Uncle Ted & The Grand Inquisitor
Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail that came to me yesterday from a Catholic priest. This is typical of what I heard from many of them back in the early 2000s, when I was writing about the abuse scandal often. You will not see this reported in the mainstream press. It has its preferred narrative too:
I have certainly seen the homosexual element most widely in effect within the culture of bishops and priests. I think you are correct about the blackmail element. While there’s not doubt that protecting children is of primary importance, the lost story is how often priests have been victimized, and continue to be by their own bishops. Whether that be through personal exploitation, or to protect the church, or simply through abuse of power. I have come to believe that the real root of the problem isn’t the priests, it is and always has been the bishops and their unchecked power. The only limit on a bishop’s power today is liability, however this problem is passed on to the priests and laity. So the people and clergy are treated like potential liabilities because bishops won’t and haven’t been responsible.
The reason priests probably won’t speak out even on Uncle Teddy is because they fear reprisals, not from him, but from their own bishops. Because their own bishops see it as unfaithful to ever criticize any other bishop or the church as a whole. If a priest were to speak out he would be immediately seen as suspect and problematic, unhappy with his priesthood, unhealthy or “troubled”. The culture that is promoted is to be a company man and not deviate. If you do you get screwed. Kind of like me in my current assignment.
You wouldn’t believe all the “thank you” notes I’m receiving from Catholic priests, for highlighting this story. Aside from actual victims of abusive priests and the bishops who covered up for them, parish priests are the ones who suffer the most from this kind of corruption. They often know what’s going on in the upper reaches of the Church’s administration, but feel that they can’t say anything. Many also fear that their people — the laity — believe that they are complicit in the corruption, even though they aren’t.
One former priest who left the priesthood in disgust over the constant gay sex among other priests, and the adamant refusal of his bishop — who is today a cardinal — to do anything about it, wrote me, using his name, and providing details. He says this cardinal was part of a gay clique before he became a bishop, and therefore had no reason to act on the information he (this priest) and others provided him — including information about a gay priest whose sexual crimes landed him behind bars. I’m going to ask that former priest if he’s willing to go public, and name names. I’ve heard rumors about this cardinal, but never details like this. He needs to have a #MeToo moment.
A lay Catholic also writes:
I’ve greatly appreciated your reporting on the Cardinal McCarrick story over the last two days, especially the dimension of his abuse being an “open secret” among many. It’s bringing to light many disturbing aspects of some crises and cancers that continue to plague the Church.
We’d fooled ourselves into thinking “it’s all over now, it’s been taken care of, we had the ‘Long Lent’ but now we have the Dallas Charter, etc.,” but your reporting on the “stories that might have been” illustrates the sort of people that slipped the nets before and the structures in place that protected them. It’s shocking but needed, like a splash of cold water to the face in the morning.
I work at a Catholic parish and have grown increasingly disillusioned with this work by the way the ugly sides of human nature infect the Church’s activity, from petty ecclesial politics to cynical priests to similar sorts of rumors swirling around about clergy and prelates. I love the work I get to do with parishioners, and am grateful for the small ways in which I can serve Christ in building up his kingdom, but it was simply surreal to lead Bible study yesterday with all of this rattling around in my head, or to think of just what might come up in our next round of Open Q&A in RCIA.
I don’t know if what I’m about to say will be a comfort to you, but I hope so.
As regular readers know, I’m traveling right now in the Azores islands. One of my party is a faithful Southern Baptist layman. His confession is going through its own scandals now. Plus, though he’s a theological and political conservative, he’s sickened by the way tub-thumping Trumpian nationalism has taken over so many precincts within the Southern Baptist Convention. He and I were talking about Uncle Ted last night. He’s not gloating at all. Nobody should gloat. Whatever your church, if the sins of its leadership were brought to light, it would surely be a shock.
