Why a Catholic star vanished: Opus Dei apologist groped woman and was sent into semi-exile

About a decade into the current Catholic crisis of sexual abuse by priests — late in the 1980s — I heard two Catholic insiders make the same point about the scandals. One was on the left — the late Richard Sipe — and the other was on the Catholic right (speaking on background, so I won’t use the name).

Never forget, they both said, that there are plenty of Catholics on the doctrinal left who have skeletons in their closets, but the same thing is true on the right. All kinds of people slip and fall into sin. No one is anxious to repent in public.

Thus, all kinds of Catholics have mixed motives, when it comes to honest, candid discussions of sexual abuse. Lots of people have reasons to embrace secrecy. As the scandal rolls on and on, both insiders said, there will be casualties on both sides.

I was thinking about that, last summer, when I pounded out a blunt, three-point statement of how I view the core issues in this crisis. Note the wording of point No. 1:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

This leads to a stunning — for many Catholic conservatives — headline at The Washington Post: “Opus Dei paid $977,000 to settle sexual misconduct claim against prominent Catholic priest.” Here’s the big news, right up top:

The global Catholic community Opus Dei in 2005 paid $977,000 to settle a sexual misconduct suit against the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a priest well-known for preparing for conversion big-name conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudlow and Sam Brownback, among others.

The woman who filed the complaint is a D.C.-area Catholic who was among the many who received spiritual direction from McCloskey through the Catholic Information Center, a K Street hub of Catholic life in downtown Washington. She told The Washington Post that McCloskey groped her several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.

The guilt and shame over the interactions sent her into a tailspin and, combined with her existing depression, made it impossible for her to work in her high-level job, she said. She spoke to him about her “misperceived guilt over the interaction” in confession and he absolved her, she said.

There will be little or no debate about this rock-solid Post story, in part because Opus Dei leaders spoke on the record about this case, their reactions to it and ongoing investigations into the popular Catholic apologist’s actions with other women.

Read the following material carefully, since it addresses the issue of why Opus Dei delayed making a public statement about this settlement. This is long, but essential.

The disclosure of the complaint and settlement were not made public by Opus Dei until Monday but behind the scenes, the ministry of the well-known priest had been sharply curtailed. Many Washington-area Catholics have wondered for years what happened to McCloskey, who was the closest thing to a celebrity the Catholic Church had in the region.

One other woman told Opus Dei that “she was made uncomfortable by how he was hugging her,” Brian Finnerty, an Opus Dei spokesman said Monday night. He said Opus Dei is also investigating a third claim —so far unsubstantiated — that he called potentially “serious.” He declined to provide details but said the woman “may have also suffered from misconduct by Father McCloskey” at the D.C. center, which is a bookstore, chapel and gathering place for conservative Catholics in particular.

In a statement, Opus Dei Vicar Monsignor Thomas Bohlin said McCloskey’s actions at the center were “deeply painful for the woman” who made the initial complaint “and we are very sorry for all she suffered.”

Bohlin’s statement, which came after the woman requested Opus Dei go public in an effort to reach other potential victims, said McCloskey was removed from his job at the center a year after the complaint, when it was found to be credible.

“All harassment and abuse are abhorrent,” Bohlin wrote. “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.”

It would appear that the settlement was announced when the anonymous woman — an active Catholic inside the Beltway — requested that the abuse be made public. Was this her first request?

Later in the story there is this:

The woman, who remains close to Opus Dei and participates in some of their spiritual activities, said Monday she was grateful to them for going public. She is now in her mid-50s, and was 40 when the incidents with McCloskey occurred.

“I’m very happy with how it’s being handled right now. They listened,” she said.

Yes, note the words “right now.”

There will be lots of discussion of this case, in part because McCloskey’s work was, in part, rooted in his ability to interact with public leaders and with the press. During his years at the Catholic Information Center, that was literally a large part of his job assignment. Here is a 2015 feature in The New York Times about his work: “An Opus Dei Priest With a Magnetic Touch.”

