Review of Leon Podles, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

Update: I’ve posted this at my main webpage, The Oak Tree.

Leon J. Podles,
Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
. Baltimore, MD: Crossland Press, 2008

It’s not a sin to be angry. This is evident from the scriptural injunction to “Be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26), as well as references to God being angry. For Thomas Aquinas, anger is a necessary element of the virtue of fortitude—fortitude isn’t a matter of just putting up with evil, or of enduring sorrow, but includes actively resisting evil, bravery in the struggle, and anger at the evil which has led to sorrow. Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, Q. 123, Art. 10.

Leon Podles is angry, and wants us to be angry, too. He wants us to be angry at the sin of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. But more than that, he also wants us to be angry at the bishops and pope for not being angry at that same sin. That’s what irks him about this crisis more than anything else—never have the bishops or popes expressed any anger that priests molested kids or that other bishops covered it up and transferred the predators to new hunting grounds.

Podles had done his work well—as I read, I felt a surge of anger at both the system and my own participation in it as a chancery bureaucrat for nine years. I decided I needed to take a breather before writing this review. I wanted to get some perspective. I read two other books on the sexual abuse crisis, Jason Berry’s 1992 chronicle of the Gilbert Gauthé case in Lafayette, Louisiana, Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, and Berry’s 2004 book with Gerald Renner, Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, which concentrates on the Legion of Christ. I’m still angry, but I’m now better able to see what is unique about Podles’ book.

These other authors give us great detail about particular epicenters of the crisis and their own journeys as they covered the stories, but Podles’ work stands out as a masterful portrayal of the big picture, linking the stories Berry and Renner reported with stories from other times and places. He paints with broad strokes in places, but gets into some very fine detail in others to help us to grasp the magnitude of some truly horrendous cases. Podles also gives us analysis of the abusers and the victims, and of how each was treated by bishops, and what went wrong.

The bishops are clearly the focal point of his anger:

The bishops made excuses, but the excuses did not excuse. Bishops claimed they were only following the advice of psychologists, but they put abusive priests in parishes even when the psychologists warned against it. Why hadn’t bishops ever gotten angry at abusers? Why were abusers treated so gently, when men who left the priesthood to marry were treated so harshly? Why had bishops lied to parents? Why hadn’t they disciplined their clergy, when they seemed so eager to micromanage everything else in America, from what married couples did in bed to what the government did about immigration? (3)

But he goes further, seeing the crisis as about more than the bishops and the priests they coddled: Catholic culture is implicated; specifically a narcissistic clericalism in which the laity, including police and judges and prosecutors colluded.

“The abuse is far more widespread, goes back farther, and is far worse” than has been recognized to date. (9)

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. (10)

Podles reveals some of the reasons for his personal connection to the subject, and these revelations give us some insight into how he came to target clericalism. He recounts an experience of physical abuse at the hands of a Christian Brother in high school—”He walked to my desk and slugged me so hard on the face that he broke my glasses.” The teacher went to the principal, and Podles was expelled for having objected to an injustice. This served as a lesson for the boys who remained. But it is also for Podles an example of how the Christian Brothers ruled their schools by intimidation, and he sees what happened to him as one instance of a pattern of physical abuse at Christian Brothers schools extending from Ireland to the US and Canada. Many of these same schools had problems of sexual abuse as well, and Podles sees a clear connection: “An atmosphere of physical abuse had prepared the way for sexual abuse.” The Brothers got the point across that you were to do what they asked without question or complaint. (4-5)

Podles, like many Catholic young men of the period, considered the priesthood; he went to Providence College in Rhode Island, which was run by the Dominicans, and lived in Guzman Hall, a dorm for those considering priesthood. There was an undercurrent of homosexuality there, however, and when a roommate “made a sexually aggressive move” on Podles in his sleep, he fled. (6)

Over the years, he began to wonder about the Catholic Church’s relationship with men. What is it about the Catholic Church—and the priesthood in particular—that attracts such a high percentage of homosexuals and drives off heterosexuals? This question led him to write his 1999 book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity:

“I had been puzzled by the lack of men in Catholic activities, and I was surprised that my circle of acquaintances included a large number of homosexuals. I realized that I had met these men through Catholic activities, through Mass and the charismatic renewal. My research soon revealed that men had stayed away from all the branches of Western Christianity for centuries. Men had doubts about the masculinity of those men who were closely involved with the Church (such as the clergy) and sometimes those doubts were justified. I decided there was a centuries-old misunderstanding of masculinity and femininity, a misunderstanding that led men to distance themselves from the Church and that relegated women to a role of passive obedience.” (7-8; see also pp. 350ff)

Podles pulls no punches as he describes in graphic detail what priests did to young men, particularly in the first two chapters. He eschews euphemisms like “fondling” and speaks of masturbation, forced oral sex, and brutal rapes that left young boys bleeding profusely from the anus. He writes of rings of abusers who were sexually active with one another, having been the victims of priests themselves and having been introduced to one another, sometimes as altar boys or seminarians, by the abuser. He tells of sacrilegious rites and of murder and of blackmail. It is an ugly story, shocking in its detail, mind-numbing in its repetition from priest to priest, from church to church, from diocese to diocese.