Now that the McCarrick story is out, maybe some of you Catholics who couldn’t understand why the scandal broke my Catholic faith, and made it impossible for me to continue, understand better why that happened. McCarrick was a major bone in my throat. Take a look at this story from the Boston Globe, dated April 20, 2002:
Over the last several days and weeks, prominent church opinionmakers, including two cardinals, have suggested that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is a relatively minor phenomenon that is being turned into a major scandal by the media and others with an ax to grind.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, for example, told The Washington Post this week that some newspapers are having a ”heyday” with the issue.
”Elements in our society who are very opposed to the church’s stand on life, the church’s stand on family, the church’s stand on education … see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the church,” he said. ”And they’re really working on it – and somewhat successfully.”
What did Cardinal McCarrick’s successor in Newark say?
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark said in a homily last month, ”I just think a line has been crossed. The media seems to go through certain frenzies, in which they don’t let go. And I just think that having some bad story about the Catholic Church on the front page, or prominently repeated in newspapers and electronic media every day, is just inappropriate.”
Imagine seeing and hearing things like that from the likes of McCarrick, knowing that he was a serial sexual abuser of priests and seminarians — and knowing, obviously, that he knows it. He was playing a role. A completely disgraceful hypocrite. And knowing too that Myers, as his successor in Newark, had to know the truth about him. The stories about Uncle Ted were rampant on the East Coast, among priests. I know this because they told me. These weren’t just rumors; these were often stories from priests who had direct personal knowledge. Here’s the Catholic journalist Phil Lawler, on how Uncle Ted’s secret lasted so long:
At least fifteen years ago, I wrote a confidential email message to a few trusted friends, telling them to brace themselves. Within a few days, I said, a major secular newspaper would break a sensational story about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. To my surprise, the newspaper never ran the story—which finally came out today.
At the time, several reporters had spoken with me about the cardinal. Most had been unable to find anyone willing to go on record with complaints. Rod Dreher, one of the journalists who was investigating the rumors, now writes about the frustration he felt when witnesses refused to go public. I ran into the same brick wall; while I heard multiple accusations, without a willing witness I had only hearsay evidence. But at least one reporter found a former seminarian who was ready to tell his story—or so I was told. Yet that story never emerged— at least not in the mainstream media.
The two letters I quote above — one from a priest, and one from a layman — go a long way towards explaining why and how Uncle Ted’s secrets stayed within the family. Pay attention — this is important.
For one, those keeping the secrets were priests. Those lower down the hierarchy were vulnerable, for the reasons the anonymous priest above explains. (You might ask why it is that someone who has vowed to serve Jesus Christ sacrificially would be afraid of being punished by his bishop, but there it is.) Some bishops were part of a gay cabal who looked out for each other, and made sure their secrets stayed safe. Many other bishops were neither gay nor sexually active, but had a strong sense that the Church’s image must be protected at all costs.
This is how a dysfunctional family works. Nobody notice that Uncle Ted has his hands down Cousin Bobby’s pants. If we don’t talk about it, maybe it’s not happening, and maybe we’re all okay.
Which brings us to the laity. The reader wrote, with admirable self-recognition, that “we’d fooled ourselves into thinking” that the crisis was over. This is human nature. People cannot bear very much reality. This is why actual sex abuse victims stayed silent about their abuse: because they knew that people wouldn’t believe them, because they didn’t want to believe them. In 2002, I pitched a book about the abuse scandal to a major New York publisher. She rejected it with characteristic bluntness: “Nobody wants to pay $27 to read about priests f**king little boys.” Harsh, but true: a book like that wouldn’t sell well, because it’s a horrible thing to read about, much less to confront in your own parish or diocese. This is why Cardinal Law in the past, and McCarrick, Myers, and others in 2002, blamed the media’s anti-Catholic bias: because they knew it would play well with the people in the pews, and because they wanted to manipulate ordinary Catholics into looking outward, not inward.
Again, think of a dysfunctional family. When I blew the whistle on a priest in my own parish in 2005, a friend of mine who was on the parish council reproached me bitterly. Of course we all knew what Father had been accused of, and that he wasn’t supposed to be in ministry, he said. But we kept it from the parishioners for their own good.
This man was not a priest or a deacon. He was an ardently conservative layman. But he had secrets to keep, and he kept them.
