Saturday, April 3, 2010

Moral panic flares again

Massimo Introvigne | Saturday, 3 April 2010

Is priestly paedophilia a problem? Yes, says an Italian sociologist. Is it a big problem? No.

Why is there talk again of paedophile priests, based on a case in Germany, which drags in people who are close to the Pope and now even the Pope himself? Does sociology have something to say about this or should we leave it completely to the journalists? I believe sociology has much to say, and it must not remain silent because of a fear of displeasing some.

The current discourse on paedophile priests – considered from a sociological perspective – represents a typical example of "moral panic". The concept was coined in the 1970s to explain how certain problems become the subject of "social hyperconstruction". More precisely, moral panics are defined as socially constructed problems that are characterised by a systematic amplification of the true facts in the media or in political discourse.

Two other characteristics have been cited as typical of moral panics. First, problems that have existed for decades are reconstructed in the media and political accounts as new or as the subject of a recent dramatic increase. Second, their incidence is exaggerated by statistics plucked from the air which, while not confirmed by academic studies, are repeated by the media and inspire persistent media campaigns. Historian and sociologist Philip Jenkins, of Pennsylvania State University, has emphasised the role of "moral entrepreneurs" in the creation and management of panics whose agenda is not always revealed. Moral panics do not bring any good. They distort the perception of the problems and compromise the efficacy of the measures which should resolve them. After a harmful analysis inevitably there comes a harmful intervention.

Let there be no misunderstanding: at the origin of moral panics are objective and real dangers. They do not invent a problem; they exaggerate its statistical dimensions. In a series of excellent studies, Jenkins demonstrated how the issue of paedophile priests is perhaps the most typical moral panic. Two characteristic elements exist: a fact which serves as a starting point, and an exaggeration of this fact by moral entrepreneurs.

Read the rest of the article at MercatorNet here.

For more detailed coverage of the controversy over sex abuse cases and Pope Benedict, see MercatorNet's new focus blog, Just B16.
Italian language text: Preti pedofili: un panico morale (CESNUR: Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni)

Photo source: Wikipedia.

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