Fr. C. John McCloskey, Opus Dei, and me

Fr. C. John McCloskey, Opus Dei, and me January 10, 2019

In late January, 2009, I made a retreat at Opus Dei’s Shellbourne Conference Center, outside of Valparaiso, Indiana. This was a supernumerary-only retreat (I was still in Opus Dei then) and, being in a dark place at the time, I needed the extra intensity of a members-only retreat. The priest who lead the retreat reverently celebrated Mass, gave compelling meditations each day, and dispensed expert spiritual advice in confession and in one-on-one spiritual direction outside of confession. His advice to me was especially helpful.

Monday, the news broke that the priest, Fr. C. John McCloskey, had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with a woman in the early 2000s, and that Opus Dei paid out $977,000 to settle her lawsuit against him. Investigations of additional alleged abuses of women by him are still pending.

Fr. C. John (as he is colloquially known) was in the early 2000s a genuine media star. He’d had a couple of series on EWTN, the Catholic satellite network. As director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., he offered spiritual direction to hundreds, if not thousands, and was responsible for bringing to the Catholic Church prominent conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sam Brownback, as well as NARAL Pro-Choice America founder Dr. Bernard Nathanson, and others.

Then suddenly, he disappeared. He was no longer director of the Catholic Information Center; was doing no more series EWTN. Now, we know why.

Word got around Opus Dei that he was in Chicago, but not doing anything publicly. I figured his superiors had decided the fame had gone to his head and that he needed a break, away from the limelight. How little we knew how much the fame had gone to his head. As for needing a break, he did need one—possibly in jail, pending a proper criminal trial.

He certainly had no place giving retreats to Opus Dei members who had no idea why he he’d been pulled from public life; why he was yanked from a prominent position that boosted the public profile of both himself and Opus Dei, in the nation’s capital; and why he was transferred to Chicago.

The Washington Post reporter, Michelle Boorstein, does a good enough job reporting the case. But there are details that only a lifelong Catholic—especially one who spent seventeen years in Opus Dei—will catch. Understand: I do not fault her. But, I noticed things.

I noticed things

First, after Opus Dei settled the sexual misconduct suit, sometime around 2005, “McCloskey was sent to England, and then Chicago and California for assignments with Opus Dei.”

The woman in the settlement said she was told by church officials in Chicago when he was sent there that McCloskey would not be allowed to “get faculties”—or permission to fully function as a priest—and would be put on a very tight leash.

If Fr. C. John was on “a very tight leash,” if he did not have faculties, or “permission to fully function as a priest,” then how was he able to lead my retreat? He celebrated Mass. He heard confessions. This means he had faculties.

Then there’s this:

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.

So Fr. C. John had before him an already vulnerable woman who came to him for spiritual help. He sexually assaulted her. Her subsequent “guilt and shame” added to her existing depression, making her unable to perform at her day job. Why she went back to him for confession—when he should have been on his knees, begging her forgiveness—I don’t know. But he took further advantage of her and allowed her to confess to him.

“I went to confession, thinking I did something to tempt this holy man to cross boundaries,” she told the Washington Post.

I want to vomit. Fr. C. John is a monster.

It gets worse

Canon law provides for severe penalties for priests who hear the confession of—and grant absolution to—a person with whom they committed a sexual sin. How severe? Canon 1378˜1 imposes “latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See” for any priest guilty of this.

In layperson’s terms, it’s an automatic excommunication that only the Pope can lift.

I have questions, and I want answers. Public answers. First, why was Fr. C. John not excommunicated? If he was, why was he celebrating Mass at my retreat? And if his excommunication had been lifted, why was it? And how in hell did Opus Dei cover it up?

I have this vision of the then-prelate, Bishop Javier Echevarría, all grumpy and impatient (as he tended to be), getting into a car at Opus Dei’s Rome headquarters, Villa Tevere, and being driven across town to Vatican City so he could, hat in hand, plead with the Pope to lift the excommunication against Opus Dei’s U.S. media star. Because the luminaries that Fr. C. John rubbed elbows with were rich and thus could be depended on for big donations.

How big? Monday’s Washington Post story said the $977,000 Opus Dei paid to settle Fr. C. John’s victim’s lawsuit came from a single donor.

Don’t get discouraged

There is a lot of take-away from this. My main take-away right now is that this shows, again, that the Catholic Right still does not grasp the gravity of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis. I think it does not want to grasp the gravity. Look no further than Fr. Dwight Longnecker’s Tweet about Fr. C. John, and his snide response to my criticism of it.