I also want to mention that some pretty nasty characters — including Cardinal McCarrick — benefit from the media’s biases too. Ordinary Catholics (and others) have a hard time understanding this, because they have this fixed idea that the media hates the Catholic Church, and will go after it on any pretext whatsoever. That’s not entirely true.
Yes, the media, in general, does despise the Catholic Church, and any church that it considers to be on the Wrong Side Of History™ (that is, opposed to feminism, abortion, homosexuality, and liberalized sexuality). But you’d have to have been the world’s worst reporter on the church abuse scandal beat not to recognize the role that clandestine networks of predatory homosexuals in the Catholic clergy played in creating and sustaining a culture of abuse. It was everywhere. There were some very, very good reporters on these stories, but they didn’t tell those particular stories. They were off limits, owing to political correctness.
As of this writing, not a single mainstream media outlet — at least none that I have seen — has said one word about Uncle Ted’s molestation of adults under his ecclesial authority. It may be that they haven’t yet done the reporting, and that they have their reporters out now gathering that information. If mainstream media do report these stories, it will be a sign that #MeToo has really changed things.
I am personally aware of a case in which a conservative superstar priest, the late Father Benedict Groeschel, manipulated the conservative Catholic public’s suspicion of the news media to hide from legitimate questions about his own role in covering up abuse. I wrote about it here. In brief, Groeschel, a psychologist, ran a factory that recycled sexually abusive priests. In 2002, or perhaps early 2003, Brooks Egerton, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, tried to contact Groeschel to ask him about some of these cases, Groeschel refused to speak to him. Egerton called me at National Review, asking me why Groeschel wouldn’t return his calls, and asking if I knew any way to reach him. Eventually, Egerton published a story … which Groeschel promptly denounced as filled with lies and distortions. He said, in particular:
Mr. Egerton’s article is a prime example of the hostility, distortion and planned attack on the Catholic Church in the United States by certain segments of the media.
Groeschel’s words were disgraceful. Again, Egerton tried multiple times to get Groeschel on the phone to explain his side of the story. Groeschel refused to talk to him, and then when the story came out, denounced it as a “planned attack on the Catholic Church.” It was a lie, but a lot of people wanted to believe that lie. That’s how aiders and abetters of the scandal, like Benedict Groeschel, got away with it.
(And do you want an added twist on the darkness here? Egerton, a former colleague of mine at the News, is a good man and a highly ethical journalist. He is also openly gay. Back in 2002, when he began reporting in earnest about the abuse scandal in the Diocese of Dallas, which was an epicenter of it, the then-bishop tried to discredit his work by emphasizing to local conservatives that he is gay — as if that had anything to do with the truth or falsity of his (excellent and fair) reporting! See, there are layers and layers and layers of deception in this scandal. It is very difficult to know who can be trusted.)
Despite all that, I must tell you: this Uncle Ted story is all very good news. I mean that sincerely. Everything that was hidden, and foul, and corrupt, and that thrived in the darkness, is being exposed. My Catholic faith was not strong enough to withstand knowing that Uncle Ted, and those like him, were getting away with this injustice. My problem was that I had placed too much faith in the integrity of the institutional Church. I kept thinking that there was bound to be a bottom to this scandal, and kept finding out otherwise.
Here’s something I wrote in 2006 about how I lost my Catholic faith, and became an Orthodox Christian. You will not find anything triumphalist in that account, and I am pretty sure you will not be able to find anything triumphalist about my writing regarding Orthodoxy and Catholicism since then. I was a prideful, triumphalistic Catholic, and that set me up for a big fall. I cannot be a triumphalistic Orthodox Christian. As I say in the piece, a Russian told me when I was coming into the Orthodox faith that there are so many scandals in the Orthodox Church than on Orthodox has the right to look down on Rome.