Of those dioceses, Davenport, Iowa, stands out for me because I knew nothing of the problem there before reading this book. In that diocese in the 1950s and 1960s a ring of priests introduced boys “to nude swimming, shoplifting, mutual masturbation, fellatio, group sex, sacrilege”—even viewing dead bodies in the morgue (35).

These boys, like other boys who would be abused in decades to come, trusted their priests. They had been indoctrinated in the Baltimore Catechism that the priest as “another Christ,” that “reverence and honor” should be given to him. In the words of Pius XI, “The priest is indeed another Christ, or in some way he is himself a continuation of Christ.” They did what they were told (49).

The priests were manipulative; they were expert con artists who took advantage of this trust. As would happen in other places, they initiated boys into smoking, alcohol, and other illicit activities to seem “cool,” and encouraged them to engage in shoplifting as part of a systematic effort to wear down their moral scruples.

And as would happen in other dioceses, the abusers were moved repeatedly. James Janssen was put in charge of youth, and made a Scout chaplain, despite the accusations (another pattern that would be repeated, as in the case of John Geoghan of Boston).

The Diocese of Davenport has been particularly callous in its attitude toward the victims.

The diocese of Davenport has steadfastly maintained that “it had no legal duty to inform parishes of past sexual misconduct by priests” and that for a court to punish the diocese for assigning abusive priests to parishes interferes with the free exercise of religion. The diocese maintained that it has no duties to lay Catholics … that “no fiduciary relationship exists between a diocese and its parishioners,” that “the [d]iocese has no duty to warn of misconduct,” and that “a minor is not obligated to attend church, or interact with a parish priest.” (65)

It’s helpful to recall this history, because it reminds us that Cardinal Law’s actions that led to his downful in 2002 were in no wise unique. Law was just doing what other bishops had done for decades—with Vatican knowledge and tacit approval.

The revelations of 2002 should not have caught anyone by surprise. The Gauthé case involved all the same factors of abuse and cover-up, and had brought national attention upon the subject twenty years before. It brought together three unlikely allies, Fr. Thomas Doyle, OP, who was working for the Apostolic Nunciature, Gauthé’s attorney, Ray Mouton, and Fr. Michael Peterson of the St. Luke Institute, who together wrote a report for the US bishops in 1985, “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and responsible Manner.” They submitted it to a committee chaired by Bernard Law. They warned of what could happen if the bishops didn’t change their ways. But their report was ignored, Doyle was sent into exile, and the bishops continued doing what they had always been doing.

But the Gauthé case wasn’t the beginning, either. Neither was Davenport. In fact, says Podles, “there is a centuries-old underground in the Church that perpetrates a tradition of abuse,” (68) and this underground is protected and is made possible because of clericalism.

While abuse exists among the laity and outside of Catholicism, among clergy of other denominations as well as scout leaders and teachers, the Catholic crisis is unique. Catholicism makes claims about its priesthood that are made by no other institution (412), exemplified by the statement of Pope Pius XI, “The priest is indeed another Christ, or in some way he is himself a continuation of Christ.” Clericalism is the idea that the clergy really are “the church,” that the role of the laity is to be quiet, give generously, pray faithfully, and, above all, to obey. Clericalism has created a vision of the church where bishops are seen as divinely appointed shepherds whose voice should be heard by both church and state on all issues, spiritual and civil, as evidenced by the plethora of letters on matters such as economics, war, immigration and criminal justice. (416)

Podles sees clericalism as just an institutional variety of narcissism, which is a psychological disorder defined by DSM-IV as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” The narcissist “has a grandiose sense of self-importance,” “believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions),” “has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations,” “is interpersonally exploitative,” and “lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”

That last point, the lack of empathy, is especially important for considering the reaction of the hierarchy to abuse.

