Pedophilia and the Limitations of Science and Law

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Seeming to confirm all our worst fears about the present age, an advocacy group called B4U-ACT sponsored a conference this month whose attendees—mainly psychiatrists and researchers—seek to de-stigmatize pedophilia. Their literature is quite clear on that goal; they are not being misunderstood or misrepresented by the media.

Not surprisingly, a third-party conference-goer, who attended to cover the events for Florida-based Liberty Counsel, described himself as "profoundly shaken" by what he witnessed:

Speakers addressed the around 50 individuals in attendance on themes ranging from the notion that pedophiles are "unfairly stigmatized and demonized" by society to the idea that "children are not inherently unable to consent" to sex with an adult.

B4U-ACT hopes to ensure that practicing pedophiles, whom the group calls "minor-attracted persons," will be involved in the next major revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is due out in 2013.

It's worth noting that this controversy has been underway for some years. In 1994, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) narrowed, and potentially weakened, the definition of pedophilia in the last major revision to the extremely influential DSM. That action provoked a strong backlash, and was eventually reversed in the wake of a controversial study purporting to show that "consenting" children were rarely damaged by sex with an adult. Public outrage over that study prompted the APA to affirm not only that pedophilia was a mental disorder that could have no "normal" variants, but that it is "morally wrong."

One of the main speakers at this month's conference was Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins University, identified by Archbishop Emeritus Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee as "the chief expert on pedophilia that the U.S. bishops consulted when faced with the growing sexual abuse crisis" (as noted by Tom Crowe at CatholicVote.org). According to the archbishop, Dr. Berlin urged the Catholic Church not to remove pedophiles from the priesthood. A practicing psychiatrist, Berlin has been investigated for allegedly ignoring the laws of Maryland and refusing to report pedophile offenders who were actively molesting children. His writings suggest an analogy between the path to societal acceptance for homosexuality and something similar for pedophilia:

Just as has been the case historically with homosexuality, society is currently addressing the matter of pedophilia with a balance that is far more heavily weighted on the side of criminal justice solutions than on the side of mental health solutions.

All of these details provide much food for thought. I doubt it would take much effort to convince readers that pedophilia is wrong, and that it's wrong for a group of psychiatric professionals to attempt to de-stigmatize it. The indignation and alarm expressed by numerous commentators are understandable, and to be expected.

But I believe this is a situation in which we can take the optimistic view. Asking the American people to adopt a "clinical," morally neutral perspective on pedophilia is, in fact, asking too much. I'm confident the people won't do it, and will override any attempt to by the judicial system. But the exposure of the agenda, the outlandish posture of some researchers on the subject, the ambivalence of "science" and its inability to reconcile "mental disorder" and therapeutic correction in a way that satisfies the public-safety concerns of the average citizen—these features of the issue present a discussion worth having.

One of the chief lessons is that there is no built-in brake on where or how far "scientific" inquiry will take us. Science, per se, will not tell us to prioritize the innocence and moral safety of children. Those quantities are irrelevant to science. Science cannot tell us what is morally wrong. In attempting to reassure the public, the American Psychiatric Association appealed to moral and not scientific principles.