The moral structure of pedophilia is simply this: the welfare of children is subordinate to the sexual gratification of adults.
Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for the Penn State football team, established a charity called The Second Mile, for boys, mostly fatherless, who were living in troubled homes. It is not clear that he did so initially to lure boys into a trap. But that is what eventually happened, according to the testimony of the men who recalled with shame and disgust their initiation into sodomy.
Raymond Lahey, former Catholic bishop of Antigonish, was apprehended in the Ottawa airport and his computer files scanned. They contained nude pictures of boys. Lahey resigned in disgrace. The Canadian press tried hard to conceal the sex of the children, and suppressed any report about the exotic destinations to which the bishop commonly flew. One isn’t to inquire too closely into travel agencies that do a hopping business flying men to places like Thailand, which teems with boy prostitutes. And girl prostitutes too; apparently Thailand is a favorite sweating-off ground for Korean businessmen.
We should be thankful that the Sanduskys and Laheys are still considered monstrous. But in contemporary America that condemnation rests on sentiment and not on moral reasoning. No one can simultaneously explain why their actions were so vile and uphold the first commandment of the sexual revolution: fulfill thy desires.
It may be argued that the boys were too young to give genuine consent. They were dupes. That may be true of the boys in Pennsylvania, but it cannot be true of the hardened street children in Bangkok. But the horror, the disgust, is out of all proportion to a memory of being duped. If somebody tricks a boy into giving him fifty dollars for a lump of fool’s gold, the boy now grown will look back on the incident with irritation and contempt for the trickster, but not with any horror. The shame of Sandusky’s victims arose not from the trickery, but from the act itself into which they were tricked.
Besides, the fact that a child cannot give genuine consent is not in itself morally decisive. We compel children to do plenty of things for their own good—or for what we say is good. A public school teacher in Toronto has written a set of lessons requiring young children to imagine wearing clothes appropriate for the opposite sex. He’s been congratulated, not by the wary parents, but by a school board that insists that teachers are “co-parents.” What he’s doing, of course, is subjecting naïve children to an exercise that promotes his own sexual aims.
No, it isn’t how Sandusky and Lahey did what they did, or under what circumstances, that explains the disgust. It’s what they did—but nobody wants to acknowledge that.
The reason for that reluctance becomes clear, if we keep in mind the moral structure of pedophilia. Sexual gratification trumps. Thank goodness that for now, there aren’t many men who are sexually attracted to youngsters. In that single case, we raise the banner for the children. But in no other case.
If we altered the question, and asked not how many people have done sexually abusive things with children, but how many people have done sexual things that redounded to the suffering of children, then we might confess that the only thing that separates millions of people from Jerry Sandusky is inclination. Everything that was once considered a sexual evil and that is now winked at or cheered, everything without exception, has served to hurt children, and badly.
We might point here to divorce. Unless it is necessary to remove oneself and one’s children from physical danger and moral corruption, the old wisdom regarding divorce should hold, if children themselves have anything to say about it. Parents will say, “My children can never be happy unless I am happy,” but they should not lay that narcissistic unction to their souls. Children need parents who love them, not parents who are happy; they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It is not the job of the child to suffer for the parent, but the job of the parent to endure, to make the best of a poor situation, to swallow his pride, to bend her knees, for the sake of the child.
We might point to births out of wedlock. The child has a right to enter more than a little nursery decorated with presents from a baby shower. He should enter a human world, a story, a people. He should be born of a mother and a father among uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents, stretching into the distant past, with all their interrelated histories, with his very being reflected in all those mirrors of relation, not to mention his eyes and his hair, the talents in his fingers and the cleverness in his mind. This belonging to a big and dependable world can be secured only in the context of the permanent love of his mother and father, declared by a vow before the community and before the One in whom there is no shadow of alteration.
