Anecdotes, data and definitions

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone answers a question during a news conference in Santiago

Were you thinking that the Vatican Media Frenzy had gotten a bit stale? Well, you're in luck. Roughly eleventy billion media outlets are running a story about something Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said at a Chilean press conference yesterday:

The Vatican's second-highest authority says the sex scandals haunting the Roman Catholic Church are linked to homosexuality and not celibacy among priests.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, made the comments during a news conference Monday in Chile, where one of the church's highest-profile pedophile cases involves a priest having sex with young girls.

"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia. But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true," said Bertone. "That is the problem."

Ruh-roh! For what it's worth, this quote is a bit different than the quote that Reuters gave, which didn't include the last seven words above but includes this additional information:

"This pathology is one that touches all categories of people, and priests to a lesser degree in percentage terms," he said. "The behavior of the priests in this case, the negative behavior, is very serious, is scandalous."

Now, it will be interesting to see whether Bertone was accurately translated. This could not be a hotter issue on a normal day and adding in claims surrounding sexual orientation only make the matter more controversial and emotional.

It will be very important to watch how everyone defines terms. For instance, was Bertone talking about pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent children) and hebephilia (attraction to pubescent children) or ephebophilia (attraction to children in late adolescence)? Do those terms matter? What are the data on the various rates of child sexual abuse?

Perhaps most importantly, the press should be cognizant of that the fact that, in America at least, psychologists don't identify pedophiles by sexual orientation. In other words, they won't say that a man who rapes a girl is a heterosexual pedophile and they won't say that a man who rapes a boy is a homosexual pedophile. And, to be clear, they won't say that a pedophile who abuses both boys and girls is a bisexual pedophile.

And that's an important issue since there are studies out there that show how many girls have been abused by men and how many boys have been abused by men. (Child sexual abuse by women occurs at much lower rates.) According to this federal web site, "about 1 out of 6 boys and 1 out of 4 girls are sexually abused." Again, the vast majority of abusers are male. Women are the abusers in about 14% of cases against boys and 6% of cases against girls, according to the Feds.

So if male abusers of male children were identified as homosexual or bisexual, it would tell a different story than studies that identify abusers simply as pedophiles. But studies do not identify male abusers of female children as heterosexual or male abusers of male children as homosexual.

And that means that studies do not show a correlation between homosexuality and pedophilia. (Or, heterosexuality and pedophilia.) Noting that psychologists don't identify child abusers by sexual orientation is an important part of the story. It's also important to explain, in context, what data we have on the larger problems of child sexual abuse.

Anyway, back to the AP journalism. I suspect that the fuller quote from Bertone wasn't included because it didn't fit the narrative the reporter wanted for the story.

Rather than get into any data or discussion of studies that prove or disprove what Bertone is saying, we move immediately into thirteen paragraphs taking issue with Bertone's claim. And of those, nine paragraphs are devoted to a single Chilean priest who had sex with teenage girls.

And unless Bertone was saying that no heterosexual ever has sex with a teenager and that pedophilia is exclusively the domain of heterosexuals, that's just a completely disproportionate response. For a story that runs all of 19 paragraphs, that is.

Even if the reporter wanted to refute Bertone's claim, rather than do his job as a journalist and present the news and the response in a more evenhanded manner, anecdotes about one priest having sex with teenage girls aren't really the way to do that.

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