The pope and Woody Allen

Like too many other people, I had the great misfortune to grow up in the 1970s -- I remember its crimes very clearly.

Qiana knit shirts, leisure suits, disco, the Chevy Vega, stagflation, Watergate, and the sitcom "Three's Company" top my list -- but, honestly, I could go on for hours more. Were it not for Woody Allen (more on him later), I wouldn't have laughed at all during those ten years. But awful decade though it was, I don't remember rampant pedophilia being part of the dark mix.

Apparently, I missed it. In his now famous-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Christmas address this season, Pope Benedict did an admirable job of once again addressing the church's sex abuse scandal head on. He said the trauma had reached "an unimaginable dimension" in 2010 and brought "humiliation" upon the church.

He could have stopped there. Really. But some gremlin seems to be working the papal speech-writing office late at night, after everyone else has gone home. He sits alone in the dark, a solitary light on over a dusty old Tandy computer terminal -- and very quickly (it often takes only a phrase or two -- a sentence at most), he jams things in to papal pronouncements that are guaranteed to twist the meaning of a speech and overwhelm the intended message.

And so: the Pope went on to say that some of this horrible behavior had to be understood in the context of the 1970s, when pedophilia was not considered "an absolute evil." It was, he added, "theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children."

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Which leads me back to Woody Allen -- perhaps this is how that line got added to the Pope's address.

Someone in the Vatican communication office must have been flicking TV channels while doing a final edit of the papal Christmas message, and suddenly the film "Manhattan" popped up on the screen. Released in 1979, "Manhattan" stars Allen as a much older man dating a high school girl (Mariel Hemingway) -- and no one among Allen's sophisticated urban friends bats an eye-lash. The movie garnered critical acclaim (few reviewers mentioned the whole underage thing) and respectable box office success.

Compare that to the 2009 British film, "An Education." It has a similar story line, but the man here is not a romantic hero like Allen, who nurses a broken heart in the end. Instead, he's an awful cad, the story's villain: a married man with children of his own who sweeps a high school girl off her feet, only to leave her crushed and disillusioned. Everyone in this film pays the price for crossing a moral line -- a moral line not even drawn in "Manhattan."

But one film does not a decade make -- and the unsettling proclivities of Woody Allen shouldn't let anyone off the hook, especially the church.

If the Vatican is looking for a fresh film guide to the 70s, they should try "The Godfather." Dirty deeds are done there too -- but no one gets away clean. In fact, those who survive and seem to triumph find themselves, years later, with a completely empty moral center.


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