This week's podcast: What's better for Catholic leaders, silence or hanging your own lantern?


The body blows just keep coming.

That’s how many Catholics — on both left and right — have to feel right now, after the daily meteor shower of news about falling stars in their church. All of this was, logically enough, the backdrop to the very open-ended, wide-ranging discussions in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast” (click here to tune that in).

One minute, and it’s new revelations linked to the wide, wide world of ex-cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. In the latest chapter of this drama, there were revelations at the Catholic News Agency and in the Washington Post that — forget all of his previous denials — Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl did know about the rumors swirling around McCarrick and his abusive relationships with boys and seminarians.

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Want to guess which of these newsrooms dared to note that this fact was a key element of the infamous expose letters released by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano? You got it. It was a branch of the alternative Catholic press (must-read Clemente Lisi post here) connecting those controversial dots — again.

Then, on the other doctrinal side of the fence, there were the revelations about Father C.J. McCloskey, a popular conservative apologist from Opus Dei. Here’s how Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org opened a post entitled “A bad day’s lament.”

Yesterday was “one of those days” — a day that found me hating my work, wishing I had some other sort of job.

The first blow, and by far the worst, came with the news, released by the Washington PostMonday evening, that an old friend, Father C. J. McCloskey, had been disciplined for sexual misconduct involving a married woman, and that Opus Dei, of which I was once a member, had (not to put too fine a point on it) botched the handling of his case. Father McCloskey has done great things for the Catholic Church, drawing many converts to the faith and encouraging many cradle Catholics like myself to deepen their spiritual lives. The charges against him, however, reinforce my fear that every “celebrity priest” is vulnerable to special temptations, and just one misstep away from scandal. …

But long ago I resolved that I want to hear all the truth, good and bad. It will be a painful process, exposing all the rot within our Church. But it’s the only way to begin the necessary process of reform.

All of this left me thinking about a question that I hear — year after year, decade after decade — whenever I have private meetings with clergy and religious leaders. This usually happens when “talking shop” during meals or break times when I am speaking and a religious conference or on a seminary or college campus.

The basic question, the way most clergy ask it: Why should we cooperate with hostile reporters that are only interesting in hurting my church?

This assumes all kinds of things, such as (a) all your local reporters are both hostile and uninformed and (b) there isn’t an issue linked to your ministry — positive or negative — that is worthy of news coverage.

Many ministers, of course, actually have something to hide. There is no way to cover a painful story linked to their work that they are going to find acceptable. They simply want the story to go away. Most of all, they believe that all bad news is, well, “fake news.” This is not a new virus among the powerful.

But there are other clergy who sincerely and, alas, accurately see evidence that many journalists have no intention of showing respect to voices on both sides of disputes linked to their flock. They’ve seen the writing on the wall and it says that way too many journalists have decided that they are, well, bigots of one kind or another. Thus, they fear cooperating with the press.

So what to do?

Back in 2004, I wrote a GetReligion post that seems relevant at this Catholic moment. The headline: “Tape unto others, as you would want them...” It opened like this:

During my days at the Charlotte Observer, I had quite a few tense interviews with Southern Baptists. This in not surprising in a major New South city in the early years of the great Southern Baptist Civil War. While in Denver, I had many tense interviews with United Methodists, Presbyterians and other oldline Protestants. This is not surprising in a progressive Western city during the era of oldline Protestant decline, in terms of numbers and social clout.

I learned a lesson in both settings. When facing hostile sources, urge them to tape the interview for themselves. That way, you have a tape and they have a tape. Everyone knows that everyone else knows what everyone said during the interview. In effect, you are saying: I am doing everything I can to be accurate and fair. If you feel I have misquoted you, then you can play this tape to my editor. Now can we talk?

The bottom line: Tape unto others as you would want them to tape unto you.

I wrote that after a tense showdown between The New York Times and then Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. The subject, as you would imagine, concerned Catholics in politics (a Democrat in this case) and Chaput felt he had been quoted out of context — big time.

Thus, the archbishop (who is now in Philadelphia) posted a transcript of the interview online (the link, alas, no longer works). He then added a link to the Times news report and urged people to read both items and make up their own minds.

Well, Times people cried “foul.” I thought that was an interesting and rather strange response by journalists. I still do.

The bottom line: I still think religious leaders should do way more interviews than they refuse. But I also urge them to accept interviews on complex and controversial subjects with this understanding — both sides will record the interview. Both sides are free to transcribe and post what was said.

Would that make people on both sides a bit more cautious? Probably. Is that a bad thing? Not in my experience.

At the very least, I think religious leaders — left and right — need to put their views on the record, when faced with controversial issues and, especially, allegations of crimes and-or broken vows. These documents need to posted in places where journalists and church members can see them.

Consider, for example, the public statements by Msgr. Thomas Bohlin of Opus Dei that helped open the floodgates on media questions about the fall of McCloskey. The first statement opened like this:

I have some sad news to share concerning an Opus Dei priest, Father C. John McCloskey.

In November 2002, the Prelature received word of a complaint from an adult woman of sexual misconduct by Father C. John McCloskey, who at the time was serving as director of the Catholic Information Center (CIC) in Washington D.C. Almost immediately we directed him to give spiritual direction to women only in a traditional confessional (the norm for Opus Dei priests) and to end his contact with the woman in question. After investigating the complaint in subsequent months, we found the complaint to be credible, and in December 2003, Father McCloskey was removed from his position at the CIC.

Note: The reference to “a traditional confessional” refers to a priest and a penitent being separated by a physical barrier, usually a screen of some kind.

What happened was deeply painful for the woman, and we are very sorry for all she suffered. A settlement was reached with her in 2005. She has remained in contact with our activities.

In the years since Father McCloskey’s removal from the CIC, his priestly activities with women have been very limited because of the restrictions we placed as well as his declining health. He had very few assignments in our activities for women (Opus Dei 's activities are separate for men and for women) and his contact with individual women was limited to the confessional. Throughout the years, we were careful to ensure that he would not have any opportunities to engage in the kind of actions that led to the complaint.

As regards Father McCloskey’s time before being at the CIC as well as afterwards, we have not received any complaints for sexual misconduct.

Were the Opus Dei statements “perfect,” in the eyes of reporters and the organization’s critics? Of course not. Did they, however, confirm the reality of the scandal and put many helpful and essential facts on the record? Yes. Did they attempt to shut down further coverage of these matters? No.

In short, the leaders of Opus Dei attempted to “hang a lantern” on this issue (to put this in D.C. Beltway lingo), confirming the reality of the problem and attempting to answer many questions right up front — on their own terms, of course.

Is that better than silence? Is that better than refusing to respond to legitimate questions and accusations?

Ask the reporters who are trying to cover the secret proceedings surrounding McCarrick.

Ask the reporters who have hit stone walls asking questions about the abuse of seminarians and adult church members.

Ask reporters who have tried to confirm whispers about the sins of bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

Frankly, it helps when religious leaders validate public concerns about controversial issues of this kind. Consider this passage, for example, from one of the Msgr. Bohlin statements:

All harassment and abuse are abhorrent. I am very sorry for any suffering caused to any woman by Father McCloskey’s actions and pray that God may bring healing to her. I would also ask you to pray for Father McCloskey as his health continues to decline.

I am painfully aware of all that the Church is suffering, and I am very sorry that we in Opus Dei have added to it. Let us ask God to show mercy on all of us in the Church at this difficult time.

Enjoy the podcast. And stay tuned. There’s no way that this drama is shutting down anytime soon.

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