The victims were invisible to everyone. The abusers were narcissists who had no empathy for the sufferings of their victims. The priests, officials, and bishops of the Davenport diocese were all caught up in a clerical narcissism, in which only repercussions that affected them had any meaning. The laity too were afflicted by a Catholic narcissism that idolized the clergy. (70)

Narcissism pervades Catholic clerical culture, as Podles portrays it. It creates a vision of priesthood characterized by a sense of performance. It leads to a preoccupation with reputation and appearances at all levels (299ff). It requires an audience who adore the performer, lay accomplices who grant clerics deference and privilege. They, in turn, have reacted in anger when bishops have disclosed the faults of their favorite priests and suspended them. The laity also joined the bishops in seeing court cases and newspaper articles as attacks on the church—which is why newspapers didn’t stay with the story after the Gauthé case. (p. 423 ff)

Clericalism also affects the society as a whole, as was seen in the past willingness of cops and judges to overlook the crimes of priests in the belief that bishops were better able to deal with the problem. Even in the wake of the scandals, some defend this system of privilege; Podles points to an article by Michael Orsi, “Bishops Sacrifice Accommodations, Privileges and Rights: Everybody Loses,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 2002. (418)

Narcissism isn’t the only psychological disorder affecting priests. Podles summarizes studies done with seminarians and priests over the past six decades indicating that psychological illnesses pervade the priesthood. Already in 1948 William Bier noted that seminarians were more likely to answer questions as women generally did. A 1968 study showed that 70% candidates for religious life were “psychosexually immature, exhibiting traits of heterosexual retardation, confusion concerning sexual role, fear of sexuality, effeminacy and potentially homosexual dispositions.” (93) A 1972 report by Eugene Kennedy said priests tended to have the emotional maturity of adolescents, and not only had sexual difficulties but problems relating to adults. (94) A 1971 study by Conrad Baars found that 60-70% of priests were emotionally immature, and as many as 25% of priests had “serious psychiatric difficulties.” In particular, they did not properly understand the role of human emotions. (95)

As was already noted, following the Gauthé case, Fr. Thomas Doyle, attorney Ray Mouton, and Fr. Michael Peterson of the St. Luke Institute wrote a report for the bishops. This was nearly twenty years before the Boston blow up of 2002, and could have saved the Catholic Church some headaches if the bishops had paid attention. (96) But Podles sees even this report as a symptom of the greater problems. Not only was Peterson an active homosexual who died of AIDS, but the report endorsed the views of Dr. John Money, an apologist for pedophilia. It spent little time on spiritual issues and lacked “any sense of outrage at the evil that is done to children by the abuse and by the failure to respond to it properly.” “This objectifying tone exemplifies what Dr. Conrad Baars diagnosed: a lack of proper emotional response.” (99)

What’s the reason for that “lack of proper emotional response”? Podles notes that studies show a pattern of abusive priests scoring high on hostility on MMPI; this hostility was repressed, however. As a result, “they had personalities inclined to ‘avoiding conflict, being unassertive, and lacking autonomy.’ Such people make good, docile staff members of an institution; they do not rock the boat.” (466) But such characteristics are hardly restricted to abusive priests; they can be seen in the priesthood as a whole. This would seem to be the kind of person that vocations directors and seminary formation personnel want in the priesthood.

The lack of aggressiveness among clerics has been noticed by psychologists. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops published a study that said “priests are often, by temperament and personality, anxious to establish harmony and to please. By theology and vocation they are concerned to be healers, reconcilers, and builders of the community.” Almost all psychological studies support this assessment: priests and seminarians are “unassertive, dislike violence … and have a high need for abasement (i.e., want to give in and avoid conflict).” … The presence of homosexuals in the clergy reinforces this aversion to conflict. Although homosexuals do not have a common set of personality traits, “there is one that tends to be shared by obligative homosexual males; as boys, they were not fighters. They avoided challenges to compete for dominance in the dominance hierarchy of boyhood.” (470-471)

Podles relates this lack of aggression, this lack of ability to express anger, can help us to realize the significance of the fact that neither the bishops nor John Paul II nor Benedict XVI have ever expressed any anger at child abuse. They just couldn’t see why it might be thought necessary.

Those who dealt with the bishops have consistently remarked that bishops have never expressed outrage or righteous anger, even at the most horrendous cases of abuse and sacrilege such as abusing boys after getting them drunk on consecrated wine. Bishops seem to think that anger at sin is un-Christian. … Mark Serrano confronted Bishop Frank Rodimer, asking why he had let his priest-friend Peter Osinski sleep with boys at Rodimer’s beach house while Rodimer was in the next bedroom: “Where is your moral indignation?” Rodimer’s answer was, “Then I don’t get it. What do you want?” What Serrano wanted Rodimer to do is to behave like a man with a heart, a heart that is outraged by evil. But Rodimer couldn’t; his inability to feel outrage was a quality that helped make him a bishop. He would never get into fights, never rock the boat, never “divide” but only “unify.” Rodimer could not understand why he should feel deep anger at evil, at the violation of the innocent, at oppression of the weak. (467)

