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.