Others use the scandal to go after their favorite scapegoats. My own bishop, Thomas John Paprocki, took advantage of last summer’s revelations of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s multiple abuses to scapegoat gays, and Catholics who flout the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception (scroll down to the last three paragraphs).

We must not let them have the final say. The Church is so much more than the Catholic Right and its hang-ups. The Catholic Church has always been “Here comes everybody.” And you may say, “That’s easy for you to say, Sean.”

But let me tell you something. Seventeen years in Opus Dei was no picnic. It was relentless psychological, emotional, and especially spiritual manipulation. I needed therapy after I got out. And I did not seek therapy until after a massive bender that ended with an embarrassing, profanity-laced email that I sent to a lot of people who I rather would not have seen it.

But, and not because of any virtue of mine, I am still here. I am not going anywhere. And though I know there are a lot of discouraged people out there, I implore you to not go.

If there is one thing the Catholic Right fears, it’s the laity, the ordinary men and women in the pews. That’s why they keep us in the dark; why they haul out the usual scapegoats whenever the rock is lifted to expose their rot. But it was people like us who Jesus sought out, who he always was closest to, who he sided with when the Bishop Paprockis and Fr. C. Johns and Fr. Longeneckers of his day would have damned them to hell.

This is our moment.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The Catholic Church as a bureaucratic institution needs either a comprehensive reckoning with its immense abuse problem, or else it should simply not exist. I say this not out of hatred for Catholicism (the belief system) but from simple observation that the organized structure is fundamentally rotten. I understand that this is a grave matter, but if I was a Catholic with a troubled conscience then I would simply give up on the church and go to some other Christian organization.

  • Olga Delandelles

    I am wondering about Fr McCloskey’s case: why is he being condemned without a hearing and without a chance to reply, even via a proxy. How and when was the donation made to pay the accuser?When did Fr Closkey admit wrong doing? Was it before or after Alzeihmers was affecting his recollection. If he has advanced Alzeihmer’s now … how far was it in 2005? Whose call was it not to go to the police. For Fr McCloskey,it would have been far better (whether or not he was guilty) to go through a proper independant process. Sorry, right now it sounds like he is being thrown under a bus. I would have expected him to go to court, to have had a professional medical assessment prior to giving testimony and for the accuser to give him a chance to defend his name. Something is not right. Unless, the Truth comes out, abuse will not stop.

  • ABA II

    This is not to water down Fr. McCloskey’s wrongdoing, but not much can be gleaned from this particular piece, too many unknowns and not enough information; especially as it is written by a former “member” turned bitter critic. How objective can his views be?

    Can. 977 The absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is invalid except in danger of death.

    I think it is important to underscore the fact that excommunication is incurred only if the “act”, whatever that maybe, is mutual. She was not an accomplice in this particular case as she did not consent to the act.

  • Mary Tina

    It was wrong of Fr. McCloskey to grope this woman (whatever grope means in this case), but it seems that this/these mistakes were limited to this woman, and perhaps two others, one of whom did not want to accuse him and could have. Opus Dei priests are not supposed to provide spiritual direction or hear confessions of women outside of a confessional with a screen. It is a pity he did not follow those guidelines. Nonetheless, should he be treated then as a serial abuser because of these seemingly isolated mistakes? It seems extreme to equate him with a serial child abuser when this woman appeared to consent at the time to his embrace(s). I am not condoning what he did, esp. since she was vulnerable, just wondering at how severe punishment should be in such a case. A lifetime of not practicing as a priest at all, even with just men? God did not take that approach with King David of the Old testament. Opus Dei should share the settlement agreement with the public to see if there were terms in that agreement stating he could no longer serve as a priest at all, as the woman now seems to imply. We know his priestly faculties to minister to women were taken away for a period of time – years. How long is enough? Also, Opus Dei should share whether they looked into the woman’s claim that Fr. McCloskey actually absolved her regarding this matter. That is a very serious matter and needs to be clarified. Full disclosure, I knew Fr. McCloskey before all this mess, and he was never anything less than a gentleman to me as well as the other women I know he helped in spiritual direction. He was a wonderful priest to me and the people I know who went to him for spiritual direction. There was never anything questionable about his behavior. I find this all devastating, and the vitriol disproportionate to his mistakes.

