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Pedophile heroes of 9/11?

What if... ? Just what if... ?

January 1st, 2016


The popular pejoratives “pedophile” and “child molester” have never made much sense, given the public’s preoccupation with youthful beauty. Conversely, the public’s nearly religious devotion to certain types of heroes, war heroes in particular, stands in stark contrast to the universal condemnation of pedophiles as pariahs. Why war heroes, or 9/11 heroes in particular, and not other types of heroes? Why pedophile villains, and not sleazy lawyers and accountants? Or better yet, banks and insurance companies? As big sellers of news, pedophiles and heroes confront us with a curious dynamic, because these angels and demons share much common ground.

splitHeroes and pedophiles are largely human creations that reveal far more about us than about the people upon whom the status is conferred. To begin with, the odds are very remote that anyone reading this is either. They are rare. In their own ways, heroes and pedophiles are both attractive and necessary. They sell a lot of advertising for newspaper and television, both of which shamelessly capitalize on the way these subjects stimulate the public imagination. Both frequently make the front-page news. Both evoke strong feelings, even in people who can’t name their elected representatives, can’t balance their checkbooks, or couldn’t care less about the most important issues of the day. Heroes have few detractors, pedophiles few defenders. Public reaction to both crosses all party and demographic lines. The two subjects are at the extremities of conversation: we discuss heroism comfortably in mixed company without reservation, but we can scarcely mention the word “pedophile” for fear of sounding vulgar, and the subject when raised arouses intense discomfort.

Heroes and pedophiles fulfill a basic need to define good and evil, to reject evil completely and without mercy, and to embrace good loudly and unstintingly. But mostly, these angels and devils make us feel better about ourselves. Pedophiles are modern bogeymen who exist so that we can externalize our worst fears and forbidden appetites, while heroes exist so that we can celebrate superhuman good in our midst during times of deep loss and fear. Isn’t it strange that suddenly we have more pedophiles and heroes than we can keep up with? Is it possible that we have become a more heroic and more puerile society all at once? Or do we just need them now more than we ever have?

Let’s start with the heroes. The most obvious of the last several years are the fallen heroes of 9/11, who died saving the lives of others. However, the status conferred on them by a public hungry for comfort far exceeds the actions of those brave men and women. Rather, they have become sainted persons whose lives have been revised, if not wholly rewritten, by their heroism. They are demigods, not just ordinary people. These heroes are made to order. They meet our needs. The same is true for villains.

When we talk about villains, it’s hard to ignore publicly reviled pedophiles, from outrageous child kidnappers and murderers to the pedophiles du jour, Roman Catholic priests. The facts do not justify the fears expressed. More than ninety-nine percent of what has been described in the media as pedophilia is an unfair distortion of the word and the people involved. Pedophilia, strictly speaking, refers to a very narrow segment of the population, probably significantly less than one percent, who are pathologically fixated on pre-pubescent children for their primary form of sexual gratification. Also, ninety-nine percent of the allegations against priests have involved teenagers, some of them above the age of consent. Sex offenses against children account for approximately one percent of the entire criminal population, and that figure, according to the FBI and the Bureau of Prisons, has not risen in recent years. Public fear of pedophiles has been exaggerated. The vast majority of child abuse involves teenagers. And more than half of the allegations against priests have no basis or substantiation beyond a single report made more than ten, and frequently twenty, years after the fact.

Yet the public condemns priests as pedophiles and welcomes the sensational reporting on this subject as grounds for tougher criminal laws that take rights from the accu(r)sed. In fact the media have simply pandered to another basic human fear, just as with its creation of heroes. By helping the public demonize priests as pedophiles, the media deflect blame from a much more painful truth: incest. While child sex abuse at the hands of priests or strangers is rare, incest is not. Is it not an irony that many of those who condemn pedophiles loudest are in fact those responsible for most sex abuse? Who wouldn’t want to blame priests and strangers for their worst fears rather than admit that relatives and husbands are the primary offenders?

It’s not just parents concerned for the safety of their children who are leading the charge. The general public has good reasons of its own to breathe a collective sigh of relief at the inauguration of the prototype predator pedophile priest, because our culture celebrates and promotes sex abuse every day. We’re all complicitous. We are a nation of amateur hebophiles! Amateur, because it is not likely to be our primary sexual orientation, and hebophiles, because that’s the clinical term for people pathologically attracted to teenagers. The teenage body has become our cultural ideal of sexiness. Look at magazine and television advertising. Witness Miss Teenage America and the eroticizing of teenagers in film. For God’s sake look at Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Aaron Carter, idols and sex symbols long before they could drive a car or stay out after dark.

Respected clinical psychiatrists have no trouble admitting that normal heterosexual men are attracted to teenagers. Didn’t Pogo say “we have met the enemy and he is us”? Instead of pointing the finger at ourselves, we take an easy way out. We demonize priests and child abductors by exaggerating the fears raised by a statistically small number of sensational cases. This sort of demonization is not new. In pre-Nazi Germany it was hatefully rumored that “dirty Jews” sexually abused children. Those who already believed the worst had no trouble accepting this further confirmation of baseness. Society finds scapegoats. The same has been said of gypsies in Europe and African-Americans in the South.

Ironically, many priests live heroic and selfless lives, devoting themselves entirely to others. Their selection as scapegoats seems dubious, but it’s convenient. Consider how many priests are reputed to be gay, raising concerns by many that homosexuality is but a short step from preying sexually on children. Consider also the betrayal of faith and confidence when even one priest betrays his position of trust by abusing a child. Wouldn’t it be great if all villains simply had a large V painted in black on their foreheads? Here, the public has settled for the next best thing: a group of predominantly gay men who dress in black and wear Roman collars.

Another explanation for these exaggerations concerning heroes and pedophiles is the public’s general lack of appreciation for nuance or subtlety. We seem to want to believe that people are either wholly good or wholly evil. But good people are rarely all good or bad people all bad. Good people occasionally do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things. Even pedophiles are not wholly evil. And heroes are people whose heroism is so extraordinary that whatever bad they may have done ceases to matter. In the case of those who die heroically, it is difficult to resist conferring virtual sainthood on them, since no bad can possibly follow. Yet studies of recipients of field decorations during the Civil War and World War I reveal some startling truths about heroes. After performing deeds of courage on the battlefield, many later led lives unworthy of the status of “hero.” In some cases criminal convictions or worse followed, but these didn’t change their heroism or bravery on the battlefield. Heroes are not so different from you and me, neither completely good nor completely bad.

When we consider the heroes of 9/11 we must at least be open to the statistical probability that some of them at some point in their lives did something shameful or bad: spousal abuse; cheating on taxes; failing to disclose known home defects before selling a house. None of these things change the fact that they acted heroically, but can we temper our idea of heroism to include faults, blemishes, and sometimes worse? Probably not, because this would upset our notion that there is a predetermined quotient of good and evil in the world, that for every hero there must be a countervailing villain at least as bad as the hero is good.

But what if — just what if — the hero were a pedophile? •

This essay first appeared in the January 2003 issue of Black Lamb.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Prunty | Link to this Entry


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