The inconclusive Vatican meeting with American Roman Catholic cardinals regarding priests who sexually abuse minors dominated the front pages of America's newspapers today, including the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Based on their assessment of the perpetrators' contrition, church leaders apparently wanted to leave themselves some leeway in deciding the fate of priests who sexually abuse minors. It is not at all clear why Americans, Catholic and otherwise, should rely on the church's sense of justice. After all, the same dispensation is not afforded non-religious scoutmasters, coaches, teachers or parents caught abusing their trusts.
By the same token, it's also important to keep a sense of perspective on the scope of the problem. To be sure, there are relentlessly appalling examples of priests using their special status to prey sexually on minors. Yet the over-the-top media coverage of this issue sometimes makes it sound like sending a child to confession is the moral equivalent of sending him to the annual meeting of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Is America in one of its serial moral panics, something akin to the child abduction scare in the 1980s, in which a rare phenomenon was blown up by the media-industrial complex into a bogus national crisis? Time magazine points out that 68 percent of the roughly 93,000 children and teenagers who are sexually abused each year are molested by relatives. In an out-of-whack column that caters to the media frenzy over this issue, founding slate.com editor Michael Kinsley, speculates that many people who choose to work with the young--such as teachers, coaches and scoutmasters--are actually sublimating pedophilic impulses.
Clearly those who have been abused by priests are suffering, and surely they have been profoundly betrayed. But it's far from a national crisis and it's no reason to treat every man who wears a collar as a potential rapist. As important, priests caught abusing children are no better than any other perpetrator and, no matter the fate of their immortal souls, their corporeal fates should be decided in the halls of secular justice.