Significant, if somewhat muted, coverage continues of Vatican debates surrounding the sexual-assault charges against Cardinal George Pell -- one of the current pope's closest advisors.
If you look at this as a religion-beat case study, there are several issues to consider, building on my earlier post: "Bad day for Pope Francis: Sexual-assault charges against Cardinal Pell fuel media firestorm."
First, Pope Francis is a media superstar because of his reputation among journalists as a progressive on sexuality issues. Yes, it does help if one quotes only selected parts of what this pope says on issues of sin, confession, repentance and mercy.
Then there is the problem of how much to say about Pell's alleged victims. In practice, this boils down to two questions: (1) What should American journalists report about the controversial books (especially “Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell,” by Louise Milligan) emerging that reference the Pell accusations? Also, (2) should journalists continue to describe this as a story about pedophilia, alone, avoiding evidence that these crimes -- statistically speaking -- usually involve ephebophilia (illegal sex with under-aged boys and girls, in their teens)?
Why keep mentioning this rather technical point? I do so because I have interviewed experts on this topic (on the Catholic left and right) who stress that, in the past, many bishops were convinced it was more important to remove pedophiles from altars (because they rarely responded to therapy), while they held out hope for recovery among the far greater number of priests who had sex with teens.
Is there really a difference? Here is how one very blunt expert described the situation to me:
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 priest (click here for background). Discussing this fact leads to heated debates on both the Catholic left and right.