Mapping Our Disordered Desires

I got the kind of lesson one hates to get the other day. But I suppose it’s important to go through life with one’s eyes open to reality.

I had heard for some time that, even with all the reports that have come in, the percentage of priests who were pedophiles was still no higher than the percentage one finds in the general population. The way the New York Times and the Boston Globe report things, you sometimes get the impression that all the pedophiles were priests, and that every other priest is a potential pedophile.

Are the ranks of the Catholic clergy an especially dreadful refuge of registered sex offenders?  Not so, as it turns out. And this is where my sad lesson came in.

I was discussing these matters with a friend when he said, out-of-the-blue: “Where’s your computer?  Look up a web site called”  “Why?” I asked, not being the kind of person who looks up unknown web sites for fun. “Just trust me,” he said, which was not altogether convincing.

But he’s a friend, so I decided to humor him. In retrospect, I kind of wish I hadn’t. But there are times when one simply must face reality.

So I punch in the web address – – and up comes a map of my little city with dozens and dozens and dozens of little triangles all over it: “Those must be all the crime reports for the year. Do you click on each one to find out what the crime was?”  “No,” replied my friend. “Those aren’t all the crime reports. Those are just the registered sex offenders who live in your neighborhood.”

“Each one of those little triangles,” he  explained – and there were over a hundred within a two-mile radius of my house – “is another convicted sex offender registered with the state. Look, you can roll your mouse over the little triangle, and a picture will come up.” 

Sure enough, pictures of guy after guy came up as I rolled the mouse around the screen. I didn’t spend much time doing this, I’ll have to admit, because as T. S. Eliot suggests in The Four Quartets: “mankind can’t stand very much reality.” 

During the time I spent, I didn’t see a picture of even one woman. I’m not saying there weren’t any; I just didn’t see any. What was shocking, and instructive, was the stupefying number of those little triangles spread all over the screen: hundreds of them. And not only in the “bad” neighborhoods.

     A stupefying number of those little triangles

I showed this web site to another friend who lives in a lovely big upper-middle class house in a well-groomed, upper-middle class neighborhood, where the children can go to the best public high school in the area. He wasn’t as surprised as I was. But he was more than a little disappointed to find one of those little triangles two blocks in one direction from his house, and another one about three blocks in the other direction.

He quickly moused over each of the triangles and was relieved that there was no one he knew personally. But I’m pretty sure he memorized the faces for future reference.

Try it. Punch “” into your web browser and see whether you’re not utterly astonished at the number of registered sex offenders who live in your town within a short distance of your house.

And unless you live in a monastery or a housing development made up entirely of priests, you’re going to have to face the fact that: (A) there are lot of registered sex offenders out there, and (B) not all of them are priests.

Now please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not interested in getting priests guilty of pedophilia or the church officials who protected them off the hook.  Priests who committed sins of this sort certainly caused the angels to weep. (“It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”)

But it doesn’t hurt to put things into perspective a little. This isn’t just a small, localized problem. And once you see the numbers and the widespread nature of the disease, it will almost certainly give the lie to any claim that the pedophile priest problem had to do with the Church’s rules about a celibate priesthood.

You look around at some of the faces under those triangles, and you’ll say to yourself: “I don’t think celibacy is that guy’s problem. He has a problem, that’s for sure, but that’s not it.”  Celibacy doesn’t seem to have played a very big role in those lives.

Not by a long shot.

What does seem to be common to them, however, is living day-in and day-out in a toxic sexualized culture in which people are left to brood by themselves in their lonely set-apart worlds of individualized autonomy. We’re reaping the fruits of what we have sown culturally, and it’s not pretty. Punch in that web address, and you’ll see the crops sprouting up everywhere like weeds.

A wiser culture might have decided to dial back a bit on the constant barrage of sexualized images. A wiser culture might have tried to teach young men about limits and proper boundaries, about lines that just shouldn’t be crossed, instead of constantly pumping them up with sexual images intended to sell them everything from beer to button-down shirts and from automobiles to exercise equipment. But clearly we don’t live in a wiser culture.

Just check the map.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.