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Celebrity Priest Was A Groper

Why Father C. John McCloskey, evangelist to the prominent and conservative, faded away after 2005
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This news tonight from the Washington Post is stunning:

The 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 survivor is a devout, 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 D.C. She told the Post 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 spoke to him about her “misperceived guilt over the interaction” in confession and he absolved her, she said.

“I love Opus Dei but I was caught up in this cover-up – I went to confession, thinking I did something to tempt this holy man to cross boundaries,” she said. The Washington Post does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.

Read it all. 

There are two other allegations against “Father C. John,” as he was known to friends and associates, now being investigated by Opus Dei. One of them it calls potentially “serious.” According to an Opus Dei spokesman, after the order substantiated the first woman’s claim, it transferred the priest out of DC, and gave him other assignments. The reason it’s all coming out now is at the woman’s request. She said that she wanted other victims, if they exist, to know about him, and come forward. She tells the Post that she’s happy with the way Opus Dei handled the matter, and she’s still involved with the group.

According to the story, Father C. John is living back in the DC area, and has advanced Alzheimer’s. It must have come on him very quickly. As recently as 2017, he published a book review.

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. The Post is right about his reputation for courting celebrities and evangelizing them for Catholicism. I was already a Catholic when I arrived in New York in 1998 as a New York Post film critic, and got the hard sell from Father C. John to become a member of Opus Dei. I was somewhat interested in joining the group, based on their reputation for Catholic orthodoxy. Father C. John’s aggressive approach was off-putting, though, and I put some distance between us because I didn’t like being recruited, and hated the feeling that he was instrumentalizing our relationship. Still, I liked him, though. If you watch this short clip from a talk he gave on the Road to Cana series, you’ll instantly see his easygoing charm.

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.

In 2015, the New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer wrote a favorable profile of the priest, talking about how gentle he is, and how good he is at making friends. He was instrumental in getting Larry Kudlow, now the director of President Trump’s economic council, to put booze and drugs behind, and embrace Jesus Christ. I had wondered what happened to Father C. John, seeing as how he disappeared after 2005. I had heard that Opus Dei leaders were not happy with seeing Father C. John’s name mentioned so prominently in stories about the 2004 corruption trial of Mark Belnick, a very rich corporate lawyer who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism under McCloskey’s direction (Belnick was acquitted of the charges).

I recall that there was a lot of angry talk in New York Jewish circles about how Belnick converted to Catholicism without telling his family what was going on. Some accused Father C. John of being a kind of Svengali who targeted Belnick because he was rich and spiritually vulnerable. I honestly don’t know how fair that was, but it played badly in the local media, and I had assumed that it had something to do with why Father C. John disappeared. I figured that Opus Dei higher-ups trimmed his sails in the wake of the Belnick bad press. His reputation for evangelizing the rich and powerful had become a liability, I figured.

Now we know that it was not that at all. The prominent, well-loved, highly respected conservative evangelizing priest “groped [a woman] several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.”

Last May, a Catholic blogger wondered aloud what had ever become of the powerhouse evangelist Father C. John, adding:

What would he say about the sexual abuse holocaust that engulfed the global church and continues unabated to this day?  A month doesn’t go by without another cardinal, bishop, church official or priest getting dragged into court, or the court of public opinion.


UPDATE: A DC friend who sees him at mass confirms that Fr. McCloskey really does have advanced dementia.

UPDATE.2: Leon Podles comments:

I knew McCloskey when he was in DC. I mentioned to him that I was working on a book on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (which came out as Sacrilege). He strongly advised me to drop the project; perhaps he had personal reasons for that advice. [NFR: Maybe so, but I think it’s more that he is a company man to the marrow, and was trying to limit damage to the brand. — RD]

Pastoral counseling has been the downfall of many a minister and priest. Even in the nineteenth century, newspapers editorialized about the dangers when a minister was closeted for hours with a woman discussing intimate matters.
A church journal warned of the dangers of giving the clergy, who moved largely in a world of women, unrestricted access to women: “No man in the world has so few conditions imposed upon him at the threshold of society as the clergyman. His passport to social life is almost a carte blanche. Women of both states [married and single] and all ages are his companions, socially and professionally. The rules of social intercommunication between the sexes are, in his case, virtually suspended.” Because of this intimacy, as The Pulpit observed in 1871, “there is no profession, class or avocation, so exposed to or tormented by the devil of sensuality as the ministry. The very sanctity of their office is an occasion of their stumbling. The office is confounded with its occupant, the sanctity of the former is made the possession of the latter. Now, the office is an invulnerable myth; its occupant is a man of like passions with other men.” A Methodist Discipline warned ministers: “Converse sparingly, and conduct yourself prudently with women”; and a minister warned other ministers: “You are men, with the passions of men, exposed to the temptations of men, and in the name of God we charge you to remember this matter.” Some forgot. As did McCloskey.

By the way, notice the careful Jesuitical phrasing by Opus Dei:

“Finnerty said the settlement for McCloskey is the only sexual misconduct settlement Opus Dei has ever paid out in the United States.”
Finnerty does not say that this is the only allegation about clerical conduct that Opus Dei has received in the United States (I know it isn’t); and he says it is the only case in the United States involving a payout (but other countries?)

I don’t think that McCloskey should have been allowed to hear confessions; even if he was not guilty of solicitation in the confessional or absolving an accomplice (both entailing excommunication), he had demonstrated that he could not be trusted with intimate communications.