You are not going to like this article. In fact, unless you are on the sex offender list or someone you care about is being forced to live with this stigma, chances are that you have almost no sympathy for those who have been found guilty of sex crimes. I would like to ask you to think about these people with an open mind. As the father of a daughter, I can tell you that I regularly checked the sex offender web sites to know which of my neighbors to worry about and I have read news articles about child abductions and rape and have felt the rush of adrenaline that would have led me to volunteer to be their executioner. That being said, I am aware that virtually all perpetrators were also victims as children but, clearly, the majority of victims do not grow up to be perpetrators. There is an ethical conversation to be had about pedophiles but that is not the point of this article.
The justice system is built to do, in a predictable and comprehensive way, what every Catholic priest does in a confessional, which is to make some discernment among sins. Someone who abducts and rapes a child is not the same as someone who exposes himself in public by urinating in a city park though you would be surprised by how often prosecutors try to convince judges to sentence the drunk frat boy in the park the same way that they sentence the pedophile who abducted and raped a child.
This morning I sat in a Federal courtroom with a large family as they watched their 29-year-old son face sentencing. “Paul” had been found guilty of having child pornography on his home computer and of having reposted some of it on a web based porn sharing site. He never had sexual contact with a child. He never produced child pornography; never bought any, or sold any. To outward appearances, he is a good guy. Paul is handsome, college educated, athletic, popular, and hard working. His immigrant parents and their large network of family and work associates all love him and have always thought well of him. What they did not know is that from the age of 12 he was watching porn on his computer. His parents didn’t know and his childhood curiosity did not recognize boundaries. So he watched videos and looked at pictures and felt sexually aroused by them though he never acted out the scenes he watched.
I have known men and women in business and a couple of my peers in ministry who had a porn addiction. None of them were rapists but it is also true that none of them were casual consumers of porn. The two pastors I know who were fired for having pornographic images on their church computers didn’t have a few dozen or even a few hundred pictures. They had thousands. In one case, he had tens of thousands of very explicit pornographic photos that might even make our new president’s wife blush.
Most addictions are expressions of an obsessive-compulsive behavior. Smokers rarely smoke once or twice a month. If that level of tobacco use were common, we would never talk about it. But someone who has an addiction is likely to act on that addiction daily, sometimes several times a day. A pornography addiction becomes, to the consumer, as casually and episodically a part of their day as smoking is for most nicotine addicts.
That level of consumption of pornography is going to be a problem for anyone, whether you are a priest or a bartender but if the porn involves children, it ceases to be simply a personal problem. Children cannot, in any way, be consenting to their exploitation. The demand, and the demand is epidemic, fuels the creation of more and more child pornography, which obviously means that more and more children are being irreparably harmed.
So, while owning and sharing child pornography is definitely a crime, it hardly seems to be comparable to child rape or to being a producer of kiddie porn. Like most men, I like to watch “action films” but no matter how many times I see the character, John Wick, shoot fifty to a hundred people in a 90 minute movie, I am not the slightest inclined to shoot anyone or to even buy a gun or associate with people who do own guns. Maybe I shouldn’t watch these movies and I am sure that many people who are more sensitive to the violence in our culture would say with certainty that guys like me shouldn’t watch action movies but you cannot say that we are anything like the people who go into a movie theater and shoot the patrons.
There are no “if’s” or “maybe’s” when it comes to child pornography. It is illegal to own it and it is morally reprehensible. It is bad for the people who get addicted to it and it is a million times worse for the victims who are coerced into producing it.
When Paul walked into the courtroom this morning he had already pled guilty and spent more than a year in a state prison. When he walked in front of the Federal judge to be sentenced, well, you decide, what should society demand of Paul? Should he be sentenced to a decade on parole and be restricted from ever owning a computer or being allowed to work around children? A lifetime on the sex offender list goes without saying; that will happen. But is society served by keeping this young man in a federal prison for more time?
Since he has shown no proclivity for actually becoming a pedophile and he can immediately return to work, contributing meaningfully to society as well as paying taxes, what advantage would we gain by spending $40,000 of tax money to keep in jail another year?
The prosecuting attorney asked for a sentence of fifteen years. The defense attorney asked for five years. The judge split the difference and sentenced Paul to eight years in prison. He will get credit for the year he has been in a state prison. He can get a year shaved off of his sentence by taking classes that amount to psychological treatment. This young man will be 35 years old before he will be out of prison and you and I will spend a quarter of a million dollars keeping him from working, preventing him from having contact with his family or starting a family of his own.
It a country that already has a virtual nation-within-a-nation in prison, over a million people being kept at tax-payer expense against their will for non-violent crimes, how can we keep adding people to our overcrowded prisons when locking them away is not a matter of reforming them, it is a matter of some kind of social revenge, a revenge that also punishes everyone who cares for him while it robs society of his contributions? Sadly, most of the victims of our out-of-control justice system that throws away human lives the way most of us toss out old newspapers and magazines, do not have family and friends who can make their unjust plight visible in the media. They suffer silently at the margins of society.
I’m writing about Paul because I know him. I know his family. I know how wrong this is and I am trying to make this story known in a society that has demonstrated repeatedly that this is one arena of crime for which it has almost no compassion. I’m just asking you to try to overcome your own prejudices so that you can care about a grave injustice even if it does not affect you personally.