The Only Way Through Purgatory
The first time I ever heard the truth about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., finally exposed as a sexual predator years into his retirement, I thought I was listening to a paranoiac rant.
It was the early 2000s, I was attending some earnest panel on religion, and I was accosted by a type who haunts such events — gaunt, intense, with a litany of esoteric grievances. He was a traditionalist Catholic, a figure from the church’s fringes, and he had a lot to say, as I tried to disentangle from him, about corruption in the Catholic clergy. The scandals in Boston had broken, so some of what he said was familiar, but he kept going, into a rant about Cardinal McCarrick: Did you know he makes seminarians sleep with him? Invites them to his beach house, gets in bed with them …
At this I gave him the brushoff that you give the monomaniacal and slipped out.
That was before I realized that if you wanted the truth about corruption in the Catholic Church, you had to listen to the extreme-seeming types, traditionalists and radicals, because they were the only ones sufficiently alienated from the institution to actually dig into its rot. (This lesson has application well beyond Catholicism.)
What a great point that is. The truth is, if you wanted to get a clearer picture of what was actually happening inside the Catholic Church regarding the scandal, you’d have been better off reading trad sources. A long time ago — back at the beginning of the scandal — a tiny outfit called Roman Catholic Faithful exposed the “St. Sebastian’s Angels,” (NSFW) a group of gay priests who shared nude photos and engaged in pornographic banter. Here’s what Catholic World Report had to say about RCF’s work:
By autumn of 1999 the St. Sebastian’s Angels site had attracted the participation of 55 active members. At that point the site was brought to the attention of Steve Brady, the founder of a group known as Roman Catholic Faithful, based in Springfield, Illinois. Brady copied material from the Angels site–including six web pages and thousands of email messages–onto his own computer files. On January 14, 2000–after his series of appeals to the American hierarchy had failed to produce any response–Brady brought all that material from the Angels site into public view, by copying it onto his own Roman Catholic Faithful site.
As the news about the homosexual priests’ web site quickly spread through the American Catholic Church, the reaction was decidedly mixed, with opinions breaking down along predictable liberal/conservative lines. A few US bishops, presented with clear evidence about the nature of the site, took prompt corrective action.
I corresponded and spoke with Steve Brady in 2002, and met him at the national bishops’ conference in Dallas that year. He was just an ordinary Catholic who was sick and tired of the sexual corruption in his church, and the lies from the hierarchy. One of the members of the St. Sebastian’s group was a South African bishop:
By virtue of his rank, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt is the most visible of the 55 regular members of the Angels site. In part because of his rank, and in part because of his adamant defense of the site and criticism of Steve Brady, the bishop has been the main focus of media attention. In an email response to this reporter’s January request for an interview, Bishop Cawcutt said that his involvement in the Angels site was an outgrowth of his work as chairman of the South African bishops’ committee on AIDS. He explained:
Naturally enough this got me involved with ministry also to gay people. Both of these ministries are totally known and quite public–to my fellow bishops as well as to the general public. Somehow the group of gay priests heard about me and invited me to discuss gay related matters with them–hence I joined the “newsgroup”–quite openly letting the members know I was a bishop. I did not try to hide anything.
Bishop Cawcutt declined to interviewed, however, because he claimed that Roman Catholic Faithful had been guilty of “quite an illegal action of someone breaking into this confidential group’s support of each other.” He charged that Brady had “picked out only the spicy bits” from the material on the Angels site. The bishop lamented that the public exposure of the site would probably lead to “gay-bashing,” and refused to be “an accomplice” to that campaign.
“I have consistently promoted celibacy in the group,” Bishop Cawcutt claimed in his email message to this reporter. But that claim is difficult to reconcile with the tone and content of some of his email postings on the site. In October 1999, for example, the bishop wrote: I suppose the issue really is celibacy and not gay sex. I am off the belief that we have all been screwed up by holy mother church. I do not think that sex is the ultimate in sin anyhow–and not always a matter for confession either–even for celibates–come on–the good old book also says dirty thoughts are grievous stuff and always matter for confession–come come now!!!
If you look at the site, which is archived, be prepared to be revolted. You will see that Cawcutt was lying in his public response, and trusting that people would assume the best about him and his intentions, and wouldn’t think the worst about a bishop. But Steve Brady had proof.