That desk in D.C. led to all kinds of coverage of his one-on-one evangelism and conservative arguments in favor of Catholic teachings. All kinds of people, including reporters, walked through his door on K Street — within shouting range of the White House and many newsrooms — and asked him all kinds of questions.

That would include me, since I worked in D.C. during that era. As a columnist, I quoted McCloskey on several topics linked to Catholic work and worship. Here is a 2013 piece — “John Paul II and the death of 'Christian' America” — focusing on one of the priest’s many essays aimed at mainstream readers.

In this case, he was writing as part of a Vatican celebration of "Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)," by St. Pope John Paul II. This is a classic example of McCloskey at work:

"I was asked to write an article that would help cheer people up. Sorry, but I just couldn't do that right now," said McCloskey, in a telephone interview from Chicago.

In particular, the Opus Dei priest was struck by this sobering John Paul declaration: "The eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism. ... The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one's own material well-being. The so-called 'quality of life' is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions — interpersonal, spiritual and religious — of existence." The human body, thus, is "simply a complex of organs, functions and energies to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency."

While this judgment will offend most liberals and some political conservatives, those words led McCloskey to write this blunt verdict: "Face it folks, the United States is no longer a Christian country. …”

Obviously, my column — and the Times piece — came after the behind-the-scenes settlement in 2005.

Yes, I asked McCloskey about his departure from Washington. He said that Opus Dei wanted him to focus on writing and, because of his pre-ministry work with Citibank and Merrill Lynch on Wall Street, serving as a consultant to several outreach ministries in key locations, such as Silicon Valley.

That was only part of the story, we now know. As Rod “Benedict Option” Dreher noted on his blog, in a piece reacting to the stunning Post story, it’s possible to look back at the McCloskey era in D.C. and note strategic silences.

For a lot of conservative Catholics, McCloskey is iconic of the late 1990s and early 2000s in American Catholicism, at least in the New York-DC community. It’s hard to state how prominent and admired he was by conservatives back then. He was really smart, and really personable. …

McCloskey had a way of talking about how corrupt the world was — and he wasn’t wrong about that. He had a way of making you feel that the Church was the only safe haven. He was definitely a company man. I remember seeing him on “Meet The Press” (or perhaps one of the other interview shows) once talking about the scandal. He was asked what percentage of the priesthood he figured was gay. He said something like “between three and five percent” — the percentage of homosexuals in the general population. I knew perfectly well that McCloskey knew better than that, and that he was propagandizing to protect the image of the Church.

Readers can expect more coverage of this story and reaction to it across the spectrum of American Catholic life, which is appropriate because of this priest’s unusual ministry. The solid Post piece addresses lots of questions, but more questions will be asked, with good cause.

Note this passage, in particular:

McCloskey, who is now in his 60s, recently moved back to the D.C. region, where he has family. Opus Dei said Monday that he “suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. He is largely incapacitated and needs assistance for routine daily tasks. He has not had any pastoral assignments for a number of years and is no longer able to celebrate Mass, even privately.”

Let me end with one personal note. Long ago, in Denver days, I covered the fall of an Episcopal cathedral dean. He was arrested for a sex crime — solicitation of sex from an undercover male police officer — immediately after he declined an election to the episcopate.

There was a mini-storm behind the scenes after I broke that story — it did not surprise me — because I had once been a member of this priest’s congregation. (I asked editors to assign another reporter to the story when I received an anonymous letter pointing to the police report, but they declined.)

Here’s how I ended a Rocky Mountain News column about all that: “Sin and ink will always be a volatile mix.”

True that.

Veteran religion-beat pro Michelle Boorstein ended her Post story with the following:

In a 2011 piece by the Catholic News Agency celebrating 30 years as a priest, McCloskey said God had used him “as an instrument in spite of myself to bring dozens of vocations to the priesthood, religious life and to the new ecclesial movements, and all this with my evident faults and human failings.”

Once again, that is not a right vs. left kind of statement.

That’s an all-too-human confession.

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