Can journalists cover “normal” religion?

1932792066 01 LZZZZZZZOur friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”

This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)

While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.

Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?

In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.

Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.

And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.

One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.

Read it all (as the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon likes to say).

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In praise of (disturbing) journalism

IMG7138108LOHere’s a hopeful note, for those who care about high-quality religion coverage in the mainstream press.

The name of this blog is GetReligion, because we believe that many journalists do not “get religion.” However, you could run another blog called GetJournalism, because there are many, many, many leaders in religious organizations — left and right — who have zero appreciation for the role that journalists play, or should play, in this culture. Many people with “Rev.” and especially “the Right Rev.” in front of their names want public relations, not journalism.

So I was encouraged when I saw this commentary on Baptist Press entitled “The perverse logic of abortion,” by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., one of the most brilliant minds on the rock-ribbed right side of Southern Baptist higher education. The subject of his commentary is that gripping feature story on abortion by Los Angeles Times reporter Stephanie Simon.

Now, as young master Daniel Pulliam noted earlier this week, this article is brutal in its candor and in its almost evangelistic use of “born again” language in describing the work of abortionist Dr. William F. Harrison of Fayetteville, Ark. Obviously, Mohler is sickened by much of what is reported. But, and here is the crucial point, he praises the journalist for the information reported, even though he is appalled by these very same details. Far too often, religious leaders lash out at the journalists in a classic damn-the-messenger manner.

This is progress.

Perhaps the most shocking dimension of Dr. Harrison’s candor is the manner in which he cloaks his practice of abortion in religious language. In the Los Angeles Times article, Harrison refers to women who have terminated their pregnancies as being “born again” through the experience. In his statement published in the Reproductive Freedom Task Force newsletter, Harrison claimed to have heard “a still, small voice asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ to which I was at last compelled to reply, ‘Here am I, send me.’” Here we confront the breathtaking delusion of a man who would cite God’s call to the prophet Isaiah as a parallel to his “calling” to be an abortionist.

The debate over abortion is often reduced to a battle over statistics and politics. Stephanie Simon’s article should remind us all that the reality of abortion is unspeakably ugly, undeniably tragic and morally corrupting. The statements made by these women seeking abortions — and by the doctor who so gladly performs them — reveals the true nature of the challenge we face. The culture of death is rarely revealed with such clarity.

Amen. May other hierarchs pay heed. It is good to praise journalists when they do their jobs with excellence. This will also pay off, when it comes time to put a hot spotlight on journalistic heresies.

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About Mollie Ziegler

MolliePictGR.jpgGreetings, fellow religion nerds. Today marks my debut on GetReligion. Since we’ll be discussing many stories in coming months, I’d like to share a bit about myself.

I’m a reporter in beautiful Washington, D.C., where I cover the management of government programs for Gannett’s Federal Times. I got into the journalism game a bit late, beginning with a stint at Radio & Records, the trade publication for the radio and recording industries. My education and previous professional background are in the dismal science of economics.

Most of my stories are straight news, but I have done some commentary and feature writing on religion, baseball, music, film, books and monkeys. Though my professional experience with the latter does not extend much further than a very exclusive Monkey News list-serv that I run, editors should feel free to contact me on all primate issues (despite a predilection against lemurs that I’d rather not discuss here).

In 2004 I won the Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship. This wonderfully generous program permitted me to spend a year researching and writing Losing Our Religion, a book on the changing shape of civil religion in America. Using original reporting, analysis of Supreme Court cases, and general historical review, I argue that the country has an official syncretistic religion.

This interfaith religion preaches that the public square is a great place for religious expression, so long as multiple religions are present; sacred scriptures are excellent for inclusion in political speeches, so long as multiple texts are cited; and state funerals and remembrances of national tragedy or pride can only be marked with religious services led by clergy from multiple religions. Most people think this is fine and good, but I argue that the arrangement trivializes religious differences and disenfranchises those folks who oppose syncretism. No matter where you stand on the issue, the book should make a great Chrismahanukwanzakah gift for everyone on your list next year.

Of course, my interest in these issues is informed by my background. My father is a Lutheran pastor and my mother teaches fourth grade at a government school. Sometimes my parents like to remind me what a difficult child I was. But the bottom line is that I’m Lutheran. Our perspective is unique — focused on the Sacraments, creeds and confessions of faith, and the eternal and otherworldly aspects of the faith. It’s in strong contrast to the American idea of religion, which focuses on personal morality and politics. As a result Lutheranism is rarely noticed or understood in the press. It’s extremely frustrating but great training for this gig: I’ve spent decades contemplating what’s missing from religious stories. And my past year studying Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism confirmed that the problem extends well past Christianity.

