Matt Abbott posts (with permission) a large chunk of the introduction to Leon Podles’ new book, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a powerful statement of Podles’ journalistic journey, starting with his own physical abuse at the hands of a Christian Brother (he was punched in the face, and when he complained to the principal, he was expelled). The book, he warns, has explicit descriptions of the sexual abuse suffered, taken from depositions, avoiding the euphemisms employed by the media to date.
As hard as it may be to believe, I have also practiced restraint in using documents. As horrifying and disgusting as the abuse described in the book is, I have even worse things in my files. Psychologists also generally agree that victims usually cannot bring themselves to describe the worst abuse they experienced. A boy will admit that he was masturbated, but not admit that he was penetrated. There are therefore two levels of evil beyond the evil of the abuse described in this book: the descriptions of abuse I have not used, and beyond that the abuse that victims have not been able to bring themselves to describe.
The abuse problem was not a problem of individuals. It was (and is) a systemic problem within the Catholic Church.
The toleration of abuse was not necessary. It was and is convenient. A canonized saint tolerated abuse. Rings of abusers go back at least to the 1940s in America, and abuse involved sacrilege, orgies, and probably murder (and perhaps even worse). Bishops knew about the abuse and sometimes took part in it. Those who complained were ignored or threatened, and the police refused to investigate crimes committed by clergy.
The Vatican must share in the responsibility.
The Vatican helped set the stage for the abuse by cultivating a clericalist mentality that saw the clergy as the real church, and making the purpose of canon law the protection of the rights and reputation of the clergy, not the protection of children from abuse. The Vatican had also carefully chosen and appointed bishops who would not rock the boat, who would not discipline the clergy and perhaps create a schism. The Vatican — and this means Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II — sought to maintain a façade of institutional unity by tolerating heresy, dissent, and immorality, and got a Church (at least in the United States) in which the laity mistrusted priests, bishops, and popes; the priests mistrusted the laity and bishops; the bishops mistrusted the laity, priests, and the Vatican. In fact, it is hard to explain why bishops almost always followed the same policy of transferring rather than punishing abusive priests unless they had been so instructed by the Vatican — the pope must have either let the situation develop or set the policy himself.
It promises to be an important book. His bottom line:
I would like Catholics to look at themselves in the mirror and see the truth about themselves and their failures. Priests have done terrible things, and much of the rest of the Church — bishops, popes, even the laity — has been complicit.
Update: 11/23–Leon Podles graciously offered to send me a review copy of the book, and it came in the mail today. I’ve read most of the first two chapters. It’s tough going. I’ll have a review up in a few days.