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.