  • jackvalero500@gmail.com

    Sean, I am very sorry we made you suffer in Opus Dei.

  • Gerard Ahrens

    So interesting that the same line of RATIONALIZATION is expressed by the defenders of the likes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Both extremes of the Church, the Opus Dei, Church Militant Right and the Pope Francis, Lavender Mafia Left condemn each other, make the same lame excuses for their own sins, and are DESTROYING the Church.

  • Gerard Ahrens

    The RIGHT make the same excuses and rationalizations for its fallen heroes as does the Left. Total hypocrisy and hubris. There is such great need ON ALL SIDES for self-reflection, HUMILITY, and an awareness of Paul’s words: ‘ We have ALL sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.”

  • Mary

    Sexual abuse is not a “mistake.” It means he’s a sexual predator. Period.

  • I was with you all the way until you said this: “There is a lot of take-away from this. My main take-away right now is that this shows, again, that the Catholic Right still does not grasp the gravity of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis.”

    Where did you get that? Certainly not be reading The Catholic Thing or Crises Magazine, or reading The National Catholic Register or watching the Raymond Arroyo’s interviews on EWTN or listening to Michael Vorris at Church Militant. The Catholic “right” as you call it is ready to hang every Catholic bishop in the US. You lost all credibility with that statement. You don’t even peruse anything remotely on the “Catholic right.”

  • Celia Blay

    The best priest our church ever had turned out to be a paedophile of the worst kind. The church covered it up. We found it hard to believe what he had done at first. Treasure those men who minister with humility, they are less likely to abuse.

  • Bob N

    What does this even mean: “If there is one thing the Catholic Right fears, it’s the laity, the ordinary men and women in the pews. That’s why they keep us in the dark; why they haul out the usual scapegoats whenever the rock is lifted to expose their rot”? I am an ordinary man in the pew… and I believe myself to be an orthodox/orthopraxic Catholic. I don’t fear the laity…
    This vitriol is not helpful at all. It just causes more decisiveness between “us” and “them” (or “them” and “us”—-depending on one’s perspective)

  • Bob N

    What does this even mean: “If there is one thing the Catholic Right fears, it’s the laity, the ordinary men and women in the pews. That’s why they keep us in the dark; why they haul out the usual scapegoats whenever the rock is lifted to expose their rot”?
    I am an ordinary man in the pew… and I believe myself to be an orthodox/orthopraxic Catholic (I don’t believe it is helpful to divide the Church into “left” and “right”. Either one is orthodox or one is not orthodox. If a person is not orthodox, it doesn’t matter if they are “hyperothodox or hypoorthodox) and I don’t fear the laity…
    This vitriol about “them” keeping us in the dark, and exposing “their” rot, etc. is not helpful at all. It just causes more decisiveness between “us” and “them” (or “them” and “us”—-depending on one’s perspective)

  • Kyllein MacKellerann “

    One needs to remember that, after all the glitter and shine is taken away, the Roman Catholic Church is a BUSINESS. Yes, it’s product is Salvation and Counseling, but it’s a business like any other. See it in that light and everything makes sense.

  • Sharon McNeil Altermatt

    ….scapegoating the gays…..and you think you know something. I guess not.

  • He probably didn’t abuse you because you weren’t as vulnerable as the women he did assault. Predators are like that. They pick victims they believe will not come forward for one reason or another. That’s why, when you hear of one instance, there are almost certainly more. Which was the case here.

  • No, I don’t believe you’re correct here. You’d have to ask a canon lawyer, but most of the cases I know of where someone was in trouble for this were cases of abuse, where confession was used as a tool to make the victim feel responsible and also discourage then from speaking (because the priest would lie and say the penitent was bound by the seal). It’s sacrilege to use a sacrament that way, far more profane than ordaining a woman, which will get you excommunicated too.

  • If the order settled, it is probably because they asked the priest and he admitted he had done it. Otherwise they probably would have fought it in court.

  • Milo C

    I am a little disappointed to see a political slant to this story, but overall a good article with a rare insider perspective. The Church must protect its hierarchy, even at the cost of its laity and any sense of justice or decency, or responsibility. This is because only the hierarchy holds power in the RCC, and their primary concern is holding power. Therefore no wrong can be admitted to, no change can be made, nothing can be done that might cause them to voluntarily give up power. They created this extreme position by claiming to be the one and only source of the word of god, the ultimate authority (to believers). Only when they have thoroughly drained the laity of money and faith will their sandcastle crumble.

