Out of Touch? The Scandal of Leon Podles

Fringe Watch
July 18, 2008

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. 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), 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 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." Yet a little digging reveals some interesting things. Both the book and the Touchstone ad carry a prominent endorsement by Thomas Doyle, author of conspiracy-obsessed work Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. Doyle is a professional Church-basher who argues that Catholicism has suffered from sex abuse from the very beginning, due in large part to its traditional teachings on marriage and clerical celibacy.

The problem with Podles is that he is a theological freelancer who buys into the view that sex abuse is endemic and institutionalized. How is this attitude any different from the heterodox opinions of Doyle? 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 distortions in Catholic life that allowed the abuse to continue with little rebuke are, I think, of long standing; Catholic attitudes, in fact Western attitudes, to morality have been distorted for centuries by seeing morality as essentially obedience to an external law....

....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.

Aside from the potential for voyeurism, such as one finds in pulp "true crime" shockers, there is the fact that Podles' attitude seems disingenuous. It is not surprising that it has been picked up by people who want a stick to beat Catholics with. In addition to Doyle there's A. W. Richard Sipe, author of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis. Sipe contends that

The scandal of priestly sexual abuse of minors... is primarily a symptom of an essentially flawed celibate/sexual system of ecclesiastical power.... Sex has always been problematic for the Roman Catholic Church.

It is this same author who calls Sacrilege "indispensable for anyone seriously concerned about" the sex scandals. Of course, Podles, Doyle and Sipe overlook the fact that the problems in the Church are part of worldwide moral meltdown and that abuse is just as prevalent (and in some cases even more so) in other religious groups and secular institutions like public schools. This in no ways excuses clerical misconduct, but it does put it into a broader context. What Podles lacks is a sense of proportion. And in something as sensitive as this, a lack of nuance can be disastrous. A far more accurate and dispassionate study of the issue was provided in a special 2004 report by the Catholic League.

The fact that Podles is attacking a real evil is one thing. But there is a point at which criticism becomes self-destructive. Podles has found major allies amongst anti-Catholics, which shows that he may be more concerned with his pet project than in real reform of the clergy. As for Touchstone, up till now they have provided thoughtful commentary on religious and cultural topics. But this current lack of sensitivity is distressing.


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