On Election Day 2008, I was not following the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency.
Instead, I was meeting up with a priest. At the time, I was religion editor for the Washington Times.
The documents he gave me were sensational. At first I thought it was about a priest who’d been forced out of the priesthood because he’d been caught fondling two teen-aged boys. Then I read why the priest had done this. In layman’s terms: He said he was an emotional and spiritual mess after having been sexually assaulted in 1987 by none less than then-Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick.
Now, perhaps many of you have read yesterday’s news about McCarrick, who went on to become cardinal for the see of Washington, D.C., a most prestigious post. This UPI story describes the bare-bones of the matter:
Retired Catholic Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C., announced he was stepping down from the ministry Wednesday amid allegations of sexual abuse.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of New York said the Vatican secretary of state, at the direction of Pope Francis, asked McCarrick to step down from the ministry.
Rocco Palmo, the blogmeister for the Vatican-insider blog “Whispers in the Loggia” announced yesterday that McCarrick is the highest-ranking U.S. prelate to be charged with sex misconduct to date. He has some other important details that are a must-read.
More from UPI:
The allegations against McCarrick stem from the abuse of a teenager nearly 50 years ago, while the former archbishop was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York ... Although McCarrick said he has "no recollection" of the case and was "shocked" by the report, he accepted the pope's request to no longer publicly exercise his priestly ministry.
"While shocked by the report, and while maintaining my innocence," McCarrick said in a statement Wednesday, "my sadness was deepened when I was informed that the allegations had been determined credible and substantiated.
"I am sorry for the pain the person who brought the charges has gone through, as well as for the scandal such charges cause our people."
He was “shocked” at the report? Allegations about the cardinal have been floating about the Internet , and in religion-news circles, for way more than a decade regarding much heavier stuff than a 47-year-old incident. More on this in a moment.
This CNN story details what the allegations were:
Patrick Noaker, the attorney for the man who made the accusation against McCarrick, said his client was molested by McCarrick on two separate occasions, once in 1971 and once the following year...
Both alleged incidents, Noaker said, occurred at St. Patrick's Cathedral as his client, an altar boy, was being fitted for a cassock for Christmas Mass. At the time, McCarrick was secretary to Cardinal Terence Cooke, New York's top churchman.
"McCarrick started measuring him, then he unzipped his pants, stuck his hand in and grabbed his genitals," Noaker said.
Looking around at various news reports, I noticed that some of the more detailed ones were by longtime beat reporters who were well aware of McCarrick’s inclinations and may have had an ongoing file on him.
This New York Times story interviews two former priests: Richard Sipe and Robert Hoatson, who've been telling reporters about McCarrick for years. One other thing that I’m taking from the Washington Post’s article, which many other publications likewise reported:
Additionally, Newark’s archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, and the bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., James Checchio, said on Wednesday that McCarrick had earlier been accused of sexual misconduct with adults, allegedly committed when he was the leader of those dioceses decades ago. Two of the three allegations led to settlements, they said.
That is huge, huge news. Several of us knew there were settlements but we didn’t know how many. Below are details about what those settlements may entail.
What I have to say next is a bit long, so please bear with me. Numerous journalists -- and Catholics -- knew that McCarrick has been accused of this sort of thing for decades and that he cultivated male seminarians for sexual purposes for years. Wednesday’s news was no secret to many of us. It is one of the great untold stories of the religion beat.
Look at this essay posted in 2010 by Richard Sipe, a former priest who has been a psychotherapist specializing in sexual abuse cases by Catholic clergy.
Yep, eight years ago. It is an R-rated account of McCarrick’s homosexual antics. One sordid incident -- described in a four-page document -- involved McCarrick and three other clerics and their sexual play during a summer 1987 trip to a fish camp in New York. It matches the legal documents I was given. Please read it.
It wasn’t Sipe who gave me the documents, but someone else. Those documents involved Gregory Littleton, a seminarian who later became a priest in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., a diocese that McCarrick headed in the early 1980s. In 1993, Littleton got implicated in some sexual acting out with two teen-aged boys; he underwent several years of counseling, then got sent to the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., in 1997 where, as far as I know, he was performing just fine until the sex abuse crisis hit the U.S. Catholic Church in 2002.