St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that “wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature,” and “the lack of wrath against injustice is a deficiency.” (468)

Sorrow at evil without anger at evil is a fault, a fault which the Catholic bishops have repeatedly fallen into in their handling of sexual abuse and which the late pope fell into when he tolerated the bishops’ faults. Until just anger is directed at the bishops, until bishops (including the pope) feel just anger at their fellow bishops who have disgraced and failed their office, the state of sin in the Church continues. (471)

Here we shift from psychological problems to problems in Catholic moral theology. Not only has it tended to omit this necessary element of the virtue of fortitude, but it has also been deformed by nominalism. Nominalism is a philosophical approach which emphasizes authority and arbitrary rules, and which views freedom as the ability to choose between contraries with indifference. (pp. 471ff)

This is entirely different from being afire for the good, which Gregory the Great commended, or hungering and thirsting after justice, as Christ recommended. For the nominalist, moral life is based not on growth in virtue through a love of the good and a hatred of evil, but on obedience to the Divine Will, which is in essence arbitrary. (472)… If a person looks only to God’s command rather than to the created good which the command is intended to preserve, he will be unaware of the harm that sin does in the creation (473).

Nominalism has reigned in Catholic moral theology, creating a climate in which obedience to rules is most important, with clerics having no responsibility to demonstrate how those rules are rooted in reality. Podles sees this as the major problem with how Catholic teaching on sexual issues has been presented: “the faithful” are expected to obey, excusing priests and bishops from the obligation to teach and to persuade. Morality is rooted in a sense of obligation, and becomes empty legalism. “Nominalism and legalism are closely allied to clericalism, whether of the conservative or liberal variety.” (475)

This has implications for repentance, too; it becomes a mere matter of being sacramentally absolved by the priest—the penitent doesn’t have to consider the harm done.

And how do we speak of that harm? Can it be quantified?

Podles considers the evidence, and weighs both the reluctance of male victims to report victimization and the demonstrated reluctance of dioceses to report accurately, and comes up with a figure of 5,000-10,000 abusers and 100,000-200,000 victims (a conservative number), of whom 80.9% are male, mostly past puberty. Extrapolating this to a global perspective, he suggests there have been as many as 100,000 abusive priests worldwide since 1950 and as many as 2,000,000 victims. (241-242)

Though he has sketched the psychological problems with the abusers as a group and the system as a whole, he refuses to consider this as in any way an excuse. Sexual abuse is a moral evil, and this evil has been accompanied by actions of sacrilege (pp. 260) and the possibility of demonic involvement. Therapy isn’t the answer.

On the rarest occasions the abusers may exhibit such signs of mental illness that they may well have diminished responsibility, but most of the time the abusers are evil, coolly planning to exploit the weak to satisfy their desires for sex and control. Any rational evaluation of such men sees them as criminal and evil men …. (276)

They are not so much sick men in need of a cure as criminals who should be punished and sinners who need to repent. When the legal system looks at abuse and sees illness instead of crime, the abuser often escapes his just desserts. (290)

The problem it not merely a matter of individual criminals, either, but of rings of abusers who support one another and pass victims among themselves. It also includes a homosexual subculture in the priesthood, and rings of homosexuals in high positions who are determined to protect one another. This was first detected by Jason Berry in Diocese of Lafayette when investigating Gilbert Gauthé (87).

The priesthood has been dominated by homosexuals since the 1960s, and this has become only more pronounced since the 1980s. A vacuum was created when thousands of priests left to marry, and the heavily homosexual group who remained went on to fill leadership positions in seminaries, dioceses and religious order; they then began to actively recruit men like themselves—or to screen out masculine heterosexual men from seminary because their more aggressive profile didn’t fit the feminized type seen as the ideal priest. This problem has been noted by people as diverse as Cardinal Francis George, Fr. Donald Cousins, Michael Rose, Andrew Greeley and Fr. Richard McBrien. (pp. 322 ff)

Old errors and disorders were joined in the 1960s by new errors, including sexual libertinism, psycho-babble, and dissent in seminaries. (pp. 441 ff).

There’s been a documented decline in cases of abuse since the 1980s. Podles attributes this to a number of factors, including the decline of the number of priests overall, the rise in their average age (which brings with it a declining sex drive), the removal of the worst abusers, and the exercise of greater prudence by homosexual priests in observing the statutory age of consent. (343ff)

The critical question is, “What did the Vatican know and when did it know it?” And the evidence shows that the Vatican has always known about the abuse and the cover-up. Bishops knew they had tacit (and at times explicit) approval from the Vatican for the policy of giving priests an endless number of second chances in new parishes.

