Two days ago, the news broke that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington D.C., had been accused of molesting a 16-year-old altar boy when he was a New York City priest in the early 70’s and that the Pope had removed him from public ministry until a canonical investigation can be concluded. That means McCarrick, who was ordained a priest in 1958 and a bishop in 1977, is no longer allowed to publicly present himself as a member of the Catholic clergy. The Cardinal stated that he didn’t remember any such incident and maintained his innocence, but said he would submit to the Pope’s order out of “obedience.”
But the real bombshell came when the bishops of the New Jersey dioceses of Newark and Metuchen stated that three allegations of sexual impropriety towards adults had been leveled against McCarrick when he ran those dioceses in the 80’s and 90’s and that two of the claimants had received out of court settlements.
When I read this my insides churned. McCarrick was appointed Archbishop of Newark during my freshman year of studies in a college seminary operated by that archdiocese. I can’t remember when I first heard the whispers about McCarrick, but I do recall that they were widespread and persistent. The seminary scuttlebutt was that McCarrick would take a shine to an attractive seminarian or young priest, invite him or a group of them to his shore home and then sexually harass or exploit them. I never met a person who claimed to have been abused by McCarrick. I have no firsthand knowledge of McCarrick’s alleged activities. My own interactions with him were pleasant and, the one time I was alone with him, nothing untoward happened. But by the time I left seminary I knew to stay away from him.
In the subsequent years, two former priests went on record accusing McCarrick of sexually harassing seminarians and priests. Many laypeople I encountered also knew about the bishop’s supposed activities – making it the worst kept secret in local Catholicism. So, it isn’t much of a stretch to conclude that most of the priests and bishops in New Jersey, nay the Tri-State area, also knew. Much like an ecclesiastical version of Harvey Weinstein, everyone knew about McCarrick’s “casting couch.”
I left the seminary long ago but this incident has reopened old wounds. The anger I feel is substantial. When I was eighteen, becoming a priest was the most important thing in my life. Looking back, I understand how a clerical predator could use a naïve seminarian’s fear of losing his vocation to extort sexual favors and keep him silent. I know several seminarians who had sexual affairs with priests. To be fair, some of these seminarians were acting out sexually and/or had agendas of their own, but I know that many of them were groomed and then exploited by the very priests they trusted. And that had fatal consequences.
A few years ago, when I was researching a book I was going to write about the seminary, I discovered one of my classmates, whom I will call “Bill,” committed suicide. As a teenager, Bill had worked in a New Jersey rectory headed by a priest who, in the 1970’s, had been sent away for “treatment” after it was discovered he had been sexually abusing students in a Catholic school. This priest wasn’t kicked out of the priesthood and for twenty years was the pastor of a parish where I think he molested Bill. To be clear, Bill never told me that this priest molested him but, judging from Bill’s troubled behavior in seminary, later suicide, and the fact this priest was eventually drummed out of the priesthood for sexual abuse, with the diocese paying millions in damages, I think the evidence is compelling.
That this abusive priest was not kicked out of the priesthood at the first sign of trouble is a sin crying to heaven for vengeance. Bill was also ordained to the priesthood and that shouldn’t have happened either. The Church not only failed to protect Bill but, in a very real way, contributed to his death.
And that’s why I’m so angry about McCarrick. This kind of abuse destroyed lives. I understand there are many fine priests and religious out there who are fighting the good fight. My late godfather was one of them. But now many priests and bishops will have to grapple with the knowledge that they knew what McCarrick was doing and that most of them, with rare exceptions, did nothing to stop it. The damage that was done is incalculable.
But karma’s a bitch Ted and it’s finally come for you.
Make no mistake about it, these revelations will rock the American Church to its core. If a Cardinal can get busted, then no clerical predator is safe. This is the #MeToo moment for the Church and I’m sure more stories will come out. The hell with worrying about “giving scandal to the faithful.” They’re grownups. They can take it. The truth shall set you free.
However, McCarrick’s fall has given me a sense of closure. For years, I wondered what would have happened if I had become a priest. Sometimes I’ve thought that I had turned my back on my best destiny, that I missed my true calling. That “what if?” has been steadily eroding for years, but McCarrick was the final nail in its coffin.
Now I know beyond a scintilla of doubt that that leaving the seminary was one of the smartest and healthiest things I’ve ever done.