According to conventional wisdom, the biggest sexual-abuse scandal of our time is clergy abuse. Those who have studied it will add, “And it wasn’t just the relatively small percentage of abusers that was the problem. It was the bishops who did nothing to stop it.”

As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out when he visited the United States in April, that conventional wisdom speaks truth.

But there’s a much deeper and wider scandal that this conventional wisdom misses entirely.

Said Benedict on April 16: “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?”

The deepest, widest sexual scandal in the Church has nothing to do with priests. It’s the scandal of laypeople who themselves indulge in the sexual excesses so prevalent in our day, or who train their children to, whether by example, timidity or a blind eye.

The Holy Father elaborated on this scandal in his address to bishops.

“Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships,” he said. “They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”

There was a time when, in too many Catholic families, sex was a taboo topic. The silence gave it an aura of mystery and allowed misconceptions to grow.

Today the problem is very different. If children are watching prime-time television (including the commercials) they routinely see sexuality presented as if it were merely a form of entertainment, or a way to gain power over others, or at any rate something to be treated casually.

If they are watching prime-time crime shows, they are seeing something far darker. Fringe activities that polite society never dwelled on before are now the plot-drivers on shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order.”

Kids can’t sift through all of this potent sexual content (indeed, many adults can’t). They end up acting out what they see, at ever younger ages. It’s a scandal that they are exposed to it at all.

Parents best prepare their children for the world when they take care to find the balance between the extremes of making sexuality an unmentionable subject, and unqualified exposure to contemporary sexual excess.

Next, Pope Benedict said: “They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. This brings us back to our consideration of the centrality of the family and the need to promote the Gospel of life.”

Children often hear about sexuality from friends before they hear about it from their parents, and young people often go astray in large ways and small in sexual matters. But despite all of that, in the end, they tend to adopt their parents’ sexual morality when they enter adulthood — if it is ever presented to them.

The availability of pornography on the Internet makes it more true than ever: The only way you will protect your children from the immorality in the world is to convince them of the truth and beauty of the morality of the Church.

And the only way to convince them of that is to learn about it yourself, and then share what you learn.

Register stories from our archives report about how easily men fall into pornography addiction, and the toll it takes. Theology of the Body apostolates we have featured are giving people an important grounding. These can all be fodder for discussion with children who are old enough to hear about them.

Next, Pope Benedict said: “We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike. All have a part to play in this task — not only parents, religious leaders, teachers and catechists, but the media and entertainment industries as well. Indeed, every member of society can contribute to this moral renewal and benefit from it.”

The culture we will send our children into is centered on media as never before. That means that our children will have a full palette of choices that run from remarkably beautiful presentations of goodness and truth to the worst, ugliest lies presented in the most alluring ways.

Our role is not just to train our children how to tell the difference, but also to do all we can to help the former prosper and the latter wane. Children will learn to imitate their parents’ self-discipline. If as parents we routinely watch television we know we ought to have qualms with, we should be aware that our children are watching us, and will do the same. They will also imitate our movie-renting habits.

That the culture is filled with glimmering dangerous lures is a given. That Catholics make the problem worse by investing in them is a scandal.

Cardinal Francis George commented to a Chicago newspaper that he, too, was struck by the importance of Pope Benedict’s words about the lay scandal.

“Bishops haven’t felt free to say that because it looks like we’re letting ourselves off the hook,” he said. “But he’s free to say it. And he did.”