Notice too that Bishop Cawcutt was worried that people learning what he and his fellow gay priests in the group were actually doing would lead to “gay-bashing” — and that Brady, by telling the truth in public, would be aiding and abetting gay bashing. If Uncle Ted’s #MeToo moment starts producing other stories about closeted gay bishops using their power to sexually abuse or harass other priests and seminarians, you will start seeing liberal commenters, in both the Catholic and secular media, telling us that the real problem here is gay bashing.
If they report on it at all, that is.
Catholic World Report‘s account of the St. Sebastian’s affair highlighted the official Catholic media’s attempt to cover Cawcutt’s shame:
In a March 19 column entitled “Bigotry is an affront to our faith,” Gunther Simmermacher, the managing editor of the Cape Town archdiocesan newspaper, The Southern Cross, wrote:
A South African bishop seems to have an outfit of right-wing US Catholics running scared. How else would one account for the deviousness of the Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF) which disseminated what amounts to slanderous innuendo about Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, auxiliary in Cape Town, and in doing so employed illegal means. To accomplish this, they hacked into an internet forum on homosexuality in which Bishop Cawcutt, at the request of an Australian priest, participated as part of his ministry.
The CWR piece has a long section about how the American Catholic media spun the story too. And look at this:
Brady said his decision to publicize the Angels site was made two months after the papal nuncio in the United States declined to look into the matter, and after five cardinals rebuffed his efforts.
“The papal nuncio is the first official I contacted, in November 1999,” Brady said.
I talked to a priest in the nuncio’s office and I explained exactly what we had, and that were looking for assistance and guidance. He said he’d pass it on to the nuncio and reminded me that what they (the Angels) were doing was legal. I never heard from him again. He said he’d get back to me if the nuncio was interested. They weren’t interested.
Brady then contacted Cardinals John O’Connor of New York, Bernard Law of Boston, James Hickey of Washington DC, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, and Francis George of Chicago. He reports the results:
Cardinal George is the only one who responded. He faxed to me a response and then I had a phone conversation with him and told him how to access the site. He said he thought that it might be an occasion of sin if he looked at. That really bothered me. How can our moral leaders deal with stuff like this without looking at it?
Brady and his colleagues at Roman Catholic Faithful say that the 1998 pedophilia case involving Father Rudy Kos in Dallas–and the response of the diocese to that case–played a role in convincing them that the American hierarchy would not be willing to deal directly with actively homosexual priests. “The Rudy Kos case said it all,” Brady says. The Dallas diocese gave clerical faculties to a sexual predator, he recalls, and then sought to divert attention from reports of his transgressions. “And the victims were treated as enemies of the Church.”
“You would think some bishop somewhere would have stood up and said the cover-ups have to stop,” says Brady. “Everyone knows the cover-ups are going on, continually. You’ve got to laugh or cry.”
There you have it: Everybody knows. Stephen Brady said those words in a September 17, 2001, article in Catholic World Report. This was about four months before the scandal broke big out of Boston. And here we are, 17 years later, with Cardinal Ted McCarrick exposed at last, and people saying yeah, everybody knew.
To a lot of people, Steve Brady was a crank. He was definitely on the edge. He closed RCF in 2010, and not long before he did, he urged his fellow Catholics to start attending Society of St. Pius X chapels. But Steve Brady, whatever he lacked in theological sophistication or smooth prose, was right about the things he saw, and he was onto this story for the reason Ross Douthat points out today: because he was alienated enough from the institution to actually dig into its rot.
Douthat explains why it will be harder for more #MeToo stories about bishops, officials in monastic orders, seminary heads, and other power-holders in the Catholic institution to come out.
But that makes it incumbent on everyone else in the “everyone knows” orbit — meaning not just journalists covering Catholicism, but bishops and priests and church officials who are tired of being tacitly compromised themselves, as so many people around McCarrick must have been — to make it as easy as possible for these stories to be told. And without worrying, either, about whether the stories make either side of Catholicism’s civil war look good (McCarrick was a famous liberal, but the next case might be a conservative), or what the revelations mean for debates about gay men in the priesthood or priestly celibacy or anything else.
