It’s Not Paranoia If It’s True
Douthat has a good piece this morning about how there are times when conspiracy theorists are actually closer to the truth than their critics. Here’s part of it:
And not only true of Epstein and his pals. As I’ve written before, when I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.
But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.
Indeed they were. My own experience with that world, and that story, has made me far less likely to believe official stories. Let me add some context. Some of this is going to be familiar to many readers, but bears repeating in light of the Epstein drama.
In early 2002, shortly after the Boston trial of Father Geoghan blew open the Catholic sex scandal nationwide, I received a tip from a priest that Cardinal Ted McCarrick of DC had a history of sexually abusing seminarians. The priest said a group of prominent lay Catholics who knew this about him flew to Rome at their own expense, trying to prevent McCarrick from being named as Washington archbishop, which would have made him a cardinal. They met with an unnamed Vatican official to tell them what they knew about McCarrick, but it made no difference. McCarrick got his red hat.
The priest gave me the names of two men who had been on that trip, both of them well-known in their professions. I called the first one, who said yes, he had been on that trip, but didn’t want to talk about it. The second one told me that “if that were true, I wouldn’t tell you about it for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.” Translation: yes, it’s true, but I’m not going to talk about it to protect the Church.
I didn’t know what to do next. But then I was called into my editor’s office. He wanted to know what I was working on (I hadn’t told anybody, because I hadn’t made any progress on the story). He told me that he had received a phone call from a very well known public conservative (I’m not going to name him here) who identified himself as a friend of Cardinal McCarrick, and said that the cardinal was aware that Rod Dreher was going to report a story that was true, but not criminal, and that would be very embarrassing to the cardinal. The caller asked my editor to kill the story.
I was stunned. How did McCarrick find out? I told my editor what I was working on, and he simply asked me to keep him informed. Back at my desk, I called the priest who tipped me off. “McCarrick knows,” I said. I asked him how that was possible. I had told no one else. I’m quite sure that neither of the two potential sources I called tipped him off, because it would not have been in their interest. So how did he know?
The priest was shocked. “The only person I told,” he said, “was my spiritual director, Father Benedict Groeschel.”
Groeschel, who died a few years back, was a famous television priest, known for his theological conservatism. What many people didn’t know about him is that he also ran a psychological treatment center for troubled priests — a place that cynics considered to be a recycling mill for sex-mad clerics. Whether it was or it wasn’t, the point is that Groeschel was professionally implicated in the broader story of priest sex abuse. Furthermore, Groeschel was a company man. Though a theological conservative, he almost certainly felt it to be his obligation to alert a liberal cardinal to a threat to his reputation — even if it was true. I am convinced that Groeschel tipped off McCarrick.
I became even more convinced when I observed Groeschel flat-out lie about his own ducking of a secular journalist’s legitimate inquiries about his (Groeschel’s) therapeutic outfit. It told me that the beloved conservative TV Catholic Benedict Groeschel was willing to smear the reputation of a journalist to protect his own reputation, and the reputation of the Church. Groeschel, by the way, was removed from EWTN in 2012 after he gave an interview in which he said that some of these abuse cases, the underage victim was the “seducer” of the priest.
Does that make Groeschel a bad man? No. I believe he did a lot of good in his life. The point here is that the willingness of so very many people to believe that Groeschel was nothing other than a good man allowed him to get away with behavior that he should have been called on. The same is true of progressive Catholics and their favorite leaders, e.g., Archbishop Rembert Weakland.
Anyway, the guy who phoned my editor on McCarrick’s behalf is a well-known conservative, a closeted gay man, and also a Catholic. What that act showed me, and what Groeschel’s likely ratting me out showed me, was that networks of loyalty can run counter to what we expect. This was all important for my education. I would not have thought that a prominent conservative would run interference for a liberal cardinal whom he believed to be a sexual abuser of seminarians — but he did. Whether he did it because McCarrick was a friend, or because of a lavender mafia thing, or both, I dunno. I would not have thought that a prominent conservative priest would alert a liberal cardinal that a journalist was snooping around his sexual business — but I am certain that Groeschel did this, probably because his ultimate loyalty was to the institution, not to the truth, or to righteousness.