Here at GetReligion, I hope to shed a bit of light and heat on local religion coverage. I grew up reading Old Man Mattingly in the Rocky Mountain News, where I learned that all the best religion stories are local. Snake handlers drinking strychnine don’t start out as national news after all. In research for my book, I came to rely on a number of excellent religion reporters at medium to large papers and I look forward to highlighting their work on these pages.

For what it’s worth, I attend Immanuel Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, in Alexandria, Va. I serve on the LCMS Board for Communication Services. I also serve on the board of Higher Things, which helps parents, pastors and congregations cultivate a Lutheran identity among youth. I have four awesome nieces and a nephew. I have almost 1,000 LPs, ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Roberta Flack. And my favorite color is green.

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Monkeyfishing

Fish StanleyThe teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?

Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:

What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.

Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:

What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.

It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.

By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:

In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.

There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.

I’ve been unable to find any response to Fish’s essay on the Discovery Institute’s website, or on Evolution News and Views, its blog that critiques media coverage of evolution debates.

Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.

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Abortion, up close and personal

baby2Sometimes a story full of quotes and graphic descriptions can get to the heart of an issue better than a story heavy in theory and complex details. A person can know all the facts and the statistics about abortion, but can that person really know what an abortion is?

The Los Angeles Times (yes again) ran a must-read piece Tuesday that begs for an award of some kind. The religious language is amazing and Stephanie Simon really digs at the multifaceted issues of actually having an abortion. The article brings the reader into the abortion room and allows them to examine the many opinions of females before and after they have an abortion. To say the least, it’s all quite startling to read:

His Fayetteville Women’s Clinic occupies a once-elegant home dating to the 1940s; the first-floor surgery looks like it was a parlor. Thick blue curtains block the windows and paintings of butterflies and flowers hang on the walls. The radio is tuned to an easy-listening station.

An 18-year-old with braces on her teeth is on the operating table, her head on a plaid pillow, her feet up in stirrups, her arms strapped down at her sides. A pink blanket is draped over her stomach. She’s 13 weeks pregnant, at the very end of the first trimester. She hasn’t told her parents.

A nurse has already given her a local anesthetic, Valium and a drug to dilate her cervix; Harrison prepares to inject Versed, a sedative, in her intravenous line. The drug will wipe out her memory of everything that happens during the 20 minutes she’s in the operating room. It’s so effective that patients who return for a follow-up exam often don’t recognize Harrison.

The article focuses on a Dr. William F. Harrison, a self-proclaimed abortionist who says he has terminated at least 20,000 pregnancies. Harrison’s clinic has been picketed and firebombed, he routinely receives death threats and protesters have marched outside his home. Through all this he has become essentially an advocate for abortion and admits that he is “destroying life.”

But he also feels he’s giving life: He calls his patients “born again.”

Stephanie Simon has put the reality of abortion before us all to read about and to come to our own conclusions. Throughout the piece, shocking examples of excuses for an abortion (“A high school volleyball player says she doesn’t want to give up her body for nine months.”), give way to the less shocking (Kim, a single mother of three, says she couldn’t bear to give away a child and have to wonder every day if he were loved).

But a majority of the explanations for the abortions are of the shocking nature:

His first patient of the day, Sarah, 23, says it never occurred to her to use birth control, though she has been sexually active for six years. When she became pregnant this fall, Sarah, who works in real estate, was in the midst of planning her wedding. “I don’t think my dress would have fit with a baby in there,” she says.

The last patient of the day, a 32-year-old college student named Stephanie, has had four abortions in the last 12 years. She keeps forgetting to take her birth control pills. Abortion “is a bummer,” she says, “but no big stress.”

Journalists are starting to see the evil side of abortion and they will begin to tell the story. One hopes that reporters will also be able to grasp the political intricacies of an overturned Roe v. Wade.

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Shirley MacLaine, born again — again

g photo19Believe it or not, I have had a warm spot in my religion-writer heart for actress Shirley MacLaine ever since she stood up in front of the American Society of Newspaper Editors long ago and delivered a sermon on why there is more to religion news than warfare and denominational politics. Three cheers for candid people with good soundbites.

Why, MacLaine asked all those editors in suits, are so many journalists uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions of people in America and around the world order their lives with the help of religious truths and experiences?

Preach it, lady:

“We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of `religion-related’ global mayhem. … We are seeing, hearing and learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines, glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of themes which resonate with man’s deeper nature,” she said. … “What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age?’ Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?”