The Vatican is also to be blamed for cultivating a particular vision of the ideal bishop—the diplomat.

The Vatican likes diplomatic types, conciliators, nonconfrontational types, team players, people who don’t make waves. The American episcopate is therefore staffed with them. Abusive priests know that three bishops are often cowards who want to avoid confrontation. Therefore abusers can play upon this weakness to get their way with children. (401) …Arrested adolescent abusers can be very aggressive and make a scene when they do not get their way. A bishop is usually chosen as a bishop because he hates confrontation, and if he takes effective action against a molester he will have confrontation on his hands, with the abuser, with the Vatican, and even with parishioners. The molester is a confidence artist and manipulates the weakness of the bishop. The bishop sometimes doesn’t think homosexual activity with children is all that bad, not because he doesn’t have children, but because he does not have the normal male’s reaction and desire to protect boys from homosexual activity. A liberal bishop like Thomas O’Brien regarded such an attitude as “homophobia” and tolerated sex between boys and priests. Such a bishop doesn’t want confrontation; he therefore smoothes things over and tries to keep everyone happy. The parents can be lied to or threatened; the priest can be transferred to another parish, or for appearance’s sake put into a treatment center. …

Bishops ignored victims as much as possible, and in this they followed the lead of Pope John Paul II (who to his death refused to meet with any victims). (402)

Not only did these bishops ignore victims, lie continuously to them and to law enforcement and the media, but they also blamed the victims—and sometimes punished them. They also punished priests who told on other priests. I can’t fault Podles for showing a little cynicism when he observes, “Clerical culture, in my experience and in that of many others, is corrupted by endless lies.” (402ff).

But the Vatican did more than just appoint and support diplomats as bishops. It made it impossible for bishops to discipline each other, did not let bishops discipline religious priests, and made it very difficult for bishops to discipline diocesan priests. (407)

“For centuries,” Podles observes, “the Vatican has issued various laws and then undermined bishops who tried to enforce them.” A primary example was Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI. The world viewed it as a drawing of the line, a stepping back. And yet this public statement was not enforced. In fact, Paul VI made it very clear to bishops that they were not to discipline priests and theologians who dissented from it in the classroom or the pulpit. “When Shanley preached man-boy love and it was reported to the bishops of Boston, they did nothing because they knew that was what Rome wanted them to do: nothing.” (409)

John Paul II became pope in 1978. The bishops who messed up after that day did so under his watch. Those he personally appointed continued the practices that had been followed for decades. He not only failed to remove high ranking clerics who were guilty of malfeasance or sexual abuse themselves, he protected them, as seen most egregiously in the cases of Bernard Law and Marcial Maciel. Pope John Paul II’s legacy is tarnished because of this, Podles says.

He publicly apologized for the errors of remote predecessors, but would not apologize for his own errors and the errors of the bishops he had appointed, errors in governing the Church that allowed the abuse to go on. He will almost certainly be canonized, but he will not be the only canonized saint (see St. Joseph Calasanctius, p. 19) to have tolerated the sexual abuse of children. (492)

The Catholic Church’s sexual scandal is unique, Podles argues. It can’t excuse itself based on the prevalence of sins in society, because its claims are so extraordinary—no other institution or church claims what the Catholic church claims of itself. It must be judged on the basis of its own claims. (489) Bishops and popes must be judged the most harshly because they failed to maintain discipline. They have acted as if their only obligation was to make sure the sacraments were distributed. (490)

Podles is not about to abandon the Catholic Church, despite all he has related and concluded. He thinks it can be saved, and proposes a series of reforms. A policy of zero tolerance is essential, he argues, as it not only removes individuals but disrupts networks of abusers. The Vatican must extend it worldwide (495). Canon law must be changed to give bishops authority over all priests in their diocese, religious or diocesan, to hold bishops accountable, and to make it possible for bishops to discipline each other (496). The laity must be more directly involved in governance, and should be consulted in all matters that concern them; parishes and dioceses should be audited annually and the audits made public. He suggests care should be taken in ordaining homosexuals—but he goes further, and advocates the barring of abuse victims from seminary. This may well be his most controversial recommendation, but he sees it is necessary because so many abusers were abused themselves. The cycle of abuse must be ended.

