Monday, February 2, 2009

Even pedophiles are human

One of the movies currently playing, “Doubt” takes on contemporary opinion and attitudes about homosexuality, especially about sexual relations between adults and children.

Most states have very stringent laws about sex offenders. In many states they have to register with the police and inform the police when they change their address. Many states have the pictures and addresses of sex offenders on websites open to the public. In some localities, the police will come around and inform the neighbors when a registered sex offender moves into a neighborhood. Many localities forbid sex offenders to live within a set distance of schools. There are proposals to compel registered sex-offenders to wear GPS bracelets so that the police can tell at any moment where this person is.

The sex offenders subject to all these registration requirements embrace many different kinds of persons. There are adults accused and convicted of raping and murdering children, teens or adults. There are those who were convicted of forcing sex on children who were either very young or, if older, unwilling. There are persons convicted of other sexual crimes such as rape. There are people who were arrested for exposing themselves or persons arrested for urinating in public. Moreover, persons are classified as sex offenders even after they have served their time in prison and emerge many years after having committed a sexual crime.

It is interesting to note that we are protecting ourselves against sexual offenders who, we fear, might--as some certainly do—re-offend. But we do not have registries and web-sites for convicted murderers who have served their time, or persons who committed fraud, or were convicted of drunk driving, or of dealing drugs. A certain percentage of persons who commit these different kinds of crime, of course, also reoffend. But they do not have to register. When they move into a new neighborhood the police does not inform their new neighbors about their past. No one has proposed to put them under constant police surveillance.

Sexual crimes seem particularly upsetting and seem to many people to justify particularly harsh measures to prevent further offenses. One reason for that is, no doubt, that in recent years, we have discovered how frequently children are victimized by sexual crimes and that has horrified many persons. As a consequence, politicians, legislators are sure to be popular if they advocate harsh measures against sex offenders.

The movie “Doubt” courageously takes on popular ideas about pedophiles and shows that a lot of popular hysteria about sexual crimes is simple-minded and inhuman. The film portrays the conflict between a nun, an older woman, principal of a parochial school who appears rather harsh and punitive, and a priest whom she suspects of having sexual relations with teenage boys. By the end of the movie we are left with a strong suspicion that she is right about the priest but we have also learned that pedophiles too are human beings with all the complexities of everyone else. Father Flynn, the (probably) pedophile priest is a good priest. He cares a lot for many people, he is kind, he is an intelligent person who gives really good sermons. He is a good person in very many ways. He appears to struggle against his sexual desire for boys but he sometimes loses the struggle. In some cases his relations are with boys who are inclined toward homosexuality. Then the sexual attentions are not forced on them but rather give them some affirmation that their way of being is also acceptable.

Popular repulsion against pedophiles tends to paint them as “sick,” as “perverse.” The website pictures of sex offenders are ordinary police mug shots that make everyone look sub-human. The film “Doubt” puts a human face on pedophiles. It does not condone forcing children, or anyone else, into unwanted sexual relations. But it shows that sometimes people who act badly, in one respect, are quite admirable in others. They are not just pedophiles, period. They are also kind, intelligent, well-spoken and, as in this case, good priests.

We oversimplify the moral dilemmas raised by pedophilia, or by any other moral failure, if we pretend that their crime is the only interesting fact about this particular person. None of us would want to be exclusively identified by the things we did badly, the promises we broke, the children we disappointed, the work we did carelessly, the persons in need we failed to help. Each of us has our bad moments when we do what we later regret bitterly. But we comfort ourselves by saying that we are more than the person who failed at that moment. We have many good qualities; we have done many good deeds we are proud of.

Crimes, misdeeds--our own and those of others--confront us with difficult questions. No one, the movie “Doubt” seems to insist, is all one thing. No one is only a pedophile; no one is only on the side of what is good and honorable. It is important for a society to protect itself against bad actors. But it is also of the essence to remember that these bad actors are more than what they do or did in their worst moments. In the end they are human beings like the rest of us, complex, many sided, who deserve their humanity respected as much as anyone else. The measures we take to protect ourselves must take the humanity of pedophiles, in particular, and of sex offenders, in general, as seriously as our own. The measures we take against them, that seriously limit their life and life chances—who will give a job to a person whose mug shot can be found on a sex-offenders list?-- must be carefully scrutinized to see whether they actually are necessary to protect us or whether they flow from an emotional appeal to popular hysteria that does not protect anyone but is merely an exercise in vindictiveness. We must make sure that legal restrictions on pedophiles will really make our cities safer instead of being just a politician's cynical attempt to play on the fears of citizens in order to get reelected.

By all means, go and see “Doubt” and see for yourself.