At the outset, I cannot emphasize enough the tremendous value and insight provided for the framing of this reportage by What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo by JoAnn Wypijewski, an important anthology of sex crime journalism offering an essential lens for analyzing our neurotic social mores about sex, crime, public hysteria, and justice. Its important chapters on the Boston clergy abuse scandal gave me the backbone to write the following report.
After nearly two decades, the Best Picture Oscar-winning Spotlight, and a purported top-to-bottom institutional reform that has defrocked hundreds of clerics while leading to the disgraced retirement of a bevy of Bishops, Cardinals, and maybe even a Pope, what more could be said about the Catholic Church’s clergy child abuse scandal? How could this grisly episode, a moment that tore away one of the most painful scabs on one of the world’s oldest theological bodies, still have any novel insights?
For the casual observer, the recent headlines about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who almost overnight went from jet setting with Davos elites to a defrocked hermit’s existence in an undisclosed location somewhere in the United States, seemed like a tragic yet just conclusion to a Shakespearean saga of power and perversion. The Vatican published the so-called McCarrick Report in November 2020, an extra-ordinary text the Holy See allowed to be authored by a lay attorney who in turn invoked copyright protections in a fashion I have not seen on any judicial document before. It not only condemned McCarrick once and for all but laid substantial guilt at the feet of Pope St. John Paul II. The Polish pontiff was allegedly appraised repeatedly of McCarrick’s awful behavior and yet, due to his own history in Krakow dealing with a Communist government that frequently made similar accusations against clerics for seemingly-politicized reasons, allowed the American to continue to ascend upwards through the hierarchy to become a Prince of the Church.
But what if the background machinations of the situation, informed by the grotesque, no-holds-barred ethics of Republican apparatchiks groomed in Roger Stone’s Watergate school of politics and buttressed by media operatives aligned with Steve Bannon, simultaneously made McCarrick into the scapegoat for a multi-decade civil war in Vatican City that included an attempted coup against Pope Francis before it was concluded? What if we have unknowingly witnessed an osmosis of Nixonian dirty tricks, complete with an enemies list and sabotage operations, into one of the oldest theocratic governments in Western Europe?
Is it remotely possible that, while McCarrick abused his power and position in service of his very human and carnal frailties, he was also weaponized against a papacy whose criticism of ecological degradation, economic inequality, and heightening white nationalist xenophobia in the Global North has deeply offended sections of the financial and political elite that support regressive politicians? Does the McCarrick Report leave more questions open than answered as well as invite deeper contemplation about the double standards, hypocrisy, and contradictions inscribed into the cis-/hetero-sexist matrix underwriting the foundations of both Roman Catholicism and the jurisprudence of the secular North American social contract?
Born July 7, 1930 in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, Theodore McCarrick was an only child when his father died at age three, leaving him to be raised by an aunt and grandmother while his mother worked in a factory. Within twenty years of his May 1958 ordination, he had proven himself a skilled administrator at Catholic educational institutes while earning his Ph. D. in sociology. A chance encounter with the popular Cardinal Karol Wojtyla during the prelate’s visit to America in 1976 formed the basis of a friendship that would become a valuable asset in the future when the adamant anticommunist Pole was elected Pope John Paul II. McCarrick was elevated to the post of Bishop of a New Jersey diocese the following year. Noted throughout his career for an ambition that at times seemed gregarious to colleagues, he was appointed Archbishop of Washington D.C. in 2000, partially owing to his easy navigation of the secular halls of power in the nation’s capital and partially owing to his adroit international diplomacy. In 2001 he was elevated to the office of Cardinal.
However, in this position, he became emblematic of a certain theological nuance that did not sit well with many. He would not lend his imprimatur during elections to either Democrats or Republicans, both of whom saw the Catholic vote as important resources during the contentious four electoral cycles during the Bush presidency. In 2004, reactionaries in the hierarchy tried their hand at electioneering by invocation of abortion, with some clerics claiming that voting for pro-choice John Kerry would qualify as a grave sin. When challenged to deny the Democratic nominee Communion, McCarrick responded “As a priest and bishop, I do not favor a confrontation at the altar rail with the sacred Body of the Lord Jesus in my hand. There are apparently those who would welcome such a conflict, for good reasons, I am sure, or for political ones, but I would not.” These reactionary clerics were no doubt operating in tandem with Knight of Columbus Jeb Bush as a follow-up act to his manipulations of the Florida electorate while serving as that state’s governor in 2000. Following retirement in 2006, McCarrick remained active in Church and secular politics while reportedly helping arrange the votes to get Pope Francis elected in 2013. (To be absolutely clear, we are not discussing herein an advocate of Latin American Liberation Theology and interrogating McCarrick’s role in the Reagan-era crackdown in tandem with death squads and dirty wars is a serious matter for analysis at a later date.)
McCarrick abused his power in a way that is unacceptable even to those who subscribe to much more libertarian sexual/gender politics. If one is adamantly pro-choice, opposed to cis-/hetero-sexism, and subscribes to the most militant intersectional feminist praxis, sexual assault, harassment, and coercion on the basis of a powerful position held by one of the parties involved is still wrong, regardless of whether or not the two parties involved are of the same sex or gender identity. Any demographic group in the landscape is capable of including within its polity shameless sexual pigs. That recognition of potential for shortcomings, what makes us undeniably human rather than divine, is a thread that unifies Christianity and secular humanism in a truly important and powerful way.