Finally, he calls for a renewed ethic which restores the place of righteous anger and the fear of God. “Righteous anger is a forgotten concept, zeal is condemned as disruptive.” (507) “The bishops fear bad publicity; they need to remember the fear of God, if in fact they believe in Him.” (508)

Until the pope meets with victims and apologizes, until any bishop complicit in the abuse offers to let victims decide whether he should resign, there is no repentance and there can be no forgiveness.The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church still do not, as a body, see the serious wrong that they have perpetrated and, having satisfied the press, which is now turning its attentions elsewhere, want to ignore the situation. Only under public pressure did the bishops compose a charter for the protection of children; only under public pressure did they set up a national review board. The Vatican was obviously unhappy with both, and the bishops immediately started undermining the board they had set up. Governor Keating, who headed the board, was subject to personal attacks; his successor, Judge Anne Burke, has denounced the bishops for their attempts to manipulate the board. The bishops obviously feel they have done nothing wrong and do not understand why anyone is angry at them. (508)

If they read Podles’ book, maybe they might begin to understand why people are angry. Maybe then, things might change. That’s his hope. I can’t share it. I think the narcissism, the clericalism, and the emotionally repressed culture go too deep. How do you change an ancient culture? How do you change people who have been selected because they fit a certain profile and whose basic disposition has been reinforced by training and conditioning?

For me, the narcissism and authoritarianism of the Catholic clericalist system reveals the working of “the mystery of iniquity.” It illustrates how the Catholic system as a whole is corrupted by principles that are contrary to the spirit of Christ. Catholic teaching refers to “structures of sin.”

… [S]in makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin” (Catechism 1869).

I’d suggest that the Catholic understanding of the papacy and the episcopacy is just such a “structure of sin”; it is “the expression and effect of personal sins,” especially narcissism. These structures that have developed from human sin, and that in turn perpetuate sin, are now seen as constitutive of the Church for Catholicism. Reformation is not possible without undoing what Catholicism sees as of its esse. This reinforces for me the urgency of the prophetic call, “Come out of her, my people, that you be not partakers of her sin.”

17 thoughts on “Review of Leon Podles, Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

  1. Good review, Bill. It made me angry as well. Two points.

    First, it appears (based on your review) that Podles wants to know that the bishops & popes are angry about this, i.e. he wants *public* displays of righteous anger. But why is that necessary? I know of instances in which bishops & popes have expressed righteous anger privately on other matters, and the fact that they haven’t expressed it publicly on this matter doesn’t mean that they haven’t done so privately.

    Second, I still don’t see how even as an egregious sins as these can provide *theological* grounds to leave Rome; as you know, while there is certainly a hierarchy of sins, *every* sin is an offense against God, and *every* church will have sinners in it. In light of that, using the sins of the hierarchy as a *theological* argument against the Catholic Church just doesn’t work.

  2. He’s not look for displays–he’s looking for evidence of the real thing. There’s no evidence in public or in private, either in this instance or in many others–it seems the only time bishops get angry is when they are embarrassed, or when people within the church demand they do something, or when the media exposes their crimes. That’s my experience of many years of working closely with these men. These are passionless men, by and large, who only want things to run smoothly–they were appointed to be diplomats, who keep the seas calm. THAT’S Podles’ point. That was a point he made in “The Church Impotent.” That’s why so many church boards are run by anemic “consensus” instead of clear cut votes up and down. That’s why chanceries are afraid of movements and evangelists that actually DO something instead of discuss it forever. That’s why masculine men stay away in droves–churches tend to be as passionate as a women’s sewing circle.

    And it seems to me you’re engaged in the very relativism that is at the root of this scandal–you seem to be refusing to be scandalized by a sin that Jesus said God takes very seriously … the millstone around the neck sort of sin. Scripture is clear–there’s no such thing as unconditional election. God’s promises assume faithfulness–see the letters to the churches in Revelation, for example. I’d also suggest that we consider the category of “structures of sin” that Catholic theology uses in reference to secular realms–are there not ecclesial “structures of sin,” and if so, would they not be built on hubris and narcissism?

  3. As Greeley reminds us, Lord Acton, when he said, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was speaking of the Church. I’m afraid that since the media furor has died down, the Church is now feeling way too secure about the situation and themselves. And as Podle’s book, and the other two Bill mentioned, show, history repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.

    When I finished Podle’s book, I was not heartened by his possible solutions- the lay review board involvement is a great concept and may in the long run, help to some degree, but anyone who has been around the church knows that the lay people chosen for these “consultative” roles are often chosen for their demurring nature. His argument about the “complicity” if you will, of the laity was telling. And, as Podles points out- if one does stand up to the hierarchy, they risk removal and disdain.

    Yet, I am not quite as pessimistic about the future of the Church as Bill is. It will take a lot of continued media attention, since that does get the bishops’ attention, as well as ongoing prayer, soul searching, vigilance and courage on the part of the laity to evangelize the hierarchy. Will this be a swift correction? Oh, no. But, the angry need to continue to be righteous and call leadership to the same.

