Letter to The Times regarding Daniel Wakin's article about pedophile priests

From William A. Percy
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What should we do about pedophile priests? This is a question many are asking in the wake of renewed focus on this problem following Boston’s most recent sex scandal (The Times, 2-17-02, 22). One approach is to understand pedophilia better, as well as its relation to the priesthood. Daniel Wakin took this approach in his recent article in The Times (2-17-02, wk 5). He quoted a bishop who said sex between priests and boys is “about sin, sickness, and crime.” Wakin wondered whether celibacy causes priests to abuse boys, but cited psychiatrist Fred Berlin to conclude that it does not, because temptations toward boys presumably precede celibacy. He cited Richard Sipe, a former priest, to suggest that maybe priestly pedophilia results from being emotionally and sexually immature when some men enter the seminary, which makes them more likely to be attracted to young people; or maybe they were abused as boys, which turns them into abusers as adults. Returning to Dr. Berlin, Wakin concluded that pedophilia is in fact a mystery, one reason being that serious scientific inquiry is virtually absent in this area due to society’s views that it is a moral failing or a criminal matter, as well as to government’s squeamishness about it with a concomitant lack of funding. Finally, Wakin addressed the issue of prevalence of priestly pedophilia, citing a clinical psychologist who noted that most sex victims of priests are actually adults, not children, and citing various church personnel who estimate rates of pedophilia somewhere between one and 6 percent—comparable to the general population, where the percent is actually unknown.

We are left with only questions and no answers. Indeed, government has been part of the problem. When several psychologists published a statistically-based literature review in the American Psychological Association’s premier journal several years ago, finding that pedophilia does not typically produce long-term harm, contrary to the conventional wisdom developed over the last few decades, they were punished by having their work unanimously condemned by both houses of Congress. The congressional resolution made it clear that researchers’ work in this area was only acceptable when its conclusions coincided with prevailing beliefs, irrespective of the data. Government aside, the current nebulas is attributable to whose opinion is sought. Wakin relied on the views of a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist, and various clerics. This seems reasonable until one realizes that these are the same sources that have consistently provided us with misinformation about sex in the past, rather than enlightenment, because their focus in this domain has always been to treat, cure, and prevent “abnormal” sex, which in former times included female sexual desire, masturbation, and homosexuality. Specifically, these sources generally ignored sexual behavior in other times, places, or species, or even within our own culture, and instead rested their opinions on a priori assumptions of sin and sickness.

A broader perspective is needed to extricate social thinking from the nebulas in which we are currently situated. This is not to condone priestly pedophilia, however, but to understand it better. To be sure, priestly pedophilia is a sin—but not specifically because it usually involves homosexual contact with minors. The real sin is one of hypocrisy, in which the priest instills feelings of guilt in youngsters about sex, especially homosexual sex, on the one hand, but then engages youngsters in these forbidden acts on the other.

Explanations such as sickness, emotional immaturity, or turning from abused to abuser strongly falter when data are sought beyond the mental health and theological fields. Historians know well that, far from being seen as the worst calamity that can befall a boy, sexual relations between men and adolescent boys was regarded as essential to the boys’ growth and maturity in ancient Greece. The most productive period in Greek intellectual advancement—from 600 to 300 B.C.—was associated with mentoring relationships based on pederasty. An analogous situation obtained in Samurai Japan. Pederasty was practiced widely in other Mediterranean and Asiatic areas during these periods—and not just by a few percent of the men and boys but by most. Anthropologists have documented dozens of similarly institutionalized forms of pederasty in pre-industrial societies in all parts of the world. Noteworthy is that this practice is esteemed in these societies, seen as essential pedagogy, and practiced by all male members. Older males have no trouble eroticizing the boys, yet, in societies where men are expected to give up the practice entirely in their mid to late 20s in favor of heterosexuality, almost all do so without any problem. Primatologists have documented the common occurrence of homosexuality throughout the primate order, particularly in the Old World monkeys and in the great apes, the closest relatives of Homo sapiens. Summaries of animal homosexuality have generally failed to describe the form in which it occurs (see The Times, 2-19-02, F2, as a case in point). The primary literature on primates, though, shows that it specifically is usually not between two adults among males, but between an adult and a sub adult or a sub adult and a juvenile, the same form that is most common cross-culturally and historically among humans. Historians, anthropologists, and primatologists have all described what appear to be the functions these relations serve, as opposed to what sort of pathology they represent.

In short, a broadened perspective suggests that, whether we like it or not, homosexual pedophilia, particularly that involving adolescents rather than children, may have a natural basis. It suggests that individual maladjustment or having been abused as a child is simply inadequate in accounting for this phenomenon. It suggests that the behavior does not produce pathology per se, in the absence of a culture that supports pathological outcome. The implications are certainly not to institutionalize such practices in our society, or to condone the incidents that currently occur. And they are certainly not to condone priestly pedophilia, a grave sin of hypocrisy. But they are to suggest that the rush to root out pedophile priests, to whom abused men are encouraged to attribute all their current woes for the purpose of healing and seeking inordinate financial gain, offers far less than the advocates of this campaign are promising. Some men, for whatever reason, have retained the pederastic inclinations of our human and primate ancestors. We can never honestly hope to achieve a population of men entirely without these desires. To stop priestly pedophilia, recruit priests who have a strong heterosexual component, proven by their ability to indulge in and maintain a sustained sexual relationship with a women—that is, marriage.

William A. Percy III is the author of “Pedagogy and Pederasty in Archaic Greece,” co-editor of “Encyclopedia of Homosexuality,” and is the senior professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

William A. Percy III, Ph.D.
History Department
University of Massachusetts/Boston
Boston, MASS 02125

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