What Benedict’s Letter on Abuse Gets Wrong

Putting Justice First
Pope Benedict XVI walks down steps after giving a talk at the conclusion of a Mass for the Knights of Malta in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 10, 2013, two days before he announced his resignation (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The debate about Benedict XVI’s recent intervention on the sex-abuse crisis has focused on his account of its root causes, which occupies the vast majority of his letter. To the delight of conservatives and the consternation of progressives, he blames the lax sexual morality of the 1960s, rather than the enduring phenomenon of clericalism.

In my view, the problem with Benedict’s letter is far more fundamental. It also transcends the American progressive-conservative divide. He gets the basic moral description of the acts of sex abuse wrong. He frames them as acts of sacrilege, rather than grave injustice.

So what? Benedict clearly thinks these actions are unacceptable—why quibble about details? Because details matter, both theoretically and practically. If we get the description of a misdeed wrong, we fail to grasp the underlying moral reality of the situation. That, in turn, can lead to disastrous strategies for reform.

What is the bedrock moral description of an act of clergy sex abuse? Is it a terrible act of injustice toward vulnerable persons, especially children? If so, then clergy sexual abusers belong in the same category as others who have betrayed their position of authority in this manner: they are like sexually abusive teachers, Scout leaders, and medical professionals. Trading upon their power, they have inflicted physical and psychological harm on their victims. In this perspective, the fact that the perpetrator is a Catholic priest is a circumstance that exacerbates the wrongfulness of the act but does not change its core moral description as an act of gross injustice.

Or should clergy sex abuse be understood most basically as a grave act of sacrilege? If so, clergy sex abuse should be grouped with other acts of sacrilege, such as desecration of the Host, blasphemy against the Blessed Mother, and the commission of any serious moral wrong inside a holy place. From this perspective, the fact that the perpetrator is a priest does not merely exacerbate the wrongful act; it constitutes the core of it. The priest is befouling his holy vows. The fact that he does so by abusing a child adds to the wrong, but does not change its core moral description—it is an act of sacrilege, akin to celebrating a Black Mass.

By framing sex abuse as a matter of sacrilege, Benedict reinforces the disastrous playbook that has guided the church’s response to the abuse crisis for the past fifty years.

Benedict’s letter seems to put clergy sex abuse in the category of sacrilege, not injustice. He does not use the term “sacrilege.” But it is the category that best fits his account of why the act is wrong, especially when sacrilege is understood broadly as a violation or misuse of the sacred. He presents the major victim as the Faith itself—not the children whose integrity was violated. According to Benedict, the “alarming situation” is that “the Faith no longer appears to have the rank of a good requiring protection.” What bothers him most about one of the human victims he encountered is that she can no longer hear the words of consecration without distress, because her priest-attacker used them in the course of the abuse. He says nothing about how the abuse would have affected the entire course of her life. He does not issue a forceful call to protect children, but rather implores us to “do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.”

Benedict’s approach has dangerous consequences. If the real victim is the Faith, then the overriding task is to protect the institution of the church, which instantiates the mystical Body of Christ in time. If the worst consequence of the crisis is the widespread loss of faith in the church’s credibility, then it is better to handle specific instances quietly—so as not to scandalize the faithful. Offending priests should be quickly laicized, so that they do not continue to befoul the Body of Christ. Once they are no longer part of the hierarchy, they are no longer the church’s problem. Victims should be encouraged to remain quiet, perhaps with a legally binding confidentiality agreement, so they don’t erode the church’s ability to pass on the faith. They should be discouraged from seeking monetary damages from the church, since it is the original and primary victim of the priest’s transgression. Finally, secular law enforcement should not be involved in most cases, since their involvement occludes the mystical and transcendent nature of the problem.

By framing the basic offense as a matter of sacrilege, Benedict reinforces the disastrous playbook that has guided the church’s response to the abuse crisis for the past fifty years. He provides a lofty theological rationale for protecting the institution rather than the victims. He offers not a clean, well-lighted path to reform, but rather a detour back into the muck.

Benedict’s intervention is ironic. He blames revisionist moral theologians for the crisis, claiming that they look only at the motive and circumstances of sinful human actions, rather than focusing on the moral quality of the act itself. But Benedict himself is the one who refuses to look closely at the sinful acts in question here. This implacable defender of the existence of intrinsically evil acts refuses to call these acts by their most basic moral name: child rape.

Published in the June 1, 2019 issue: 

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

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