New York Times finds a moral absolute when covering sexual abuse?

After reading the article several times, I really do not know where to start when it comes to chasing the ghosts in the sprawling New York Times feature story on pedophilia in cyberspace. It was called "On the Web, Pedophiles Extend Their Reach," and I've been haunted by it for a week. But we can start with the obvious: It does appear that the Times has found a moral absolute that it can affirm when dealing with the various armies of the sexual revolution.

So pedophilia is bad -- period -- even though the piece briefly waves at several issues related to this behavior without explicitly passing judgment. Would the newspaper's editorial board, for example, back conservative calls for stricter enforcement of statutory rape laws? Even if that led to investigations of allegations against Planned Parenthood for protecting offenders?

But some of you will view that as a digression from the main issue -- pedophilia. And you would be right. But that leads to one of my basic questions about the Times piece: What precisely is pedophilia? How is the newspaper defining this term? What are the origins of this condition, as science has struggled to understand them?

To be more specific, where does the Times draw the line between "pedophilia," sexual activity by adults involving prepubescent children, and "ephebophilia," illegal sex with underaged boys and girls in their teens?

Let me offer the blunt illustration that explains the difference, as told to me once by an expert on the topic. A 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears is sick and disturbed and being tempted to commit a crime. But this man is not sick, disturbed and a criminal in precisely the same way as a 40-year-old man who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears. The same would be true of a gay adult male.

Where did the Times draw this line in its research? There are activists who want to see the age of sexual consent lowered. How low? For what reasons? Reporter Kurt Eichenwald does note this:

In this online community, pedophiles view themselves as the vanguard of a nascent movement seeking legalization of child pornography and the loosening of age-of-consent laws. They portray themselves as battling for children's rights to engage in sex with adults, a fight they liken to the civil rights movement. And while their effort has brought little success, they celebrated online in May when a small group of men in the Netherlands formed a pedophile political party, and they rejoiced again last month when a Dutch court upheld the party's right to exist.

The conversations themselves are not illegal. And, given the fantasy world that the Internet can be, it is difficult to prove the truth of personal statements, or to demonstrate direct connections between online commentary and real-world actions. Nor can the number of participants in these conversations, taking place around the Internet, be reliably ascertained.

But the existence of this community is significant and troubling, experts said, because it reinforces beliefs that, when acted upon, are criminal. Repeatedly in these conversations, pedophiles said the discussions had helped them accept their attractions and had even allowed them to have sex with a child without guilt. Indeed, law enforcement officials say that the refrain of justification from online conversations is frequently voiced by adults arrested for molestation, raising concern that such conversations may lower pedophiles' willingness to resist their temptation.

The noted religion scholar Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University appears briefly in the article, because he is the author of Beyond Tolerance, a 2001 book about Internet child pornography. He describes the online world of pedophiles as an "alternative reality" with its own view of life.

Then Jenkins is gone and we never return to the basic question that he is trying to raise -- the moral structure of that alternative world. The article is back to talking about technology and the lives of these online hunters, the largest percentage of which, according to the Times, say they are schoolteachers. A few parents describe ways to approach the friends of their own children. And some talk about abusing their own children.

Once again, they stress that this is a matter of civil rights, education reform, civic charity or even of religious freedom. Parents and prudes are the enemies who are preventing their children from expressing their true sexual feelings. The ultimate goal is sexual liberation.

In the pedophiles' world view, not all sexual abuse is abuse. There is widespread condemnation and hatred of adults who engage in forcible rape of children. But otherwise, acts of molestation are often celebrated as demonstrations of love.

"My daughter and I have a healthy close relationship," a person with the screen name Sonali posted. "We have been in a 'consensual sexual relationship' almost two months now." The daughter, Sonali wrote, is 10. . . .

Pedophiles see themselves as part of a social movement to gain acceptance of their attractions. The effort has a number of tenets: that pedophiles are beneficial to minors, that children are psychologically capable of consenting and that therapists manipulate the young into believing they are harmed by such encounters.

"Every human being, no matter the age, should be allowed to have consenting mutual sexual relations with anyone they wish," a man calling himself Venn wrote. "All age of consent laws must, and forever, be abolished."

I could go on and on. But here is my main point again: Does this story raise issues that are essentially moral or even religious?

If these beliefs and actions are wrong, why are they wrong? Is there a moral difference between the sexual abuse of a young child and a teen? Why? To what degree is the cause of pedophile liberation reflected in mainstream American life, media and education? Where do the lines blur?

There is more to this story than technology. Isn't there? Does anyone else see the ghost?

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