This was a useful lesson to learn, both as a journalist and, well, as a life lesson in how the world works. It happened over and over and over again as I wrote about the scandal. A progressive Catholic journalist and I once shared war stories about covering the scandal, and agreed that the ideological convictions of both the Catholic Right and the Catholic Left prevented people from identifying malefactors who happened to share their ideology. Beyond that, most Catholics simply could not grasp the idea that the institutional Church was in fact honeycombed with networks of perverts. I interviewed a seminarian who told me that his own parents considered him to be a liar when he told them about the homosexual decadence at his former seminary. They found it easier to believe that their son was a lying fantasist than to believe that his seminary was a gay whorehouse.
Back in the early 2000s, the Legionaries of Christ, a hyper-conservative Catholic religious order, spent a lot of money and effort in an attempt to crush a group of men who accused the order’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel, of having abused them sexually. Like lots of journalists, I was lobbied hard by the Legion to stand by poor, persecuted Father Maciel. It sounded completely crazy that the founder of this super-orthodox Catholic religious order beloved by Pope John Paul II could have done all these horrible things.
Guess what? It was all true. He even fathered children, and abused them. He was also a drug addict. Benedict XVI forced him out of leadership of the order in 2006. Maciel died in 2008, refusing on his deathbed to make a confession or repent. Read this long, detailed piece by journalist Jason Berry, detailing how the wicked Maciel made his fortune and manipulated people.
I hardly need to go into detail here about what we discovered over the ensuing years about the networked corruption in the Church. For me, one of the great lessons is that in any institution, corrupt men will take advantage of it, especially if they can work beneath a canopy of presumed innocence. It can happen in a police force. It can happen in the military. This is not just a church thing, not by any means.
Some conspiratorial types like to believe that the media knew all about McCarrick, but refused to report it. That’s not really true. Yes, the stories about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians were known to some other journalists, but nobody could nail them down. There’s a good reason we have libel laws, and professional journalistic ethics. It’s a very big deal to claim that a man — especially a cardinal — is sexually abusing others. Strong claims like that — claims that could destroy a man’s life — require strong evidence. Off-the-record stories, and the absence of documentation, are not enough. It could have been the case that McCarrick was the target of a conspiracy of liars determined to take him down. Not only would it be morally wrong to accuse McCarrick publicly on the basis of what amounts to hearsay, but any individual or publication that did so could be sued for libel, and could conceivably be destroyed. The only way McCarrick was ever going to be outed is through court documents, and through on the record interviews with victims and others in a position to know what he did. I was dying to tell the truth about McCarrick, but I could not do so without more solid information.
But what to make of this story that follows?
In 2012, a decade after my McCarrick inquiries hit a brick wall, a freelance journalist on assignment for The New York Times Magazine tracked me down in Louisiana. He was writing a piece about Cardinal McCarrick’s molestation of seminarians, and someone told him he should reach out to me. We talked for a long time, and it turned out that he knew everything I knew. But he also knew so much more. He had managed to dig up a buried legal settlement between McCarrick and a victim — something that no journalist to that point had ever found. What’s more, he had an on the record interview with a seminarian who had been a McCarrick victim. He had a lot more information too. It was incredible. Uncle Ted was finally going to be exposed.
I asked the journalist when he expected to go to print. He said he figured in a few weeks. He just had a few loose ends to tie up.
Two months passed, with no story. I called him back, and asked him what was going on. He told me he had no idea. The editor who assigned him the story had taken another job, and the editor who replaced her was throwing all kinds of strange stumbling blocks in his path. I asked him if that new editor is a gay man.
Yes, said the reporter. But what does that have to do with anything?
