Some sins deserve more secrecy? Compare and contrast cases of McCloskey and McCarrick

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The tragic (viewed from the right) and spectacular (viewed from the left) fall of Father C. John McCloskey, a popular Catholic apologist, from Opus Dei, continues to get quite a bit of ink.

Let me stress: As it should.

Before I get to a fascinating update at The Washington Post, let me pause and make an observation, or two.

No. 1: Consider this question: Looking at the American Catholic church over the past two or three decades (and at Catholic life in Washington, D.C., in particular), who was the more powerful and significant player — Father McCloskey or former cardinal Theodore McCarrick?

That’s a bit of a slam dunk, isn’t it?

Now, in terms of doing basic journalism, it appears that it has been easier to crack into the heart of the McCloskey case than it has the McCarrick case. Why is that? Is it accurate to state that Catholic officials linked to the McCloskey case have been a bit more forthcoming than those in the powerful networks linked to the former cardinal? Hold that thought.

No. 2: Over and over, people ask me why clergy sexual abuse stories in Protestant settings — evangelical flocks, in particular — receive so much less mainstream ink than Catholic scandals. There are several reasons for this:

— Many mainstream news editors think that Catholic stories are more newsworthy than those in other churches — period. I even ran into that attitude, long ago, in Charlotte, N.C., of all places.

— Catholicism has a clear structure and clear lines of authority. This is comforting to reporters who see the world through a political lens. The largest, most influential forms of Protestantism in our culture are — when it comes to polity — more chaotic and “congregational.” That’s more of a challenge for newsrooms without a skilled, experience religion-beat pro.

— As someone who HAS covered more than a few Protestant/evangelical clergy-sex stories, I think it is safe to say that many of them, if not most, center on sexual relationships and even abuse that are linked to temptations present in face-to-face “pastoral counseling.” Consider the following, from a column I wrote after the death of Dr. Louis McBurney, an evangelical with psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic.

Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

Viewed from this perspective, it appears — so far — that McCloskey got into trouble when he could not control his feelings/actions with women who had sought his help, via “pastoral counseling.” This is not to minimize the abusive nature of what happened, in terms of ethics and broken vows. But this scandal resembles many Protestant cases I have covered, more than the decades of Catholic sexual abuse cases linked to what is clearly criminal abuse, with male priests (in the vast majority of cases) sexually violating male teens and even young men (such as seminarians).

As I have said, over and over, secrecy is the key. In these two cases, it appears that the networks of secrecy surrounding McCarrick have been harder to crack then those around McCloskey.

Now, on to two important pieces at The Washington Post. First there is this headline: “In emotional interview, Opus Dei spokesman said he ‘hated’ how prominent priest’s sexual misconduct case was handled.” The lede:

A day after announcing that the global Catholic community Opus Dei had paid nearly $1 million to settle a 2005 sexual misconduct suit against a big-name D.C. priest, a spokesman for the ultraconservative institution Tuesday expressed regret that the Rev. C. John McCloskey had been allowed to remain in ministry after the allegations came to light.

“It’s an argument that is no longer tenable — this ‘Let’s quiet things over so priests can continue to do good,’ ” said Brian Finnerty, choking back tears as he spoke with unusual frankness.

Later in the story, there is this interesting juxtaposition.

A 2005 letter from Opus Dei’s attorney to the woman’s attorney said McCloskey acknowledges he “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with the woman and apologizes. However, the letter said, the two sides see “significant differences” in facts. It said McCloskey and Opus Dei were making a settlement offer “without any acknowledgment of liability” on their part. The letter was from Kevin Baine of the firm Williams & Connolly.

This week, Opus Dei did not dispute the woman’s account.

Read it all. I will add that, in cases linked to “pastoral counseling,” it is common to see clashes in how the two participants viewed what transpired. However, it’s clear that McCloskey harmed this woman. He crossed lines that priests can never cross.

Now, what about the McCarrick story? What is happening? Where are the headlines and deep investigations by mainstream media?

That brings us to this must-read Washington Post op-ed piece by canon lawyer Ed Condon: “McCarrick won’t get a full trial. Here’s why you should care.” Here are some crucial pieces of that:

… Instead of conducting a full-blown trial, complete with procedural niceties and room for legal back-and-forth between prosecution and defense lawyers, sources at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirmed that McCarrick’s case is being handled via a stripped-down administrative process, expected to conclude within the next few weeks.

Such an "administrative penal process," which in canon law is reserved for cases where the evidence is so strong that a full trial is deemed unnecessary, suggests that the chances of a conviction are very high indeed. …

The pressure to deliver a swift verdict has been high ever since Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals in July.

Also note that there are crimes the Vatican is more anxious to discuss in public, and some — not so much. The goal of the Pope Francis team is get McCarrick out of the news — period — before the upcoming Vatican sexual-abuse summit.

It is well known in church circles that both Francis and senior American cardinals want McCarrick out of the news — and out of ministry — before that meeting begins.

Even though a conviction of McCarrick seems likely, much may depend on what Rome is willing to say about the charges on which he is convicted. In addition to allegations that he abused three boys— with one as young as 11 — McCarrick is also accused of molesting as many as eight seminarians in the dioceses he formerly led. What Rome does with those allegations could weigh heavy on future reforms.

At this point, the goal appears to be to focus “reforms” on abuse of “children,” while avoiding open discussions of the abuse of teens, young men and seminarians (and violations of celibacy vows with consenting adults).

After reading that important op-ed, read this new Washington Post news report, under the headline: “The Vatican moves quickly toward punishing ex-cardinal McCarrick for sexual abuse.”

Anyone who reads the Condon op-ed will not be surprised by this lede:

Vatican investigators have finished collecting evidence in the sexual abuse case of disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, according to a person familiar with the investigation, indicating that the Catholic Church is moving quickly toward sentencing the cleric in its secretive justice system.

Later, there is this:

The Rev. Davide Cito, a canon lawyer at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said the process would happen mostly on paper, if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opts for the accelerated option. “Don’t imagine a public debate. The accused isn’t present,” he said.

The CDF would give a file of evidence to the accused cleric’s defense lawyer, and the lawyer would write back with his defense, Cito said. Then a judge and two assistants would meet — in a room that Cito described as “little more than a closet” — and make a decision, which the cleric could appeal.

So what will reporters, and thus ordinary Catholics, learn about the sins of McCarrick, as opposed to the sins of McCloskey? In particular, what will Vatican insiders allow to surface on this critical question, linked to the McCarrick abuse of seminarians and priests: Who protected McCarrick from investigations of the rumors that surrounded him for decades and who profited from his favor during that era?

Keep watching the headlines and look for crucial gaps in the secrecy.

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