    Although I don’t know statistics, I’d venture to guess that a significant number of people have left the Church since 2002 in part or in toto because of the sexual abuse crisis. In a way, it is “theological” – in a sacramental Church, the hierarchy needs to be the icons of Christ, which we are all also called to be. Clearly, recent events call that sacramental notion into question for many. It’s real hard to see Christ in Cardinal Law’s behavior.

    Overall, great review Bill. I would not have read the book if you hadn’t mentioned it- so your efforts have called at least one Catholic to task to better evangelize the leadership under which I labor.

  4. Here’s an example from Podles on the kind of anger he’d like to see (I’ve added it to the main text):

    Those who dealt with the bishops have consistently remarked that bishops have never expressed outrage or righteous anger, even at the most horrendous cases of abuse and sacrilege such as abusing boys after getting them drunk on consecrated wine. Bishops seem to think that anger at sin is un-Christian. Gilbert Kilman, a child psychiatrist, commented, “What amazes me is the lack of outrage the [C]hurch feels when its good work is being harmed. So, if there is anything the [C]hurch needs to know, it needs to know how to be outraged.” Mark Serrano confronted Bishop Frank Rodimer, asking why he had let his priest-friend Peter Osinski sleep with boys at Rodimer’s beach house while Rodimer was in the next bedroom: “Where is your moral indignation?” Rodimer’s answer was, “Then I don’t get it. What do you want?” What Serrano wanted Rodimer to do is to behave like a man with a heart, a heart that is outraged by evil. But Rodimer couldn’t; his inability to feel outrage was a quality that helped make him a bishop. He would never get into fights, never rock the boat, never “divide” but only “unify.” Rodimer could not understand why he should feel deep anger at evil, at the violation of the innocent, at oppression of the weak. (467)

  5. The whole issue of expressing anger resounds in Podle’s book. The predators and the “diplomatic” bishops score high on the repressed anger scale through MMPI. Further, he suggests, the laity that wanted to push things under the rug also had denial of anger issues or repression issues. He calls for “righteous anger”, which has an honest and ultimately fruitful expression, such as Jesus displayed. Righteous anger calls for conversion from sin. It points out the sin in no uncertain terms and leads those who respond to change. We haven’t seen any change in the Church that has been brought about by interior conversion- only the external media attention has caused the bishops to change their behavior and their words, but not necessarily their hearts, Podles claims.

    I’m not sure he’s right on that- surely there has been no big public metanoia, but that doesn’t mean that at least a few bishops haven’t had a change of heart or a boost of courage to stand up against the narcissism, clericalism, in their midst.

    The question Podles leaves unanswered is “so, what does one, as a Church member, do with their righteous anger?” We know what Martin Luther did. We also know the effects and aftereffects of unhealthy anger on the victims who could not find faith again. We have not yet seen the power of righteous anger from the “people of God” as a whole- it will take courage and creativity to express it fruitfully. And a very long time.

  6. Here’s the webapge: The UK page shows more of the pictures: You can purchase at Barnes and Noble: Calendario Romano.

    At least they are wearing cassocks. Contrast with the Mormon Missionary calendar:

    On a more serious note …

    Another point made (I think by Podles, perhaps by Berry, too) is the unequal treatment given to heterosexual and homosexual priests who have sexual relationships. Heterosexuals who have a failing are generally treated much harsher and are more likely to be removed from ministry.

    There are exceptions, of course. Someone told me the other day of a priest who was stationed at a major church in Houston, a sort of an oddball, who would speak openly of his girlfriend. The church had then (and has now) a diocesan pastor, but he was a religious order priest.

  7. What’s up with the hairdos? Doesn’t anyone use mousse to keep the spikes down and back????And why don’t the collars fit right ???

    About the oddball priest Bill mentioned- is he still there, was he removed? I think in the past, Podles claim is probably correct. I would say since 2002, however, the treatment would be equal, unless a marriage was attempted.

    Another question I have yet to hear an answer to is- of the priests removed from ministry but not defrocked, how many are there and what is the cost of keeping them on the payroll?