The first thing is the truth. And the way out of purgatory is through.
I was surprised and heartened to see this response to the column:
I agree with @DouthatNYT. No matter what it means for conservatives or liberals, or for gay or straight priests, we must face up to the truth that some clerics have used their positions of power to prey on younger priests and seminarians. 1/ https://t.co/QW4H2KajWO
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) June 23, 2018
Surprised, not because I think Father Martin would in any way approve of what McCarrick and others have done, but because if these stories start being told publicly, truthfully, and completely, it is going to be devastating for church liberals who want the Catholic Church to affirm homosexuality. You can’t properly tell the story of abusers like McCarrick without telling the story of how networks of sexually active gay priests — who haven’t been coerced into sex — work together within the institutional Catholic church.
In a 2003 lecture, sociologist Richard Sipe said that the culture of clerical sexual secrecy — and not just homosexual secrecy — is part of what gave rise to the child-abuse cover up:
Sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or young priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are in line also for recommendations and advancement.
The dynamic is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women, too, are bound together by draconian links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the American hierarchy and the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships.
Secrecy flourishes, like mushrooms on a dank dung pile, even among good men in possession of the facts of the dynamic, but who cannot speak lest they violate the Scarlet Bond.
I have interviewed at length a man who was a sexual partner of Bishop James Rausch. This was particularly painful for me since Rausch and I were young priests together in Minnesota in the early 60s. He went on to get his social work degree and succeeded Bernardin as Secretary of the Bishops’ National Conference in DC. He became Bishop of Phoenix.
It is patently clear that he had an active sexual life. It did involve at least one minor. He was well acquainted with priests who were sexually active with minors (priests who had at least 30 minor victims each). He referred at least one of his own victims to these priests.
What was his sexual genealogy? What are the facts of his celibate/sexual development and practice? Did those who knew him know nothing of his life? Perhaps so! But he was in a spectacular power grid of bright men. He was Bernardin’s successor at the US Conference. Bishop Thomas Kelly at Louisville was his successor. Msgr. Daniel Hoye and Bishop Robert Lynch, among others, took over his job.
Let me be perfectly clear. I am not saying or implying in any way that these men were partners in “crime” with Jim Rausch. But I am saying that anyone who sets out to solve a mystery has to ask people who knew the principal, “What, if anything, did you know or observe about the alleged perpetrator?”
After all, the Church’s hardened resistance to dealing honestly with the problem of sexual abuse on their own has compelled the civil authorities to move in, ask the questions, investigate allegations. The Church in America has been its own worst enemy – creating mysteries and doubts, rather than clear answers that inspire confidence.
Even bishops innocent of sexual violations themselves, by their silence, concealment of facts and resistance to effective solutions, choose to be part of a genealogy of abuse and reinforce a culture of deceit.
One reason the work of the Boston Globe has been so effective is because they have sought out the facts. Every member of the original five-member Spotlight Investigative team is a Catholic. (Not anti-Church, not anti-Catholic, not anti-celibacy). Their agenda was a search for the data – facts – beyond emotion or prejudice.
That speech was delivered 15 years ago. Think about that.
How different would things be today if back then, Catholics and journalists had committed to telling the whole truth, without regard to whether or not it gave aid and comfort to whoever they believed to be the enemy? Remember that scene in the film Spotlight, when the anxious, shaky guy who had been abused as a kid turns out to have been a source of important information to the story — and that the reporters had to face the fact that they had dismissed him years earlier because he seemed like a weirdo?
Maybe the media should start listening to the weirdos. And maybe the more Respectable insiders should start valuing the truth more than respectability. For example, what if the conservative Catholic I phoned in 2002 who had gone on that trip to Rome to warn the Vatican not to appoint McCarrick to the Washington see, because he was a pervert who forced himself sexually on seminarians — what if that man had been willing to go on the record with me instead of saying “if it were true, I wouldn’t tell you for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness”?
What good did keeping Uncle Ted’s secret do for the Catholic Church? Now it’s out, and you have a lot of Catholics who thought the scandal was behind them wondering who else in their hierarchy has a sordid secret sex life, and who’s covering up for whom?
Douthat is right: the way out of this purgatory is through it. And the only thing that cuts through the fog is the sword of truth.