Without a doubt the most searing document on the Catholic sex abuse scandal I’ve ever read — much more agonizing than this past summer’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, for example — is Leon Podles’s 2008 book Sacrilege, which is out of print and very hard to find now. Here’s a link to Lee’s web page for Sacrilege. Lee is a Catholic, an abuse victim, and a professional investigator who put his skills to work to try to get to the bottom of what happened in the Catholic Church.
I started reading the book in galley form, and couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters. It’s not that it was a bad book — not at all! It’s that the stone-cold realities Lee wrote about — based on police reports, documents, and interviews — were overwhelming to me. Admittedly, I was at a very weak place, having just left the Catholic Church over the scandal. Still, the book was raw. Because Lee is a friend, I knew how much work he had put into it, and how he suffered while writing it.
But it was true, and important.
Now, in Touchstone, S.M. Hutchens talks about how Lee Podles has been vindicated by this year’s terrible revelations of abuse and sexual corruption in the Catholic Church. Hutchens recalls a 2008 post from a Catholic site called “Fringe Watcher” that dismisses Podles as a crazy ranter who was aiding and abetting anti-Catholics. In a First Things item in that same year, Richard John Neuhaus said:
Very different is Leon Podles’ Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Crossland). It is a rambling essay of more than five hundred pages on a potpourri of items picked up from the public media and the blogosphere, including, along with the kitchen sink, stomach-turning details of abuse, mainly with boys, and a scathing, if familiar, indictment from a conservative perspective of liberal depredations that brought things to this sorry pass. Regrettably, the tone is shrill, and even righteous anger does not justify the author’s suspension of caution and charity in attributing motives. Among the repercussions of the crisis is a publishing stream that goes on and on, which is inevitable.
Ah, Neuhaus. He never could bring himself to see clearly what was right in front of his face.
Anyway, Hutchens says in the new article:
Anticipating a violently negative reaction to his book, before the publication of Sacrilege Leon warned us at an editorial meeting that Touchstone might wish to distance itself from him, and he tendered his resignation as a senior editor. We unanimously refused his offer, for even if he, like our Lord, was a theological freelancer with no strong Temple connections, the masthead of Touchstone, to which we firmly lashed him then, provided more than enough credentialed backing to someone we had always found sober, temperate, and reliable. That his soul was in agony as a result of learning what he did, and that a small measure of his pain was evident in the book, was nothing to us except proof of the kind of man he is.
In his First Things comment, Fr. Neuhaus insulted a man who had spent much of his life in case research with the accusation that his sources were paltry and flawed, “a potpourri of items picked up from the public media and the blogosphere.” In fact, Leon’s work was based upon many boxes of court records (as should have been clear from the reading) that had been turned over to him by another researcher who had quit the project for heartsickness, and whose intended work he successfully finished, only to find it rejected by the commissioning publisher because what he had found was just too painful and offensive.
The most powerful and telling part of Sacrilege, the part with which the Church will have to deal if it ever stops its evasions and increasingly hollow-sounding mea culpas, is the final section, where Dr. Podles deals with the historical and theological roots of the present crisis from the perspective of “a Catholic in good standing.” It is time once again to take up his book and read.
To be fair to the publisher mentioned above, I was (and remain) friends with those who made the decision not to publish, and I think theirs was a defensible call. It is hard to overstate how raw Sacrilege is. Again, that is not a criticism, but simply an observation. Back in 2002, I met with a major New York publisher — a boldface name — and pitched a book on the scandal. This publisher, a legend known for straight talk, turned me down, saying, “Nobody wants to pay $27 to read a book about priests screwing boys.” That executive was far from prissy; she was making a commercial judgment. I honestly believe that Sacrilege would have been all but impossible to sell in 2008 — and at any point until now.
Since the McCarrick news broke this summer, I’ve had five Catholics approach me to apologize for having said or thought nasty things about me for having left the Catholic Church over all this back in 2006. They’ve all told me that they assumed back then that I was overreacting; now, after what has come out this year, they know that I was telling the truth. I’m grateful for these honorable mea culpas, but they puzzle me a bit, because I’m pretty sure that most of what’s come out this summer and fall was known a decade ago. Right?
Or — this is more likely — the passage of time has allowed me to confuse the facts and stories I had in my head with what was available in public. Often I told people back then that I was only ever to write a small part of what I had learned, and believed to be true, because people wouldn’t go on the record.
It is also undeniably true that a lot of people back then simply could not imagine that the truth was as bad as all that. I hold the late Father Neuhaus more responsible than most, precisely because he was such an insider, and ought to have known better. His insider status, though, and his vanity, blinded him to the ugly reality of the scandal. Like Podles, I personally felt the lash of his tongue for the things I wrote about the Church and clerical sex abuse.
To be honest, I’m not sure how wide a readership Sacrilege would find today, simply because it is extremely dark. But it tells the truth. Catholics and others need to know these things — that these crimes happened, and that men of God covered them up for decades. It is very easy to treat these horrors as an abstraction, because it is extremely painful to come to terms with the barbarism and perversity within the Church. Leon Podles doesn’t flinch in describing exactly what these monsters did. Reading Sacrilege is like watching an exorcism up close and personal. I did not have the strength to get through it a decade ago. I don’t know if I have the strength today. But this book should be in print again, as a witness and a warning.