Anyway, MacLaine has been born again, again, as Hollywood’s crazy grandmother of choice in a new movie called “Rumor Has It” in which she plays a woman who may, in fact, have inspired the infamous Mrs. Robison of “Graduate” fame. Thus, MacLaine is out there stutting her stuff in publicity land, which sent Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times off to visit the actress at her homes — plural — in the spiritually charged air of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The result punches all the movie-page profile buttons, including some standard flashbacks to MacLaine’s previous media lives.

Eight years ago, at age 63, MacLaine completed the 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which time she came to believe she had been, in previous lives, a Moorish girl who cured the Emperor Constantine of impotence and an androgynous being of a time predating Atlantis. But here in New Mexico, she’s more inclined to ask a photographer in tight pants what sort of underwear she has on than to read her aura. …

Though much of what MacLaine believes comes with the socially imposed ambience of crystals and purple Gypsy scarves, she herself does not. Trousers and boots suit her better; she has three earrings in each ear, but two of them are tiny. No bangles rattle at her wrist; no tangle of turquoise and moonstone sways from her neck. So when she mentions that she sleeps most nights on a futon outside “because a roof keeps the stars from imprinting on your brain,” it makes as much sense as another grandmother telling you she sleeps on the floor because of her bad back.

“Billions of stars in the universe, just this universe,” she says over her shoulder as she passes by the futon, returning to the house. “Anyone who thinks we’re the only ones around, they’re the ones who are nuts.”

g photo11The big idea in this story is that MacLaine deserves some credit for creating the template for what it means to be a modern movie star, leaping from one relationship to another and from worldview to worldview while in clear sight of the Hollywood scribes and armies of photographers.

You know all those actresses reinventing themselves week after week in the magazines in the grocery-store checkout line? Shirley blazed the trail. Go ahead. Ask her about Frank Sinatra.

However, I found myself wishing — surprise — that McNamara had taken the religion side of this story more seriously. Really. I do not think, for example, that it would have hurt a bit to call up a religion scholar, or two, and ask for a quote on this lady’s place in the history of American pop religion.

I realize that there has always been an Eastern side of the gods beat in Hollywood. Nevertheless, MacLaine was a pivotal figure in creating a world in which born-again Christian ladies don’t think twice about sitting in their suburban living rooms and watching their girlfriend Oprah light candles on national television while praying to the Universe, with a Big U.

MacLaine has gone from the back side of nowhere to almost mainstream, in certain zip codes. She could get tenure in some major mainline Protestant seminaries. Would it have hurt to have asked her for an update on what she believes and for her take on the state of religion in that great spiritual shopping mall called America?

Like it or not, the lady has had a significant impact.

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Episcopal “Tower of Babel” in Chelsea?

tsprintnight 1On one level, this is your typical New York City real estate story with Chelsea neighborhood residents fighting like, well, New Yorkers to preserve the sanctity of their turf and rare views of the sky.

However, what made this recent Shadi Rahimi story in the New York Times interesting to me was the identity of the villains — the always progressive leaders of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church (seminary PR photo). Here’s a brief look at the top of the story:

With hisses and boos, more than 75 Chelsea residents expressed their contempt at a recent neighborhood meeting over plans by the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church to knock down a four-story building on its campus and replace it with a 17-story one. The new building would have 80 luxury apartments in a glass structure that one resident called “a Tower of Babel.”

In the latest battle waged against tall structures in Chelsea, dozens of neighbors are opposing the seminary’s attempt to build above the about seven and a half stories permitted within that part of a historic district bordered by 8th and 10th Avenues and West 19th and 23rd Streets.

I realize that real estate is, in a way, a religious subject for Manhattan folks. What caught my attention was the fact that the seminary leaders really, really need to do this tower project. And not just because they need a replacement for the 1959 office building and library that they want to tear down. According to Maureen Burnley, the seminary’s executive vice president for finance and operations, the deal:

… (Required) that the new building be at least 17 stories tall for the seminary to receive the $15 million it needs to start repairing the seminary’s historic buildings. The seminary plans to raise the remaining money needed for repairs — more than $35 million — through capital campaigns, tax credits and loans, she said. Since 1999, the seminary has spent $9 million to restore its buildings, Ms. Burnley said.

General Theological faces dire financial problems and has explored other ways of addressing them in recent years, including teaming up with other churches on real estate projects or moving from its Chelsea location of nearly 180 years, said the seminary’s dean and president, the Rev. Ward B. Ewing. But after these options fell through, the seminary believed that a private partnership would be the only way, Father Ewing said. “We needed a partner that could bring capital assets,” he said, adding that luxury housing on a seminary campus is not an ideal solution. But, “we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have to do it,” he said.