Most parents grow reticent when the time comes to tell their children about sex. That reticence is right and natural, as is the quiet of a man’s voice as he brings his son to a holy place, the grave of his grandfather who died in the war, or the little old house where his grandmother was born. Sex is not about the mechanics. The parent must tell the child about the love that brought him into being; and therefore sex is about the past and the present and the future, and about all those who share in the great family network of begetting and of love.
Then along come the Planned Predators, with a cadre of—what shall we call them? What would we call them if they had no “credentials,” no initials after their names? What would we call the old man down the street, wheezing and giggling, who likes to show little kids pictures of people masturbating? I believe the technical term is “creep.” So then, along comes Planned Predators with their creeps, lubriciously introducing children to the delights of meaningless sex, with cartoons of talking penises and vaginas, of a girl bending over with a mirror to inspect her anus, or a boy in his bedroom abusing himself.
Is that unfair? Some people want to have their sexual flings, but are discreet enough to try to keep children away from them; not that they ever succeed entirely, but at least their hypocrisy pays vice’s tribute to virtue. But Planned Predators do not believe in that tribute. There are pedophiles of the body, and pedophiles of the soul. Planned Predators happily enlist the latter among their troops.
One wonders how Sandusky managed to do what he did for so long, without getting caught by parents. Well, the abuser separates the child from the parents. “This is our secret,” says the creep. “Don’t tell your parents,” sibilates the lizard. “They won’t understand.” “Your parents haven’t treated you right,” hisses the snake. “Your parents are old-fashioned. Your parents are selfish. Your parents have their own agenda. You don’t have to submit to your parents. You can be your own person,” wheedles the weasel, meaning: Submit to me.
That is the same strategy that the credentialed spiritual pederasts use. Parents are the enemy. The parents are kept in the dark. The parents are too benighted to know what is best. The parents—even such sporadically responsible parents as our generation has produced—wouldn’t know about how happy it is to be sexually free.
One begins to wonder whether it is not the harm done to the child that counts, in our world of advertising-as-truth, but the style with which it is done, or the class to which the child-destroyer belongs. It is hard for those who do not think about the essences of things to judge actions and not actors.
So the soggy-jowled sweaty old football coach Sandusky pins a boy to the wrestling mat and has his way, and he is justly condemned for it, but the little girl-loving Jimmy Savile, darling of the BBC, flaunts his immorality for years, to the knowing jests of many an unreporting reporter. So Kermit Gosnell, a man with the morals of Josef Mengele but without the same surgical skills, is nonplussed to learn that many a reliable immoralist expresses disgust at his having turned abortion into more than a hand-over-fist moneymaker: a hobby, with a delightful trove of preserved parts, cut from their owners to the jaunty percussion of the scissors.
What, after all, is he doing to those babies that differs in more than style from what the prim waspish feminist doctor is doing uptown in Rittenhouse Square? He laughs while he works, and she dons the serious mien of a soldier in the army of Equality, doing what she must, and making money for it—mustn’t muzzle that ox as she treads out the corn.
And the welfare case who, at her wits’ end, takes a whip to the boy who can throw her to the floor, she is led off to family court, she with the tobacco stains on her fingers and the voice ground down into tenor. But the sophisticated “single mother,” with her degree in Women’s Studies from Wellesley, living in the high-rent belt around Boston, dresses her daughter up as a neuter, and turns a cold shoulder when the child begs to be treated like an ordinary girl. No time in jail for her; rather a date for the savante nouvelle to lecture at the local library, one week after her friend lectures on the cruelty of treating dogs as if they were not dogs, and one week before her other friend lectures on gluten-free wheat and yolkless eggs.
John Williamson, self-professed swinger, the proprietor of a massive nudist and adultery farm, receives from the national presses an obituary worthy of a great artist or inventor, and no one pauses to ask how many children’s lives were snuffed out or made miserable by the perversions of their elders; but the former Pope Benedict, the gentle-spoken and staid professor of a morality that was not so long ago taken for granted by nearly everyone, he whose only sin is that he still calls a sin a sin, could only wish to be treated with dull neutrality, or even respectful enmity. Style, man, style.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.