Then, a new bishop of the Metuchen diocese reviewed Littleton’s file and sent his information south. By this time, no diocese could afford to have a priest on staff who had abused anyone for any reason, so in 2004, Littleton was removed. All this came out in a press release from the Charlotte officials. “My own life was left in psychological, emotional and financial ruins,” he wrote in a plaintive note to McCarrick (now a cardinal in Washington, D.C.) in 2005. “I was made a promise by the Diocese of Metuchen that I would be cared for.”
It was Littleton’s file that I was handed in 2008. On page after page, Littleton tells how he told bishops, other priests, counselors and whoever else would listen about McCarrick and that many of his sexual problems dated back to this prelate. Littleton is the writer of the memo about the fish camp.
But no one dared to go against such a powerful personality. I covered the election of Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005 in Rome and McCarrick was the darling of the American press there. Who would believe the words of a disgraced priest?
But word was beginning to seep out.
In December 2005, Catholic journalist Matt Abbott wrote a column about McCarrick’s invitations to seminarians to join him for weekends at his beach house in Sea Girt, N.J. These young men would race to grab an available bed with the odd one out being the one who would have to share a bed with the archbishop. He added:
A priest who did his seminary training in Newark wrote me and said he remembers the Newark seminarians dreading Fridays because it meant they might have to go to McCarrick's house at the Jersey shore.
But little else came out after that, as even if there had been sexual activity, these men were consenting adults, right? And the sexual abuse crisis dealt with minors, not with grown men. So if someone complained of being sexually abused as an adult, a diocese didn’t have to report it. Instead, it could pay you to stay quiet.
But how much power does any seminarian have to withstand his own bishop? I began to look into these allegations. My supervisors at the Washington Times knew what I was doing, but they also needed me to do my regular beat coverage, leaving me no time to go after this scandal. I did drive up to Metuchen to go through court records and to Sea Girt to go through property records, but I could find nothing pointing to any diocesan-owned beach house.
Journalist Rod Dreher was also looking into McCarrick, which he talked about yesterday in his blog for the American Conservative.
I heard that Littleton had gotten a settlement from the church but that it was not much; somewhere between $75,000-$150,000. When I contacted Littleton in North Carolina, he refused to speak with me.
Then in 2009, my erstwhile Washington Times colleague George Archibald (who had left the paper several years before) came out with “Journalism is War,” a book partly about “miscreants and sexual deviants in high places in government and the media,” as he said in the preface. He should have thrown in “the church,” as he gave one full chapter to his efforts to cover the McCarrick affair years before.
Archibald named more names, including Robert Ciolek, a former seminarian said to have been wooed by McCarrick. Ciolek, who was one of the men mentioned in the fishing camp narrative, had moved on to become a successful lawyer. So I called Ciolek one September morning and asked him to comment on what George had written. Ciolek wouldn’t comment but I noticed he didn’t deny the account in the book.
I ran into similar blockages everywhere. There were priests and laity alike for whom McCarrick’s predilections were an open secret, but no one wanted to go after him. I heard about various settlements but couldn’t confirm the details. No newspaper can publish such explosive accusations with only anonymous sources and no court documents to back it up.
Various Catholic friends advised me to let it go. “What difference does it make now?” they’d say. “McCarrick is retired.” The archdiocese was represented by a powerful law firm. Did I want to take that on?
After I was laid off in 2010, I sent copies of my files to another reporter on the East Coast so he could have a go at cracking this story. He too ran into the same barriers: People who refused to go on the record and there was always the threat of a lawsuit should he get one detail wrong.
My reporter friend did tell me that another writer managed to get the necessary details for a big story that should have run in the New York Times magazine around 2012. But it got killed. Over the years, I’ve told other reporters about this story; even pitched it to one magazine myself but again, no one would be the first to go public.
So now it’s all coming out. Philip Lawler, a writer for catholicculture.org, asks why, if so many journalists knew about this story, no one came out with it. I’ve explained why I could not. And I hope the New York Times magazine explains why they did not.