UPDATE: I’ve just learned that Loome Theological Booksellers has a lot of copies of Sacrilege for sale!
UPDATE.2: Leon Podles comments:
I am 72 and am engaging what the Swedes call döstädning, death cleaning, disposing of my belongings. I had the remaining 500 or so copies of Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church sent to Loome Theological Booksellers https://www.loomebooks.com/, should anyone be interested.
I wrote the book with two audiences in mind: bishops and district attorneys. I sent a copy of the book to every bishop in the United States. I received not a single acknowledgement. I have received notes of appreciation from prosecuting attorneys. The study I did on my web site, The Murder of Irene Garcia by the Rev. John B. Feit, http://www.podles.org/case-studies/Irene-Garza-Case-Study-page1.htmwas used, I was told, by the prosecution to structure their case against Feit. He was convicted.
I am puzzled why the current severe reaction to reports of sexual abuse did not occur after 2002, when all the material became available. Perhaps such a trauma takes a while to sink in. Germans did not really comprehend the horror of the Holocaust until the soap-opera-like Shoah came out in the 1970s.
I was put out when Spence Publishing asked me to write the book (which put me through hell) and then reneged on their contract. What were they expecting? A whitewash? …
I have spoken with Cardinal Schönborn, who read part of Sacrilege, about Pope John Paul’s failure to deal with sexual abuse. He had spoken directly and privately to John Paul about it, and received a totally blank response. Such a failure in fulfilling the duties of his office should have prevented the canonization of John Paul, but canonizations are largely political events, and canonization is now a step on the clerical career ladder.
Benedict tried, more than any pope in centuries, probably since Pius V, to clean up the mess, but he was thwarted and realized he did not have the necessary stamina. The cardinals made the mistake of electing Bergoglio, who had a bad record in Buenos Aires. The cardinals did not know about it, or if they did know, did not care. Francis doesn’t really care. Dealing with cases of sexual abuse is a nuisance, he has made abundantly clear, a distraction from his real interest in trying to appear woke about such things as plastic pollution of the oceans.
McCarrick is but one instance of the culture of clerical pederasty which has grown up in segments of the Catholic Church. Older clerics seduce seminarians and young priests, whom they groom to put into positions of power in the church. Kenneth Woodward has just written about this in Commonweal: Double Lives https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/double-lives. He all but says that Wright in Pittsburgh had this relationship with Wuerl.
Woodward state the obvious truth, which so many in the Church want to ignore: “One cannot deny that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup, and to dismiss this aspect as homophobia one would have to be either blind or dishonest. This is one reason the McCarrick case is so important. McCarrick’s targets were young adults as well as adolescents, which fits the definition of homosexual abuse and rape. Like most middle-aged men, whether heterosexual or homosexual, he was attracted to younger bodies.”
Woodward dismisses the claim that clericalism was the sole source of the corruption: “But it wasn’t just clericalism that allowed McCarrick to abuse seminarians and young priests for decades, even though his behavior was widely known within clerical circles. And it wasn’t just his ecclesiastical clout that provided him protection. It was networks, too.”
These networks exist in the Church, extending high into the Vatican. They are powerful and seem to have influence over Francis, who does not want to acknowledge the corruption, because then he would have to deal with it, and he doesn’t want to do that. No one can make him, and he has a bad conscience about his inaction. By his example he is showing bishops how to ignore the corruption and pretend that everything is OK and needs only minor adjustments. This is not true; Francis knows it; and he will have to answer to God – as Viganò has said, and no one loves a prophet
UPDATE.3: Thomas Spence comments:
Lee Podles writes, “Spence Publishing asked me to write the book (which put me through hell) and then reneged on their contract.” That statement is not correct.
Having published a book by Mr. Podles on the feminization of Christianity, I commissioned him to write a book about the scandals then consuming the Church. I was quite clear about the tone we were looking for. When Mr. Podles showed us his partially completed manuscript, we told him clearly that it was not what we had in mind. The completed manuscript was no different, and we declined to publish it. Inflicting that disappointment on Mr. Podles after all his work was personally agonizing, but “Sacrilege” was not the book I had commissioned, and — though I had no reason to doubt its accuracy — it was not a book I was willing to publish.
Mr. Podles has a different opinion about what happened, and I don’t question his sincerity or good will. Spence Publishing is no longer in business, and perhaps he has been vindicated in his determination to write the book he did. But the accusation that I “reneged” on his contract is inaccurate and unjust.
For the record, I’m friends with both Lee and Tom, and read Lee’s book in manuscript. It was and is ferocious. I was sorry that Spence Publishing didn’t publish it, but as a commercial decision, I believe that was a completely defensible call. It would have been a very hard sell to the public, and publishers don’t do what they do for charity’s sake. A lot has happened in the past decade, and I hope some publisher today will read Sacrilege and see the worth in reissuing it. Even so, reading it is a devastating experience. Leon Podles put his heart and soul into that book, and it stands as an almost unique document of our time. I urge you to go to Loome Theological Booksellers’ site and buy a copy — but consider yourself warned.
UPDATE.4: I want to apologize for allowing a comment to appear that called someone’s sexuality into question without offering evidence. I’ve removed it. I shouldn’t have let it go up. I’m sorry.