Ken Woodward, former Newsweek scribe: The 'double lives' elephant in the Catholic sex crisis

If you are a religion-beat professional of a certain age, or a religion-news consumer with a solid memory, then you absolutely know this name — Kenneth L. Woodard.

Woodward’s byline at Newsweek — like that of our GetReligion colleague Richard Ostling, of Time — was a key part of the news environment when I broke into religion-beat work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Religion-beat pros looked forward to seeing the cover stories by these two men, because — to be blunt — they helped us lobby our own editors for serious coverage of certain subjects.

At the same time, Woodward has a feisty style all his own. He was, and this is a compliment where I come from, “a piece of work.” His writing had attitude. And he has also written a memoir entitled “Getting Religion.” So there.

The bottom line: If you see a Kenneth L. Woodward byline on a Commonweal Magazine essay under this headline — “Double Lives” — it’s pretty easy to figure out that this veteran scribe has taken a deep dive into the recent flood of news about his home territory, which is life in American Catholicism.

This is a must-read weekend think piece, to say the least. Woodward starts with some thoughts on that hellish Pennsylvania grand-jury report. But then he makes a statement about an “elephant” in this Catholic “living room” that many editors need to take seriously:

Such reports remind us of something we cannot afford to forget about the U.S. church’s recent history, but they should no longer surprise us.

The unmasking of ex-Cardinal McCarrick as a sexual predator is a far more consequential event.  I say this for several reasons.

First, his outing was the result of a church investigation, instead of a journalistic exposé.

Second, the McCarrick case has prompted demands that cardinals and bishops who are sexually abusive, or who cover up for any other cleric guilty of such crimes, be subject to automatic procedures similar to those the American hierarchy has already imposed on abusive priests, including dismissal from the ministry. The creation of such procedures would necessarily involve decisive action by the pope and require changes in canon law. Any outcome short of this would be a huge betrayal of the people of God, not to mention an invitation to civil authorities everywhere to press for further investigations into possible cover-ups by bishops past and present.

Third, McCarrick’s history of sexual abuse raises in a very concrete way the issue of homosexuality within the Catholic priesthood — although not in the way that many conservative Catholic writers suggest.

As your GetReligionistas have been saying for years, one of the key facts about this issue is that very few crimes and sins reporting during this multi-decade Catholic scandal can accurately be described with the word “pedophilia.”

As Woodward notes, “McCarrick doesn’t seem to fit the standard profile of a pedophile,” as in an “adult who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children.”

Back to Woodward’s essay, where a key word that many journalists seem to be trying to avoid — “seminary” — plays a central role:

According to the John Jay Report, only about 5 percent of cases of clerical sex abuse in the past seventy years involved prepubescent children.

McCarrick’s abuse of adolescent seminarians, dating back to a time when the church still maintained special seminaries for students of high-school age, does fit the clinical profile of an ephebophile — that is, someone who is sexually attracted to postpubescent minors, typically between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Here again, we are often dealing with sick, sexually maladjusted adults.

Later, he adds:

One cannot deny that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup, and to dismiss this aspect as homophobia one would have to be either blind or dishonest. This is one reason the McCarrick case is so important. McCarrick’s targets were young adults as well as adolescents, which fits the definition of homosexual abuse and rape. Like most middle-aged men, whether heterosexual or homosexual, he was attracted to younger bodies. (If this were unusual, advertising, television news, and even sideline football reporting would look very different.) Because some of his victims were minors, including one or two boys who were possibly pre-pubescent, McCarrick is now open to criminal charges. This is why he has been dismissed from the priestly ministry.

But what about all the young men with whom the bishop shared a bed at his beach house and elsewhere? Some were surely coerced, some seduced. They were all initiated by a powerful church figure into a sexual double life to which McCarrick, as a bishop and cardinal, gave sanction by his acts.

There is the key phrase in this piece — ‘double life,” as in secret lives.

In his 38 years at Newsweek, Woodward heard lots of stories and watched events fall into tragic patterns. It’s time to connect some of the dots, and he does so.

Read it all. Then file it away for reference work.

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