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The Elephant in the Sacristy, Part 2

12:00 AM, Jun 8, 2002 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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This last quotation of Greeley's brings us to the most pernicious evasive maneuver of all. That is the attempt to define the problem away with the language of therapeutic expertise. Central to this effort has been the supposed distinction that, as Newsweek and a thousand other sources have put it, "The great majority of cases now before the church involve not pedophilia but 'ephebophilia,' an attraction to post-pubescent youths."

Indeed, the appeal of this pseudo-scientific distinction is one of the curious features of the scandal commentary. Social conservatives and traditionalists have embraced this distinction, as they have similarly the sociological language of author Philip Jenkins (who describes the current crisis as a "moral panic"). The attraction of this approach for traditionalists seems to be that it is marginally less damaging to the reputation of the Church if its priests are seen more as preying on teenagers than on pre-adolescents. Meanwhile, Church dissidents and gay activists have seized on it for a related reason--namely, that it is marginally less damaging to the reputation of homosexual priests if it turns out that the renegades in their ranks are having problems with teenage boys, rather than engaging in "true" pedophilia. The fact that this serves as yet another example of defining deviancy down--i.e., that ephebophilia is discussed not as a horror in its own right, but as a less-bad alternative to sex with little children--has been under-discussed, to put it mildly. In fact, of all critics and commentators, it is Wills who has best exposed the corrupt rhetorical uses of this distinction: "If 'real' pedophilia involves only the abuse of prepubescents," he writes, "that instantly reduces the number of priests who can be called pedophiles. Those who 'just' molest adolescents look less monstrous and even--somewhat--forgivable."

But there is a deeper problem than this rhetorical sleight of hand with the reliance on the pseudo-scientific ephebophile/pedophile distinction. The real problem is that the distinction is useless as a taxonomic description of most actual offenders. It does not begin to catalogue accurately the tastes of the most notorious abusers--i.e., the very people it purports to classify.

Pulling together the threads of case after case of prominent offenders proves the point. A very few abusers, of whom Boston's defrocked John J. Geoghan appears to be one, apparently found their sexual appetites limited to prepubescent children.4 But as Boston Globe reporters Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher observed in March, "those cases [like Geoghan's], in which priests became sexually involved with multiple boys and girls who have not yet reached puberty, are actually relatively uncommon." Much more common, as anyone reading the details of cases will know, is a polymorphous pattern of abuse in which the easy therapeutic distinctions dominant in the media and the secular therapeutic worlds cease to apply. Some abusers--again, a minority--prey on boy children only, others prey on boy children and teenage boys, others still prefer teenagers and men, and some are what might be called sexually omnivorous, attracted to other gay men, teenagers, and young boys too.

Begin at the beginning, of sorts, with the notorious case that is explored at length in the opening of Jason Berry's Lead Us Not into Temptation--the case, indeed, that first put Catholic priest offenders into the headlines 15 years ago. The priest in question was Gilbert Gauthe of Louisiana, eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison for the rape and sexual abuse of more than three dozen boys. Sexually molested himself as a child, Gauthe went on to claim what may have been hundreds of boy victims as he was reassigned to one parish after another. Yet while Gauthe is frequently cited as a textbook prepubescent child molester--at times as the classic priest-pedophile--the reality is more complicated. For Gauthe's victims ranged in age from as young as 7 to as old as 15--and those are the limits gleaned only from Berry's account; the actual age span of his victims may have been wider. The point is that Gauthe did not appear to discriminate, as contemporary therapeutic language would have it, between adolescents and pre-adolescents. Frankly, and like many other offenders, Gauthe preyed on both.