Maybe nothing, I said, but then I explained to him about something I had run into again and again reporting on the scandal. Liberal journalists, straight and gay both, were very, very eager to avoid drawing any conclusions about homosexual priests and abuse. They did not want to support what they considered to be right-wing prejudices against gays — specifically, they didn’t want to add to the belief held by some conservatives that gay men are pederasts by nature. Part of that desire to protect gays included a deep resistance to any suggestion that there was a network of powerful gay priests, including bishops, who protected each other’s secret sexual lives — including sex lives with adults. The evidence was clear, but most in the media did not want to touch it, because it was politically inconvenient.
I suggested to the freelance journalist that his gay editor might be trying to run interference for McCarrick, because McCarrick’s victims in this case were over the age of consent, and the editor perhaps feared that homophobes would have a field day with the news that the retired Cardinal Archbishop of Washington was a predatory gay man.
I can’t prove that this is what happened. For whatever reasons, though, the story was not published. In 2018, six years later, a different set of New York Times reporters revealed in the paper some of the very same damning information about Cardinal McCarrick that the Times Magazine freelancer had nailed down in 2012. And that brought McCarrick down.
The Times had this story six years earlier, but didn’t publish it. Why not? There are people who assume that the media would never, ever sit on a story that could make the Catholic Church look bad. I am convinced that’s exactly what the Times did in 2012, even though it had hard evidence that McCarrick was guilty. In truth, I have no idea why the Times suppressed the story its own freelancer had, but I’m telling you, do not ever assume that the ideological orientation of a media outlet can reliably predict what they’re willing to report, and refuse to report. Loyalties are complex.
In 1994, I was a young reporter in Washington, living in a group house on Capitol Hill with five others, including some Democratic Hill staffers. When Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution swept the GOP into power in the House, I taunted my housemates, in a friendly way, about what Speaker Gingrich was going to do to their side. One of my housemates said, “We’re not worried about that. We” — meaning House Democrats — “know that he’s cheating on his wife. He knows that we know. He’s not going to push too far.”
In fact, we now know that Gingrich was at the time having a secret (ha!) affair with the woman who is now his third wife. The Democrats weren’t trying to protect Gingrich. They were holding that information back in case they really needed to use it. They had kompromat on him. Did they never use it because they never felt they had to? Or did Team Gingrich have even more compromising kompromat on powerful Democrats? The point here is that the public’s understanding of how ideological rivals would have behaved with this information does not correspond to how they actually behaved.
In the Catholic Church’s case, I have found that the most useful (though not foolproof) principle is to assume that bishops and others who work for the institution will protect the institution, no matter what. Last summer, this blog reported on abuse cover-ups in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. This kicked over an anthill. Many conservative Catholics didn’t want to believe it, because Lincoln had a reputation for being a bastion of moral and theological conservatism. And yet, clerical sexual abuse happened there too — and was facilitated in part because nobody wanted to believe that snakes could get into the Edenic garden that was the Diocese of Lincoln. These people not only wanted to believe the best about their diocese, they needed to believe it, for the moral order of the world to make sense.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation that was both heartbreaking and infuriating with an orthodox Catholic friend, detailing an experience they (I’ll use the plural pronoun) had with a church institution that has a reputation for being fairly conservative. This friend said that their experience was “traumatic,” though it did not involve sexual abuse or anything criminal. It was rather a case of learning about extraordinary moral and theological corruption behind a façade of orthodoxy. My friend is thinking hard about whether or not to blow the whistle, though doing so would probably destroy their career. What is so troubling to my friend is thinking about all the innocent Catholics who trust this institution, and who would be walking into a trap that could cost them their faith.
Remember Archbishop Viganò, and his extraordinary claims of a conspiracy at the very top of the Catholic Church? He named names — and he was in a position to know. Remember that Pope Francis has refused to address Viganò’s claims. And remember also that we still do not know about how McCarrick did it, and why Francis brought him out of the feeble exile to which Benedict had sent him. Earlier this year, I came across information that leads me to believe that Cardinal George Pell of Australia was set up on abuse charges to derail his investigation into the Vatican bank — and that the mafia might be involved. Is it true? Who knows. But anything is possible. Seriously, anything is possible.
