Europe. Spain sets its age of consent at 13 years, the Vatican State at 12 years, and the rest of the countries have an age of consent ranging from 14 to 17, except Turkey and Malta, which have the highest age limit, 18.

    The bolded might explain some issues.

  • dalea

    There are also problems with the word homosexual which more describes an activity than a person. The word was used by old style Freudian analysts in treating people under the comprehension that all people were heterosexual but some men performed homosexual acts. Which raises the question of how many homosexual acts does one need to perform to be considered one? There used to be, and still are, large numbers of ostensibly heterosexual married men who once or twice a year have sex with other men. Part of this is financial; oral sex from a woman, according to Craigslist which I am not going to link to, the going rate in Los Angeles starts at $250.00. From men it is free. Use of the word homosexual really does not explain anything, it creates more problems than it solves.

  • Julia

    The Vatican has posted a summary guide to current procedures in place regarding clerical sex abuse accusations. I find official documents on the Vatican website hard to read, so this is a more readable set.

    Note that the US has additional rules adopted for our country to prevent abuse. Our rules were signed by the bishops, and the heads of the religious orders of women. The religious orders of men have not signed it. Therefore, among other things, Jesuits and Benedictines and Oblates, etc. did not agree to present background checks when coming to a new diocese. Or so a usually well-informed ex-priest friend tells me.

    For those who think the Pope should have ordered all bishops to immediately turn over accusations to the authorities and not just said this applies where reporting is mandated: not all countries have legal systems that the people trust. Especially in dictatorships the court system can be used as a political weapon. Such a rule would affect places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China as well as the US and the UK – all places where being a Catholic is rather dangerous. China and Viet Nam have jailed bishops for years and some today are on house arrest. A false accusation could easily be orchestrated to get rid of a troublesome priest.


    I think Vatican City has changed its age of consent to 18.

  • Passing By

    Use of the word homosexual really does not explain anything, it creates more problems than it solves.

    Ditto the word “homosexuality”. Just what is it?

  • Jerry

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan, in case you missed it, the Vatican itself uses those “psychobabble” terms you decried:

    According to the satistical data collected by the Congregation for the Doctrine the Faith, “about 10% of cases were paedophilia in the strict sense, while 90% were cases of ephebophilia [i.e towards adolescents]“,

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I still haven’t read here a scientific reason for WHY the change (as formerly used in most history texts) from referring to powerful men who regularly abuse teen-agers of the same sex as “homosexuals” or the assaults as “homosexual assaults.” I do not recall any of the history texts or accounts using technical terms that could be looked on as psycho-babble (maybe that’s why they didn’t use the terms). So what is the great scientific discovery that has warranted the media labeling virtually every abuse case of a young person a case of “pedophilia” -even the ones of older adolescents–which obviously involve a homosexual component and by history’s standards warrant the word “homosexual” being used at least as part of any thorough analysis of the situation.
    Part of the trouble is that psychiatry isn’t much of a real science as science is usually understood, but people and the media popularly regard it as a science. Definitions, terms, even treatments, change with the political and cultural winds as much as–or maybe even more than– from any scientific or genetic breakthroughs.

  • ROB

    Men who have homosexual sex with boys are…what, heterosexual? Whooda thunk it.

  • ICW

    Mollie’s use of Fed numbers is misguided.

    Bertone’s comments were probably informed by the John Jay numbers (published at the USCCB website), which are far more instructive since they are directly related to the matter under discussion, viz.

    81% of the relations between clergy and victims involved sexually mature adolescents.

    The point is important in establishing that the abusers had a very decided sexual orientation; it is especially important when combined with rate of “normal” homosexual activity among priests. The priest Andrew Greeley, a sociologist, has informally suggested that the number of gays in the priesthood is probably in the neighborhood of 50%.

    One would have to be quite insensible to avoid at least testing the connection between homosexual behavior and the sex scandals given the figures. According to a Wiki entry, only 5-6% of the American scandals properly fit the definition of pedophilia. If one doesn’t see a categorical difference between sex with a five year old boy and sex with a 16 year old adolescent…

    It’s also worth noting that the Vatican implicitly linked homosexuality to the scandals years ago, when it issued directives to seminaries to screen candidates for their homosexual inclinations and experiences. This drew the ire of homosexuals like Andrew Sullivan, who rightly saw the linkage made by official Church policy. This directive, as I recall, followed in the wake of the John Jay report.

    It is crucial for the Church to have a similar study done in Europe.