ROSS DOUTHAT. ‘#Me Too’ comes for the Cardinal (New York Times)

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 truthtelling feel not just costly but impossible.

This article first appeared in the New York Times


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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2 Responses to ROSS DOUTHAT. ‘#Me Too’ comes for the Cardinal (New York Times)

  1. (Not sure if previous attempt worked) THANK YOU, Ross! I feel finally someone is understanding what I’ve been up against trying to get this out there, me and the few researchers who have tried (see my bibliography). No one seems interested and I think you nailed it when you said this: “And the cardinal was protected, in part, because his targets were mostly younger men under his authority rather than teenagers, 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; all had an excuse to keep his secrets safe.” Also your observation about the ‘cranks’ or fringe dwellers who reveal this stuff is pretty accurate as well … I was almost one of them, some may consider me thus still. I don’t care. I know I’m not anymore but I will always be ‘unconventional’. At least I got my study done ( and followed it up with a peer reviewed journal article ( ) in which I mention the very realities and issues you touch on here. But, see, it’s not just the cranks who are ‘ignored’, it’s those researching but who are never the less, very low down on the ‘importance scale’, even though they are being peer-reviewed. But these things take time. I do all this work and no one really takes it seriously let alone reads it. This has been the experiences of the few researchers who came before me, of which only one study included men and usually within the seminary or monastery (see Kathryn Byrne: “Understanding the Abuse of Adults by Catholic Clergy” … Maybe now. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have expected your article to be seriously considered.

  2. Avatar Dr Jennifer Anne Herrick says:

    At last this form of “adult” sexual / spiritual abuse endemic in the Catholic Church is beginning to be exposed. It’s why I spoke out at considerable cost to myself but hoping others would follow. I’m still hoping. It’s true that “everyone knows but no-one (well I did) will go on the record. Some of this is because of the known lag in time to recognise that what one endured was in fact abuse. Twenty years, thirty years later one realises, when a breakdown occurs usually. Many more will come out I have no doubt. It’s also true about the lack of “records”. When I asked if my priest perpetrator had been “involved” with any other women I was given the classic response via the Church Authority quoting the Provincial at the time of asking: “there are no written records of any complaint other than Ms Herrick’s”. This was not what I had asked. I know now there have been others, but not “on the written record”. It’s good to see the word “target” used in this article too. Target shifts the onus onto the perpetrator over against “vulnerable adult” which lays the fault onto the victim for being “vulnerable”. This is the first time I have seen this word used in an article. This issue of “adult abuse” by men in spiritual power is going to become increasingly recognised. In fact when I first went to the Church Authority 7 years ago I was told directly and unequivocally that “the women issue is going to be the next big thing to hit the Church, bigger even than the children”. Word for word. Clearly it is well known behind the scenes. Settlements have been occurring. And not only with women as this article shows. Postulants, Novices, Seminarians, Priests in lesser positions, and of course Parishioners, let’s not forget the thousands of parishioners, men and women, targeted by Priests and by Bishops. This article is very welcome for its confirmation of what I have been trying to expose in my own small way. Bring it on and let’s crack wide open this rotten egg.

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