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.)
And it was also before I learned from journalist friends that McCarrick, or “Uncle Ted” as he urged his paramour-victims to address him, had such a long history of pursuing seminarians and priests that a group of Catholics went to Rome to warn against making him Washington’s archbishop (to no avail).
For reporters who pursued the story, it was a case where “everyone knew”but nobody would go on the record — so stories were pursued and then evaporated. And the cardinal was protected, in part, because his targets were mostly younger men under his authority rather than teenagers (it was a teenage victim who finally made the story break), which didn’t fit the pedophile-priest narrative, and liberal journalists who didn’t want to appear somehow homophobic and conservatives who wanted to protect the church’s reputation had an excuse to keep his secrets safe.
Once I learned all this, I was in the same position as the “everyone” who knew about Harvey Weinstein or any other powerful man with a history of pressuring subordinates into sex. And in that position you become accustomed to the idea that the story will never come out no matter what — so that, for instance, when the respected psychologist and sociologist of the priesthood Richard Sipe publicly quoted documents from a legal settlement with one of McCarrick’s targets (“He put his arms around me and wrapped his legs around mine … The Archbishop kept saying, ‘Pray for your poor uncle’ ”), it was like a tree falling in an empty forest, and no one heard the sound.
Now the question is whether the at-long-last coverage of McCarrick’s sins will shake similar stories loose. With the exposure of systemic abuse in so many different institutions lately, it’s become possible for Catholics to regard this as a general purgation that our church just went through first. But the grim truth is that the Catholic purgation was incomplete, because it was not quite #MeToo enough. We learned awful things beyond counting, about child abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops. But we only found out about a few Weinsteins of the church — high-ranking clerics who used the power of their offices to effectively force sex upon men to whom they were supposed to be spiritual fathers. And while I don’t know about others in quite the way I knew about Cardinal McCarrick, everyone with inside knowledge knows that there are many more like hm.
Which doesn’t mean those stories are all destined to come out. The obstacles to #MeToo in Catholicism seem more substantial even than the obstacles in Weinstein’s Hollywood, because priests who endure sexual advances or end up enmeshed in “Uncle Ted” relationships are in a unique bind: Their commitment to the church is supernaturally absolute and life-defining, the power their superiors exercise is greater even than that of a Hollywood producer, and the sexual acts themselves can seem so compromising — not just sex, but gay sex that breaks a vow of celibacy — as to make truth telling feel not just costly but impossible.
ut 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.