One of you readers wrote to me yesterday to say that the McCarrick revelations were the final straw, and that you were going to leave Catholicism for Orthodoxy. I know that feeling, and you have my prayers and welcome, if that is where God is leading you. But under no circumstances should you think that you are escaping sin and brokenness in the Church. And don’t think that the sin and brokenness is only in the clergy. We are all caught up in it. If you are a Catholic who leaves for Orthodoxy or Protestantism over scandal, do not lie to yourself about what you are going towards, and the sins and failings you bring with it. In that 2006 piece, I wrote about how I bore some responsibility for losing my Catholic faith because of my own pridefulness. If I had been the same kind of Orthodox Christian, my Orthodoxy would have been at risk.
If you are committed to remaining a Catholic, I strongly urge you to remind yourself that God allows chastisement to fall upon his people for the sake of their repentance. Maybe you have been the kind of Catholic who was going through the motions. Maybe you’ve been the kind of Catholic who depended on a certain vision of the Church to keep going, and who turned a blind eye to its problems. Maybe you’ve fallen so in love with the institution that you’ve forgotten the One who is supposed to be at its center. That happened to me once.
This is an opportunity to repent.
This is what judgment means. This is what purification is. Do not be the sort of person who blames Uncle Ted for your spiritual failure. Believe me, I’m certainly not making excuses for him, or any of them. May the light of truth shine in every dark corner! I’m simply saying that that same light will shine into the dark corners of your soul and mine, if we let it — and bring healing.
We need to let it. All of us — Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants too. The days of easy Christianity are over. If your faith depends on believing comforting lies about the Church — all churches, not just the Catholic Church — then your faith is not going to be strong enough to withstand the testing yet to come. As a Catholic, I always imagined that one day I might have to suffer for the Church. I never imagined that I would have to suffer from the Church. Losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing that ever happened to me, but honestly, I thank God for it. It broke me, and I needed breaking. I was ideological, I was triumphalist, I was sentimental — and I was much weaker in my faith than I realized. Even if I had remained a Catholic, I would have been a very different kind of Catholic because of that horrible experience.
Please don’t despair of the faith because of scandal. I’m telling you, the fact that Uncle Ted’s secrets are coming out now, after all these years, is cause for hope — if you allow yourself to see it in the right light. It’s hard. But we cannot afford to be the the kinds of Christians who need a Dostoevskian Grand Inquisitor figure to be at peace. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to maintain our sense of religious well being by preferring to shirk the burden of painful knowledge about the corruption of religious figures and institutions. That is peace at too high a price. In fact, it’s a form of bondage.
Uncle Ted’s secrets stayed hidden because a lot of people in the Church — and even some people in the media — wanted to keep them kept. Some because they themselves were guilty. Many more because they wanted to preserve the Church’s image. Far more because they don’t want to believe things like this about the Church. In the media, some who tried to write about it (Phil Lawler, Julia Duin, and me, among others) could not get people to talk on the record about it. Others in the media didn’t want to know, because that was a side of the Catholic abuse scandal they too preferred stayed hidden.
It’s long past time for the lies and the denial to end. And know this: the moral gangrene that is destroying the moral authority of the Catholic Church will not be healed until and unless these networks of sexual exploitation are exposed and rooted out.
UPDATE: This e-mail just came in. This is a perfect example of the role the laity has played in perpetuating the scandal. Minimizing Uncle Ted’s predation to own the libs — beautiful:
I simply don’t understand your eagerness with this prosecution of McCarrick. I support the legal ramifications, but not your public dancing on his grave.
You have to understand the intense hatred that the media (entertainment and news) have for Catholicism.
We MUST protect our brand, our shield, our faith!
I fully support Pope Francis and his softened tone, and even swipes at capitalism because the media love him. And image is everything. Similarly with Cardinal Dolan, I will fight to the death to defend him, and would go to extreme lengths to protect him because he is so well liked in the leftist NYC media.
In short, we must handle these issues swiftly, legally, but privately! As a successful advertising executive in NYC I am looked up like an alien because I am a weekly mass attender, and a conservative. I am respected by my liberal media friends because I loathe the Trump-Palin-Brietbart wing of my party, and trumpet my cause in a more Bill Buckley.
Image is everything, and when it comes to the One True Church we MUST protect her!