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Prostitution, Sexual Abuse, Sodomy Roil Legal Controversies
By Iván Román
May 5, 2002
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Sex talk by the water cooler or on the Capitol steps always gives people something to think about. But the storm of protests and shouting matches stirred up in recent days -- centered on chatter about prostitutes, gays and lesbians, and sex abusers in cassocks -- surprised even the most scandal-hardened veterans.
Police Superintendent Miguel Pereira underestimated the intense criticism he got for suggesting that Puerto Rico should consider legalizing prostitution. His offhanded comments came while talking about men arrested for trying to pick up prostitutes in the suburban city of Guaynabo and a melee in and outside of a shady San Juan strip club that left six drunken Marines injured.
"When a behavior is permitted or basically winked at or is tolerated for thousands of years, I think someone should study the possibility of legalizing it, and it should generate income for public coffers," Pereira said. He even talked about establishing a "red zone" where these types of places would be concentrated, a control mechanism used in several Latin American cities.
That didn't sit well with Gov. Sila Calderon, who responded with a curt "no" to the idea. Radio-show listeners called in to demand Pereira's resignation, and religious leaders said some not-so-kind things about his brain matter.
But the moralist rhetoric, others said, did nothing to solve the problems that bring women and men to sell their bodies. A radio talk-show host detailed for her listeners the achievements -- particularly in the health area -- of the international prostitute movements. Another welcomed the controversy because it stirred a debate that could educate.
"We have to uncover our eyes and see reality just the way it is," talk-show host and journalist Carmen Jovet told her listeners. "We have to be a little bit more honest when we discuss these public issues."
But that seems to have ended there for now.
Not so with the headlines about sex abuse by priests. No sooner did Monsignor Roberto Gonzalez Nieves, archbishop of San Juan, announce more-thorough probes of sexual-abuse allegations than four cases sprout in different parts of the island.
Some of the alleged victims apparently followed the archbishop's advice and went directly to the police. That way the church couldn't be accused of hiding anything, Gonzalez said. But it also sends a clear message to the island's bishops that the public is watching how they handle this, he said.
"Today we are more aware of the nature and seriousness of these matters, and we have to proceed with more determination and vigor," Gonzalez said.
But even more controversial was talk about a law that is almost never applied. In public hearings to extensively revise Puerto Rico's Penal Code, the sodomy law was one of the most-disputed points.
Calling homosexuality a sin in the eyes of God, religious groups roared against efforts to scrap the law. "It's just one more attempt by this government to undermine the institution of the traditional family," said Jorge Raschke, one of the island's most well-known Protestant ministers.
Gay organizations say this kind of law, a throwback to when civil and ecclesiastic courts were combined, is unconstitutional because the right to privacy and intimacy is guaranteed in the island's constitution.
Ten state Supreme Courts -- including Massachusetts as recently as February -- declared them unconstitutional, and the Puerto Rico Supreme Court is reviewing a case on point.
About 25 states have or are in the process of eliminating sodomy laws.
Also, critics say, because Puerto Rico's law is very specific in describing legal sexual relationships, other sexual activity, including by some heterosexuals, could be punished.
"Then our jails would be full, and Puerto Rico would be empty the way that code is written today," said Ada Conde, president of the Human Rights Foundation. "We have to see social reality. You can't cover the sky with your hands."
Given that the code revisions won't be finished until 2003, it looks as if there'll be something to talk about for a long while.