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May 18, 2013 2:40 PM “Horseplay,” New York Times? Really?

By Kathleen Geier

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on the disturbing case of a Catholic priest who, following his 2003 conviction of the sexual abuse of a young boy, continued to work with children . The priest, a man named Michael Fugee, has been working at New Jersey church where, according to the Times, he has “attended weekend youth retreats, traveled with the church’s youth group to Canada, and heard confessions from minors behind closed doors.”

This is in spite of the fact that in 2007, Fugee and the Archdiocese of Newark signed an agreement with prosecutors in which they agreed that Father Fugee would not be

assigned any tasks that would put him in a position to have unsupervised contact with children, including involvement with youth groups, attending youth retreats or hearing confessions of children.

Fugee voluntarily stepped down from ministry on May 2, and there have been calls for Newark’s archbishop, John J.Myers, to resign as well.

This clear evidence that the Church continues to enable clergy who commit sexual assault is, of course, deeply disturbing. But the main reason I’m citing the article here is to highlight the way the author of the article, Russ Buettner, described Fugee’s crimes:

The priest, Michael Fugee, was convicted in 2003 of criminal sexual conduct stemming from allegations that he had groped a boy’s crotch during several wrestling horseplay encounters when he was associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, N.J. (emphasis mine).

New York Times, seriously? “Horseplay”? That term is a stunningly offensive way to describe the crime of sexual assault. It has the effect of minimizing and excusing what occurred — “oh, we were just ‘horsing around’ and things got out of hand.” Right — and in the midst of these carefree fun and games, the adult priest’s hand just happened to find itself grabbing and fondling the child’s genitals. Sure, happens all the time — who hasn’t experienced this?

I wonder to what extent the victim experienced these incidents as harmless “play”? That question answers, of course, itself.

Unfortunately, this is far from the only time that the New York Times has displayed its insensitivity when covering the sexual assault of minors. From 2011, for example, there was this classic bit of victim-blaming, of an 11-year girl who was gang-raped by 18 men and boys.

Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who last year was sentenced to 45 counts of child sexual abuse, is the most notorious offender who used the “horseplay” excuse to deny charges of child rape. After the widespread ridicule that was heaped on that defense, including the one by Jon Stewart in the clip below, you would have thought such an offensive term would never again be used as a euphemism for the sexual assault of children. Sadly, the New York Times appears to feel differently.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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