The Slow Vindication of Leon Podles
Following the recent revelations about the career of Cardinal McCarrick and the Pennsylvania grand jury report of clerical sex abuse in that state reaching back at least as far as the 1940s, the editors think it a good time to remind our readers of a July 7, 2008 posting titled "The Scandal of Leon Podles" at a blogsite called Fringe Watch, extensively excerpted here. This posting reflected much respectable Catholic opinion at the time:
In this post we take a break from the political periphery to look at some religious fringe behavior. At the beginning of this year Touchstone magazine came out heavily endorsing Leon Podles' new book Sacrilege (Crossland Foundation), which claims to expose, in excruciating detail, the Catholic clerical sex scandals.
Plenty of reliable and faithful Catholic writers have grappled with this problem. But Podles goes even further and indulges in unsubstantiated reports which undermine his credibility. This even prompted Fr. [Richard] John Neuhaus at First Things, in his January 2008 commentary, to say:
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.
Given Touchstone's otherwise outstanding reputation, it is troubling that the magazine insisted on running a full-page back-cover ad for Sacrilege (with a close-up photo of a man in a clerical color [sic]), month after month. No doubt it helps that Podles is a senior editor for the magazine. That may also explain why people who have contacted editors about the ad have simply been ignored. The only response that we could find was a ribald bit of doggerel by S. M. Hutchens (another senior editor) on the Touchstone blog [Mere Comments] which lampoons Fr. Neuhaus. It's not much of a response to legitimate criticism.
If Podles' book were just an obvious left-wing anti-clerical rant, we would ignore it. What concerns us is that—like other scandal-mongers and fringe commentators we've covered—he tries to pass himself off as a "Catholic in good standing". . . .
The problem with Podles is that he is a theological freelancer who buys into the view that sex abuse is endemic and institutionalized. . . . Though he tries to disarm critics by saying that "attacking sexual abuse is not attacking the Catholic Church" (true enough), the tenor of his argument contradicts this stance. For example, in the preface to his book, Podles makes the following assertions:
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 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.
One can see where this is headed. So, apparently, did Spence Publishing. Podles admits that they "refused to publish the book they had commissioned" because of gross descriptions of abuse that the author deemed "essential to the book." Spence puts out some excellent conservative works, and it is to their credit that they turned down Sacrilege.
A decade has now passed, and we have come to the place where it is plain that, not to put too fine a point on it, Lee Podles was right, the critics who accused him of hyperbole were wrong, those who abandoned him were cowards, and the contents of this Fringe Watch posting are largely self-refuting. There's nothing much left of it except the complaint that he sounded like he was very upset when he wrote the book. On that account, one of the respondents to my Mere Comments doggerel ("The bleeding lines of bloody men are not for the polite: They kill the taste of sherry, overthrow Gemütlichkeit. . . .") remarked, "Is there a seemly and nuanced manner that one should employ when recounting the rape of young boys by predatory sodomites?"
More to Say
There are, however, a few words left to say, beginning with the writer's regal identification of the central difficulty: "The problem with Podles is that he is a theological freelancer who buys into the view that sex abuse is endemic and institutionalized." We may place to the side what is now the obvious truth of his claim that "sex abuse is endemic and institutionalized," and say a bit about the contrast between Lee's support from the Touchstone editors, for which we are identified as surprisingly naïve, and the claim that he is unqualified and irresponsible (a "theological freelancer").
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
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.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.