Now this is interesting. I have always been under the impression that the mainline seminaries were backed by rather healthy endowments built up in the past by generations of donors. I have heard oldline leaders say that some of these seminaries could stay open with endowment alone, even without students.

So what is the nature of this financial crisis? Does this have any implications for one of the biggest stories out there right now on the Godbeat, which is the growing crisis within global Anglicanism because of doctrinal innovations that flow from institutions such as this very seminary?

Or is this just a real-estate deal that the seminary leaders cannot pass up? What lit this fuse?

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Blame the apples? Cover the oranges

13281 512The official Vatican document at the heart of the “gay-priest ban” story is now available online and it turns out that the leaked version was accurate, only it was missing the footnotes from the authors. We may hear more about that in the next day or so.

But the reactions are beginning in the usual places. For the .pdf text, click here, and for the statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, click here. For William Saletan’s Slate.com summary of why the Roman Catholic Church is wrong, click here. To follow the emerging thread on this at Amy Welborn’s “open book” blog, click here.

The Saletan piece is actually quite useful to reporters, although not in the way that one would expect. Part of his thesis is that the Roman Catholic Church, due to the homophobic sin of this pope, is failing to follow the logic of many Catholic scholars on issues of sexuality. As a result, Saletan documents two decades of infighting — one URL after another — behind the scenes in Catholic life. There are no new questions here, only the old debates between nature and nurture, between choices and conditions. Can human beings change their sexual behaviors? Catholics disagree with one another. This is no surprise.

Journalists can continue to let Catholics fight this out, pew to pew and altar to altar. The New York Times did precisely this the other day and did very little to define the flames that are burning under all of that smoke. In doing so, it also repeated many of the mistakes that continue to shape MSM coverage:

Similarly, some Catholics said that because the majority of victims in the scandals involving sexually abusive priests were boys, barring gay men from the priesthood would reduce the likelihood of such abuse in the future. But others said there was no link between homosexuality and pedophilia, especially many parishioners in Boston, an archdiocese profoundly affected by the sexual abuse scandal.

Once again let me stress: Very few cases of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church involve “pedophilia” (sex with prepubescent children). Instead, the great majority — some say 90 percent or more — of the cases involve “ephebophilia” (sex with under-aged young people, and almost always boys).

Pedophilia is getting the headlines. Meanwhile, the hard questions are linked to male priests and teen-aged boys.

Here is how a Catholic progressive once explained it to me, crossing over into a discussion of heterosexuality to make the point. A 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears wants to do something that is sick, sinful and illegal. But this straight male is not wrestling with the same psychological condition as a 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears. These conditions are not the same, they are apples and oranges.

Researchers can and do make a strong case that homosexuals are, statistically, no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals. This is an important point, but not highly relevant to most cases of clergy sexual abuse in the all-male Catholic priesthood. The issue is sex with teen-aged boys. The MSM continues to ignore this crucial point. This is not surprising, since the U.S. Catholic establishment has not been anxious to discuss it, either.

To see how this error helps shape the MSM meta-narratives, check out this section of a recent “Points West” column by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez:

Church leaders might have been better off continuing to pretend there were no gays in the priesthood, or they could have stuck with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that’s made for hundreds of years’ worth of comfortable hypocrisy. But then came the molestation scandal, which was one reason for the new policy, the other being a so-called fear of a growing gay subculture in church life.

To Eric Barragan of Santa Paula, the rewritten gay policy makes perfect sense. “They’re trying to play the blame game,” he says.

You have an abuse scandal, you slam the door on people with “deep-rooted homosexual tendencies,” and it looks as if — like good Christian soldiers — you’ve zeroed in on the problem. Yeah, it was the homosexuals.

“But it’s apples and oranges,” Barragan says. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re a pedophile.”

This is true, but spin is spin, and nobody does it better than the church.

Lopez and Barragan are correct. The only problem is that they, and most of the MSM, are not covering the real story. Pedophilia is the safe topic, since these cases are very rare.

The Vatican is wrestling with two issues: Mature men having sex with teen-aged boys (and, often, with other men) and a subculture of professors, priests and bishops (many straight, many gay) that is actively opposed to the moral theology of the Roman Catholic Church. If journalists focus on these two stories, they will get closer to the heart of this bitter and painful struggle than if they continue to focus on the rare cases of pedophilia.

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