Sacrilege examines a painful subject

by Diane Levero
DEFEND LIFE • May - June, 2008

In 2002 the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests exploded in its full horror with the shocking expose by the Boston Globe. Six years later, the furor has diminished and the problem is supposedly more or less under control, but troubling questions remain.


Why did this sacrilege happen?
How did it become so widespread and so deeply embedded in the Church?
And finally, what are the root causes and what can we do about them?


Leon Podles tackles these questions in Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.
Podles is a Baltimorean who attended Calvert Hall College High School on a full academic scholarship.  He then entered Guzman Hall at Providence College, a dormitory for men who were considering becoming a priest, but he soon began to doubt that he had a call to the priesthood.


His doubts came to an abrupt end when one night, he was sexually assaulted by his roommate. He moved out of the dormitory within hours. Podles went on with his education, earning his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. He worked as a federal investigator for 20 years, married and had six children, and has written for publications such as America, The American Spectator, and Crisis.

Accounts of sexual abuse too often have been sanitized, Podles charges: euphemisms such as "fondled" cloak the dreadful things done by priests to children and adolescents. In contrast, he deals with the subject head-on, with no holds barred. As a result, his 675-page book is not for the fainthearted.


The seemingly endless litany of specific accounts of abusive priests is sordid, disgusting,  sometimes gruesome. Reading about them is an ordeal. The reader may wonder, do we really have to go into this much unsavory detail? But Podles does so for a reason: to bring home the enormity and horror of the problem so we will be jolted out of the natural avoidance most of us Catholics revert to as protection against an extremely unpleasant subject.


Time and again, the reader is flabbergasted by the brazen audacity of so many of the perpetrators in their serial profligacies, and by their complete lack of feelings of guilt or remorse. Throughout the book, Podles stresses the almost uniform indifference of the bishops and of many fellow priests to the sufferings of the victims. Sadly, he points out, even many of the laity also are not only indifferent, but actually blame the victims for the abuse.


The bishops' only interest, as he documents repeatedly, is damage control: to shield and protect he abusers and their own diocese and reputation. Much of the bishops' reactions can be explained by the natural tendency of all professional groups and bureaucracies to circle the wagons and protect their own, says Podles.


Baltimoreans recently saw an example of this when a student beat up a Baltimore City public school art teacher in the classroom and fellow students posted a video of the beating on the internet.


Public school officials responded with a lot of measured gobbledygook about following established protocol and having citizen volunteers come into the schools. "Where is the outrage?" demanded frustrated radio talk show host Ron Smith.

Podles asks the same question: Where is the outrage from bishops and even Pope John Paul IL who expressed only sorrow, not anger, over the dreadful abuse. "Righteous anger is a forgotten concept," Podles mourns.


Bishops are usually chosen for their office because, he says, "The Vatican likes diplomatic types, conciliators, nonconfrontational types, team players, people who don't make waves." In other words, people who will sweep things under the rug so that their organization can put on a happy face.


But not just the bishops deserve blame for the cover-up, says Podles. "The Vatican - the Pope and the curial officials he appoints – bear much responsibility for the sexual abuse of minors in the United States and throughout the world."


In 1989 the American bishops asked the Vatican to give them the power to laicize abusive priests. The Vatican refused the request, even though it knew what was going on, says Podles.


Addressing the tough question of what makes these abusers tick, he says that on rare occasions, they may be mentally ill and thus 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."


Exploring the motivation of priests who abuse young boys and teenage boys - and the great majority of the victims have been male — Podles discusses the desire for control that a boy who is developing homosexually has. He feels he is different from other boys, and that he is being controlled by something that he does not like. He therefore considers himself a victim, and he is angry at God and society. "This anger is diverted into establishing sexual control over others weaker than he is," says Podles. Narcissism may also motivate the homosexual predator, who is looking for an idealized, youthful image of himself. Priest abusers of teenage males often suffer from psychosexual immaturity. They have an adolescent attitude toward sexuality, and are deeply stuck in adolescent anger. Almost needless to mention is the sad fact that many priest abusers were victims of abuse themselves. The percentage of sexual abusers in the Church is higher than their percentage in the general population, leading some to propose that celibacy causes men to become sexual abusers.


Not so, says Podles, who shows that Protestant churches, which have married clergy, still suffer a good share of sexual abusers. Fashionable heresies and dissent among priests contributed to immorality and an increase in priests having sex with teenage boys in the '70s and '80s, he notes. But "old errors," distortions of true Catholic teaching such as nominalism and voluntarism, have also helped the growth of sexual abuse in the Church, says Podles.


One reform he advocates is the abolition of the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases. I can't agree. There are good reasons for the statute of limitations, and I think we know enough about lawyers who can spot a lucrative racket in going after the Church for money. (Keep in mind, the money ultimately comes out of the pockets of us parishioners.)


We recently saw an ignoble effort in the Maryland General Assembly to lift the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases—limited just to those cases in the Catholic Church! It went down to the defeat it deserved.


But I do agree with Podles' assertion that, while the Church should not automatically bar any man who has ever had some type of same-sex attraction, it should be extremely cautious about ordaining them, both for their own good and the good of the Church as a whole.


Podles expresses cautious hope about Pope Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke of "the filth" in the Church and speeded up the trials of abusers. He commends Benedict for taking decisive action against the notorious fraud and homosexual abuser, Oblate brother Gino Burresi, and in the tragic case of Legionaries of Christ founder Marcial Maciel.


As the Church that claims to be founded by Christ, Podles insists that the Catholic Church must be judged by its own high standards, and we must insist that it be held to those standards.