The Catholic scandal world is the world I know better than any other. I don’t have any serious doubt, though, that the same principles play themselves out in other institutions and communities. I am far, far less trusting of institutions of all kinds today than I was in 2002, when I first started paying real attention to the Catholic scandal.
Where networks of predation and blackmail are concerned, then, the distinction I’m drawing between conspiracy theories and underlying realities weakens just a bit. No, you still don’t want to listen to QAnon, or to our disgraceful president when he retweets rants about the #ClintonBodyCount. But just as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s network of clerical allies and enablers hasn’t been rolled up, and the fall of Bryan Singer probably didn’t get us near the rancid depths of Hollywood’s youth-exploitation racket, we clearly haven’t gotten to the bottom of what was going on with Epstein.
So to worry too much about online paranoia outracing reality is to miss the most important journalistic task, which is the further unraveling of scandals that would have seemed, until now, too implausible to be believed.
These days, it is impossible to find a clear line between realism and cynicism, between a valid critical disposition and sheer paranoia. If we ever do get the true, reasonably complete story behind McCarrick’s rise, it will likely expose the nexus of power, sex, and money in the Catholic hierarchy, with unpredictable results. Similarly, if we ever get the true, reasonably complete story of who Jeffrey Epstein was and how he did what he did, we are likely going to see the nexus of power, sex, and money among the international elites, with unpredictable results.
The world is not ordered as we wish it were. It’s not even disordered as we wish it were. I’m thinking this morning of something a faithful Catholic layman told me in the spring of 2002, about the abuse scandal. He was a close friend of Cardinal Bernard Law, and active in the Archdiocese of Boston. This man — a very intelligent, morally upright gentleman — had direct knowledge of widespread homosexual corruption in the seminary at the time. He told me that he informed his dear friend the cardinal about all of it … and that the cardinal had done nothing. I asked the man how he reconciled his love and respect for the cardinal with the fact that Law had allowed this kind of corruption to flourish unaddressed.
The man sat across from me, unable to speak. The cognitive dissonance left him paralyzed. He could not accept that the world was ordered in such a way that his dear friend the cardinal could be guilty of such gross negligence. I used to be pretty naive, the kind of person who believed that good men (like my interlocutor) almost always wanted to know the truth, and to fight for justice. What I couldn’t have truly grasped until that extraordinary conversation was how the mind will protect itself from having to face something intolerable. That man was not asked to believe a conspiracy theory; he was asked to put two and two together — facts that he did not dispute. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He literally could not summon the will to face the terrible truth about his friend the cardinal, and the truth about the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
What’s so frightening to me today, thinking about that, is how every one of us is susceptible to that same paralysis.
One last thing: read C.S. Lewis’s speech about the “Inner Ring” — that is, his identifying the desire to be inside the circle of those in the know, those in power, as a dominant motivator of human action. Could it be that the man, the friend of Cardinal Law’s, was partly motivated not to see the truth in front of his nose, not just because it would force him to recognize something terrible about his friend the cardinal, but also because it could push him out of the Inner Ring? Lewis said to his audience:
And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
It could happen to any of us. You, me, any of us. This is why the powerful look out for each other: they understand themselves to be part of the Inner Ring. Woe to those who are within the Inner Ring, and who are more afraid of being cast out of it than they are of the truth, or of Almighty God.
Finally, Hannah Arendt said that one major factor in the establishment of totalitarianism in the 20th century was that people had ceased to believe in hierarchies and institutions, finding them all to be corrupt. That, and people quit believing in truth, preferring instead to believe in stories that confirmed what they preferred to believe was true. Is that not us today? Depending on how it shakes out, the Epstein story could be far more consequential for American politics than we can imagine today.
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