SNAP officials have expressed satisfaction at the sentencing of Fr Shawn Ratigan to fifty years in prison for molesting a number of very young girls (taking lewd photographs and touching them indecently). SNAP expressed no concern that the sentence was excessive. Meanwhile, SNAP supporters are posting messages on the internet calling for ‘a bullet in the head’ or gloating over the prospect that Ratigan will be killed in jail like Fr Geoghan (whose White Supremacist killer was convicted of first degree murder).
Any plea for leniency – in line with the gospel injunction, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ – is taken as condoning Ratigan’s loathsome behavior. SNAP are very quick on the draw and very self-righteous, with a nasty tendency to demonize their critics instead of listening to them.
(SNAP is an acronym for Survivors Network of people Abused by Priests. As such it is surrounded with the authority that victims’ impact statements enjoy in American justice and that has invited comparisons with the medieval ‘divine judgment’ or ‘ordeal.’ Well staged emotional performances can override all rational considerations of proportion in sentencing. The tendency is to believe that the victims themselves are the ones who should decide the perpetrator’s sentence – though in the case where the victim says, ‘just let him go,’ the law turns a deaf ear. The authority claimed by SNAP diminishes if in fact its membership does not consist of victims of child abuse. The members seem to be more ideological crusaders, claiming to speak on behalf of the victims, rather than actual victims. The majority of members are female, yet only 15 percent of clerical abuse victims were female, so one wonders how SNAP can claim to be representative of the victims.)
It is constantly repeated that there are no degrees of gravity where the abuse of children is concerned: molestation of the Ratigan sort is equivalent to violent rape, and any violence against children deserves life imprisonment. The effect of this brand of zero tolerance, SNAP believes, is to terrify pedophiles out of abusing children, and in addition to keep offenders off the streets forever so that they will no longer be a threat to children.
The work of therapists to help pedophiles overcome their antisocial behavior and channel their desires into more creative activities is viewed with skepticism by SNAP supporters who believe that pedophile offenders will always re-offend and that their behavior is doomed to become progressively more abusive. In fact, it appears that recidivism among sexual abusers of children is not that high.
SNAP supporters will even admit that most of the prison population is mentally ill, but they claim that the USA does not have the resources to provide psychiatric treatment, so that prison is the most effective way of protecting society, especially children. The US prison industry is the largest in theworld, with whole towns springing up around the lucrative prisons; it relies heavily on the cruel and unusual but no doubt cheap punishment of solitary confinement. Though it has persuaded Americans of its unique value as a panacea for the ills of their violent society, it is no doubt in fact a breeding ground for hardened criminals, who come out more dangerous than they went in.
The Charité university hospital in Berlin claims that one in a hundred German men is troubled by pedophile desires. Its program for helping them is very appreciated, but because of the huge taboo surrounding their problem it is often very difficult for the participants, in many cases married men, to come to Berlin regularly. Under a regime of mandatory reporting if the hospital discovered that any of the men had touched a child indecently at any time they would have to hand them over to the police. This, of course, would be fatal for the program.
Many of the cases of clerical child sexual abuse have nothing to do with pedophilia or even with the somewhat murky category of ephebophilia. They are just instances of adults straying over the age-of-consent line, perhaps only once or twice. Since the majority of these cases involves male adolescents, and since this has been used to stoke hostility to gay clergy and to gays in general, some SNAP members react with rage to any analysis along these lines. To mention it at all is to be guilty in their eyes of suggesting that all clerical child abuse is the fault of the gays.
But consider the extreme permissiveness of the gay scene in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of these priests would have been exploring their sexuality for the first time (after their sexless seminary years). In some countries such as Ireland homosexual behavior of any kind was illegal and there was no marked distinction between those older and younger than what for heterosexuals would be the age of consent. Consider also the high proportion of gays in the priesthood – something that could have been scientifically measured long ago if it were not for church taboos and censorhips. The intersection of these two factors clarifies and dedramatizes this entire branch of the abuse scandal.
The number of true pedophiles in the priesthood is probably larger than in that of the population at large (that is, more than the one percent estimated by the Charité hospital). Eugen Drewermann, in a book that ran into church reactions of denial and panic, suggested that many priests are fixated on their own self-image as innocent altar boys. They yearn, like Michael Jackson, for a Peter Pan world, and the priesthood seems to offer a context in which this dream can flourish.
Even if such a project can be lived out without sexual abuse, society today is far from being willing to indulge the ‘Goodbye,Mr Chips’-style tolerance of the past, or to show the trust that the parents of the successive 12-14 year old protégés of the great composer Benjamin Britten placed in him. A man who shows an ‘unhealthy’ interest in children is instantly seen as a potential abuser.
But even ‘healthy’ affection toward children will draw suspicion. A recent Danish movie, entirely plausible, shows a teacher hounded by society and the law simply because a fellow-teacher misinterprets a little girl’s innocently mischievous remark as evidence of abuse. The effect of this paranoia must be that it will become very difficult to find people to take jobs involving close contact with children. Teachers and relatives other than parents will become colder and more distant. Parents will be expected to provide all the affection and emotional reassurance that their children need. And even then, parents who put photos of their children on the internet will invite suspicion. A father out walking with his son could be detained by the police for questioning.
We cannot subscribe to the belief that pedophiles, whose sexual constitution is probably as archaic as homosexual or heterosexual orientation, are doomed by their sexuality to become lepers and untouchables. There must be a better way. Pedophiles can be identified in adolescence, and they should be treated then with love and respect, and counseled as to how to sublimate their sexual desires. Love itself is the great healer, and there have been many pedophiles who have outgrown antisocial behavior by sticking to one love-object until he/she comes of age. Revisiting the stories of Dante and Beatrice, Ruskin and Rose la Touche, André Gide and Marc Allégret, etc., in this perspective would be a valuable research project (as in the writings of James Kincaid).
American puritans, however, have only one concern when considering such cases: did any sexual intimacy occur before the age of consent? Of course an even more radical technique is to affect utter scorn for such historical or literary references. The hang-’em-high brigade refuse as a diabolical temptation any invitation to think of pedophiles as human beings rather than potential offenders. One ‘Christian’ group targeted young gay couples and offered the junior members money to denounce their partners for having had sex with them before they came of age. This is rather like the mentality of the Pharisees who were more concerned with the Sabbath being broken than with the healing of the leper or the blind man. It is of course not concerned with any genuine care for the young, for it will gladly destroy the achieved happiness of all parties in order to get a scalp, on the premiss that all criminal prosecutions send a wholesome ideological message. The SNAP mentality is often not far from this.
At last the penny seems to be dropping. Despite the well-known dynamics of anti-pedophile campaigns, which regularly plunge into fanaticism, paranoia, a culture of suspicion and distrust, mob violence, and miscarriages of justice, groups like SNAP have invested totally in those dynamics, producing results like this:
Priests, bishops and nuns have been hopelessly inarticulate and unable to stave off the tsunami of accusations. The reason for this is the culture of silence, discretion, secrecy, closetedness, and cowardice that prevails in clerical milieux. Self-deprecation and incapacity for any frankness about sexual feelings or behavior has tied priests especially up in knots, and they have sat fatalistically waiting for the next tumbril to arrive, instead of speaking up loudly and clearly. Bishops have sold priests down the river in their over-anxiety to be above legal suspicion.