Takeaways From the Revelations on Father McCloskey

COMMENTARY: While important details of the story are still emerging, there are a number of points that this high-profile priest’s case underscores.

Father C. John McCloskey
Father C. John McCloskey (photo: YouTube)

The revelation that in 2005 Opus Dei made a nearly $1-million settlement for sexual misconduct with an adult victim of Father C. John McCloskey left many of his admirers shocked and shaken.

Those admirers include many readers of the Register and viewers of EWTN, as Father McCloskey appeared in both venues with considerable frequency. I myself spoke at conferences alongside him. Given his very high profile, the news has affected the many who followed his work without ever meeting him.

Readers of the Register and EWTN viewers have been through this sadness and anger before, in regard to Father John Corapi of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and Legionary Father Thomas Williams, though there is no suggestion that Father McCloskey was engaged in living an ongoing double life, nor that he will leave the priesthood. While important details of the story are still emerging, there are a number of points that Father McCloskey’s case underscores.

  • Sexual sin is a widespread scourge in society at large, and this “filth” — to use the term of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — is far too prevalent in the clergy. The purification of the clergy is a task in every age of the Church and is now the urgent long-term response to the crisis at hand. Purification is always painful, and part of that pain is the bringing of past sins to light.
  • The McCloskey case also teaches us that the past is now present. The complaint was resolved in 2003, and a settlement — a very expensive settlement — was reached in 2005. But now, presumably a result of the increased attention given this past year to the historic record, the victim asked that this be made public now. The desire to purify the past means bearing the burden of older cases in the present.
  • Doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical precision, evangelical effectiveness, cultural refinement — none of these render a priest immune from sexual misconduct, a lesson that has been repeatedly learned.
  • That Father McCloskey did great good and helped a great many people become better disciples of the Lord Jesus remains true. His sexual misconduct does not cancel out the good he did, nor should those whom he helped feel that somehow they were cheated or manipulated. That Father McCloskey manipulated his relationship with a particular person does not mean he did so with everyone. The weeds and wheat grow together, even in the heart of an individual priest. That the woman continues to frequent activities of Opus Dei indicates that she has been able to distinguish between the weeds and the wheat in the guidance she has received from Opus Dei.
  • Safeguards and procedures are necessary and effective in reducing the incidence of sexual misconduct, but they are never foolproof. Opus Dei is considered rather extreme is its efforts to prevent contact between the sexes — priests usually provide spiritual direction to women only in the confessional behind the grill — but yet its most famous U.S. priest was still able to circumvent those norms. No system of safeguards will ever definitively remove this filth from the Church or from society, a reality which is certainly discouraging, but ought not lead to despair, lest resolve to minimize this evil should flag.
  • Brian Finnerty, the press spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States, has said that he personally “hated” the way Father McCloskey’s case was handled and that waiting more than a year — from November 2002 to December 2003 — to remove him from his post at the Catholic Information Center in Washington was a mistake. Such a case would be handled differently today, Finnerty concedes. Indeed, that Father McCloskey’s settlement was disclosed now is one sign of a changing culture.
  • Zero tolerance for sexual abuse of minors is now widely accepted. Guilty priests are banished from ministry permanently; laicization often follows. But zero tolerance for sexual misconduct with adults cannot be the policy in every instance, as it would fail to take account of the wide range of actions and circumstances. Restrictions were placed on Father McCloskey after 2003, and his case invites us to think about what restrictions are appropriate for a priest who is guilty of sexual misconduct. What are reasonable punishments and precautionary restrictions? In Father McCloskey’s case, did Opus Dei do what was responsible? Is there a consensus on what that might be?
  • Opus Dei’s settlement was for unwanted sexual attention toward an adult. But it raises the vexed question about consensual sexual attention between clergy and lay adults. How is that to be treated? Should it always be assumed to be an abuse of office, even if not, strictly speaking, sexual abuse?
  • That Father McCloskey was providing spiritual direction to the woman in question, and hearing her confessions, does make the misconduct — itself apparently of less severity — more grave, as it manipulates a soul in a time of vulnerability. If sacramental absolution touched upon the acts in question, there is the possibility of a very grave canonical crime which may invoke automatic excommunication for Father McCloskey. That should have been looked at in 2002 and presumably was found not to be the case. But if it was not investigated then, it should urgently be done now, for the good of Father McCloskey’s own soul.
  • The variety and complexities of such adult cases means that superiors have to exercise good judgment, prudence and courage. But in an anti-authority environment where even the Pope concedes that bishops have lost their credibility, almost anything short of permanent banishment from ministry becomes suspect, as a consequence of religious authorities having lost the trust of the faithful.
  • Can disclosure and transparency rebuild that trust and rehabilitate the ministry of the priest? If, in 2002, Opus Dei had revealed the allegation, the punishment administered and the precautionary measures put in place, would Father McCloskey’s victim been given a measure of healing and could his ministry have continued, albeit in an altered way?
  • The decision to publicize the misconduct and the 2005 settlement came at the request of the woman in question, and she pronounced herself pleased that Opus Dei did as she asked. But should all such settlements with adults be made public so that other victims might come forward? If a victim does not wish the case to be made public — perhaps because even broad details would reveal the victim’s identity — should that be honored?
  • Was there something about Father McCloskey’s high public profile that led to his case been handled the way that it was? Father McCloskey drew attention to his pastoral successes — especially converts — in a way that is unusual for priests, especially priests of Opus Dei, who are customarily faulted for excessive discretion, not excessive candor. Even after the onset of Alzheimer’s disease rendered him incapable of a public presence, efforts were made to keep up appearances; for example, with ghost-written commentaries, including at least one book review that appeared in the Register as recently as early 2018.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.