  8. Regarding the psychological maturity of priests, who determines what constitutes maturity? Is it the psychologists that told bishops that abusive priests were fit to return to ministry or was it the psychologists who said that they were not fit? As for some priests scoring similar responses to women on some tests. I think I would have to know more about that before I made a judgement. Psychologists used Kohlberg’s criteria to judge moral maturity. What is interesting is that on average women scored lower on Kohlberg’s scale than men. This does not mean that women are any less moral. If this is the test that Podles is refering to then we have to take its results with a grain of NaCl (as my old Chemistry teacher used to say).
    Failure to express emotion can be atributed to a number of things. Narcissim is one, sociopathy is another. However, in many cases it is more likley that it was an attempt to be stoic. Or even an attempt to be existential.
    I read Camu’s 1942 novel L’Étranger, The Stranger a few months ago. The man in the novel kills another man and fails to show emotion, he fails to show emotion on the death of his mother. That does not mean that he does not feel emotion.
    Clergy have failed to show emotion for the same reason they have failed to show outrage (or even love), because in some way expressing emotions has been considered destructive.
    Again I think we must be very careful when we analyse other people’s actions and take even more care when we try and analyse their emotions.
    Despite my many difficultys with the Church and her servants I continue to love the Church because it is Christ’s Church, and I continue to love the priesthood because it is Christ’s not Bernard Law’s or anyone elses. Like Podles I could not imagine ever leaving the Church for another Church or denomination. Her sacramental life is too rich. Bill, I am not sure what you mean by your last point I hope it is not what I think i.e. that salvation is at stake?
    If lay Catholics are serious then they will hit back where it hurts and not contribute to collections. Financial abuse has not been seriously looked at. Regarding the story of the abuse taking place at the bishop’s beach house I was left asking since when have clergy, even bishops, had beach houses? Of course the abuse that took place was outragous, it is also outragous that clergy live lavish lifestyles. The alternative is not poverty, however. If priests depend upon their bishop or other figure for their day to day life they become dependent and docile. Bill, after several years experience as a pastor you must have something to say on those points. Since priests have noone to care for except themselves material things, that men with families would never be able to afford come within their reach.

  9. Bill,

    Thank you for the care you took in reading and summarizing my book. Authors are always nervous about whether they have made their points clearly, and you see all my main points clearly.

    People have asked me how I can remain Catholic after all that I have said.

    For me, the Catholic Church is not a voluntary organization. It is the beginning of the new human race. I could no more leave the Catholic Church, even it is suffering some severe corruption, that I could leave the human race after reading about the Holocaust.

    I know others have a different understanding of the visible structures of the Church, and I could see situations in which a Christian might have to cease participating in the local Catholic Church and instead seek fellowship in an Orthodox or Protestant community. Many sexual abuse victims are too badly hurt by the Church ever to participate in it again, and God certainly understands this.

    PS: to Liam: If you will e-mail me your address I will send you a copy of the book –

  10. I have also read Leon Podles’ book and was so impressed by it. I am also a survivor, and some of his explanations really helped me to understand my own reactions to my abuser, and some feelings. I have often wondered why the laity does not scream in outrage over what priests, sisters, bishops and the pope have done and not done about sexual abuse by priests, sisters and bishops. Even now that it is affecting the purses of some of them (in the diocese of San Diego, and others, the laity is being asked for money to compensate victims after a settlement) there is no outcry! If no one calls them to accountability, then why should they stop what they are doing? Anyway, thank you, Mr. Podles, for the very informative book.

  11. It seems that only the “faithful” are reading/responding. I studied under the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Brothers of the Holy Cross, Jesuits and secular priests. With the teachings of the church that you always obey the leaders, and the leaders have proven themselves corrupt beyond belief (yes, I am sure there are a few good leaders among the bishops but they are hidden) nothing short of a coup would make the church a respectable organization. In this country at least, there are laws that would prevent the members from physically taking back their church. The present leadership selects the future leaders in their own image. I cannot imagine a God who supports an organization such as the church has become. I first quit giving and then I quit going. I have 10 siblings and we all get along together but our attitude toward the catholic church goes from the ones who still go to daily mass (as we all did when growing up) to pure anger. Those who are daily mass participants have excuses for what has happened and are in denial concerning the present. What does the future hold? Who knows.

  12. I look forward to reading this book. As the parent of a clergy abuse victim, it is indeed true that victims and their families often are unable to return to active participation at mass/liturgy.

    How does one so damaged do so when trust in church authority has been shattered? That sounds like a rhetorical question, but it really isn’t. It is also the the last question addressed … after the abusers, the $$$, the image of the institutional church etc. etc. etc..

    Unfortunately, the Orthodox are not much better off. Visit for the sad, sad same old story, (sans the Vatican) of abuse and revictimization in the Orthodox churches. Pokrov is run by 2 moms whose children were abused in an Orthodox cathedral parish in San Francisco in the early ’90’s. Check them out.


    St. John Chrysostom is credited with the following: ‘The road to hell is paved with the bones of priests (and monks) and the skulls of bishops are the lampposts that light the path.”

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