  • Percy Gryce

    If one believes that the Catholic Church is what it says it is, then what you propose is impossible.

  • Yes, doctrine would have to change before the organization would be able to do what it needs to do.

  • Indeed.

  • PMACK

    I second that.

  • Brian K

    They’d listen right quick if the tithes got cut off.

  • Olga Delandelles

    ‘probably” is not fact. This whole thing stinks of scape-goating. There should be an investigation $1 million to cover up is smoke but where is the fire?

  • Daniel G. Johnson

    Sean, good writing….which is helpful to others. I wish you the best.

  • Lawliet

    Sadly, I think the reason why Fr C John wasn’t excommunicated might be that the canon law states a priest cannot absolve someone he has committed a sexual sin with.

    He did not commit a sexual sin with her, he committed it against her!

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  • PaulB

    Sadly, first off it’s a massive mistake for a priest to be alone in a room with a woman. That’s the world we live in now.
    Second, I haven’t seen whether there was an admission of guilt or not. That or an explicit denial should be mandatory. The church is not the state, and legalism like that muddies the waters. While Fr. McCloskey is merely human, his boss is not, and it’s fair to impose very high standards of behavior, and if he has fallen short (and I am in the world enough to know that a settlement payment is a bribe against nuisance as often as it is recompense for wrongdoing), he should have been offered a contemplative life or laicization.
    Should haves aside, This is a great example of why, rightfully, no one trusts the church.

  • PaulB

    Not so. Settlements are not admissions of guilt. They’re often enough bribes to stop harassment or to avoid nuisance or further harm. That is the world we live in today. To say otherwise is to spread scandal maliciously.
    That could have been avoided here if the church would require an admission of guilt or affirmation of innocence as part of the new transparency they’re pretending to do.

  • PaulB

    This is so. It’s just as useful to refer to modernists as alt-Unitarians, but that serves no real purpose except to deny agency to one’s brothers in faith.
    Opus Dei is conservative, of course, and certainly this shows every appearance of the same ol’ same ol’ money talking and BS walking that we expect in Rome, and if so they’re rightfully to be criticized. However, It is the modernists who fomented the current crisis in the larger church, with the response of the power-corrupted men in funny red hats who nurtured the corruption by their response to it. The Cardinals to blame had multiple motivations, but all relate to power, and of those men, their politics vary widely. Given how easy that is to see, it’s a shame the author chose to distract from his very well-written thesis this way.

  • JimboFlex

    “If there is one thing the Catholic Right fears, it’s the laity, the ordinary men and women in the pews. That’s why they keep us in the dark; why they haul out the usual scapegoats whenever the rock is lifted to expose their rot.”

    Can you explain this a bit more because this seems so counter intuitive from what I have read and heard.

    I come from an Orthodox background and we have multiple priests that were formerly Roman Catholic, and several of them left due to what they deemed problems with the “Lavender Mafia”.

  • Harry

    If there is one thing the Catholic Right fears …

    There shouldn’t be any such thing as the Catholic “right” or the Catholic “left” when it comes to teachings that the Holy Spirit has preserved in the Church for twenty centuries, in fulfillment of the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit would remain with the Church forever and guide it into “all truth.” When it comes to such teachings there is no “left” or “right,” only orthodoxy or heterodoxy.

  • Chari McCauley

    Thus, the suggestion by Jesus that we should call no MAN, Father; and, He told us Himself that even He is not The Father; for we have only one Father, Who art in Heaven.

    They keep warning us; and, we keep not listening.

  • Don Kenner

    I have no reason to doubt what you’ve laid out in this post about Opus Dei and Father McCloskey. But you must know of countless acts of abuse (committed and covered up) by left wingers in the Church. This problem is not limited to one side of the political aisle. How is this a right wing problem? You seem — like so many — to view such issues exclusively through a narrow ideological lens. And whatever homophobes may have made of the the Cardinal McCarrick situation, that horrific lapse of judgement (which includes Pope Francis) does not make the case that the abuse crisis is exclusively a sin of the right. Both right and left must bear the blame. “Don’t get discouraged”? It’s hard not to, with Christians tripping over each other to frame serious issues in a purely partisan fashion. Ora pro nobis.

  • Edward Vix

    And what, Chari, do you call your male parent? Just wondering.

  • Chari McCauley

    Dad.