Until 2017, allegations made against McCarrick were solely from adults, primarily adult-aged seminarians, including abuses qualified by American federal law as Title IX violations at Seton Hall University, home of the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology. The disgraced cleric was accused of using his position as an Archbishop and educator at the seminary to create a pipeline of younger men who he serially engaged in same sex activity with on Church properties and at a New Jersey beach house. (One footnote in the McCarrick Report says “Some…who shared a bed with McCarrick as minors or young men on repeated occasions…stated that no inappropriate behavior occurred with them and did not identify themselves as victims.”)
Thomas Doyle is a Canon Lawyer who gave up on a promising career that included working at the Vatican Embassy in Washington when he came to understand the extent of clerical sexual malfeasance. Living today outside DC, he knew McCarrick personally and even appeared alongside him on Meet the Press with Tim Russert. “The worst part of it wasn’t McCarrick’s sexual abuse. That was peanuts compared to the abuse inflicted on a lot of kids. It was a kind of soft version of sexual abuse. Sleeping with the seminarians? Yes, it is imprudent, it is scandalous, but it is a hell of a lot different from forced rape on a daily basis,” he told me in an interview. Doyle says the truly egregious crime was the multi-decade international coverup.
In 2017 McCarrick was accused of sexually abusing a minor, aged 16 and 17 at the time of the alleged episode according to the Report. A second accusation was made after the first was publicized in national headlines by a man named James Grein, who alleged McCarrick assaulted him at age 11.
The pivotal accusation causing him to be defrocked claimed McCarrick had abused James Grein within the confines of the Confessional. For useful contrast, recall that disgraced Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law was allowed to resign his post in 2002 and comfortably live out the rest of his days at a ceremonial post in Rome.
One of the sins that merits automatic excommunication from the Church is for a member of the clergy to violate the Seal of the Confessional and disclose what takes place during the Sacrament. Furthermore, using the Confessional to solicit sexual activity merits laicization of a cleric at any level. The Sacrament of Penance and the Seal of Confession are two of the most holy spaces within the Church theology and violations within its confines are dealt with severely.
As such, McCarrick was fundamentally in a no-win scenario by being accused of soliciting a minor for sex during Confession. If he had tried to defend himself, he could have been excommunicated. If he remained silent, he would still be defrocked. In an interview with McCarrick for Slate in September 2019, his first since being laicized, McCarrick said “It’s a horrible thing… I was a priest for 60 years, and I would never have done anything like that. … That was horrible, to take the holy sacrament and to make it a sinful thing.” That was probably the maximum he can ever say in his defense, a rather under-whelming statement given the circumstances.
Whether or not viable consent was granted at the encounters with seminarians, they appear to have all involved adults. The late Dr. A. W. Richard Sipe, whose psychological and sociological work is seen as a cornerstone of scholarship on clerical sexuality and sexual abuse, wrote in a 2008 public letter to Pope Benedict XVI “While I was Adjunct Professor at a Pontifical Seminary, St. Mary’s Baltimore (1972-1984), a number of seminarians came to me with concerns about the behavior of Theodore E. McCarrick, then bishop of Metuchen, New Jersey… I know the names of at least four priests who have had sexual encounters with Cardinal McCarrick. I have documents and letters that record the first hand testimony and eye witness accounts of McCarrick, then archbishop of Newark, New Jersey actually having sex with a priest, and at other times subjecting a priest to unwanted sexual advances.”
While Dr. Sipe has written elsewhere “Homosexual orientation is as God-given as its heterosexual counterpart,” the aforementioned public letter does not obviate a distinction between consensual and nonconsensual engagements, a matter worth scrutinizing. One Nuncio’s investigation notes from the 1990’s framed adult survivor recollections as episodes they “resent,” which invites multiple interpretations, including the possibility of spurned lovers rather than the nonconsensual parties in a sexual assault.
Dr. Marianne Benkert Sipe, widow of Richard, a former Maryknoll nun, and an accomplished psychiatrist in her own right, told me she and her husband discussed McCarrick and his career over the decades as they became acquainted with multiple seminarians who were subject to his sexual harassment. In her view, the matter of seminarians having consensual sex with a bishop still constitutes abuse because of the absolute authority and control the cleric has over the trajectory of the seminarian, including the ability with the mere stroke of a pen to terminate permanently an aspirant’s career in the clergy, and Doyle concurs with this judgment. This is not unlike how that other social institute grounded in Medieval constitutional coordinates, the Ivory Tower, can chew up and spit out academics who refuse to play the game at department wine and cheese parties, presidential dinners, service committees, and in the labyrinth of refereed journals, book publishers, and other press venues. The proclivities of the late Harold Bloom, well-known for his pontifications on Shakespeare and Western Canons from his pulpit at Yale, left a miserable legacy for numerous coeds that mirrors McCarrick’s career and insulation from accountability in multiple ways.
One must acknowledge the existence of a longstanding and complex homosexual subculture within the Catholic clergy and seminaries where it trains priests. The Church is 2000 years old while homosexuality only ceased being classified as a mental disorder in all circumstances by the American Psychiatric Association in 1987. Its theology is still heavily indebted to the Medieval dialectics of Thomas Aquinas, whose neoplatonic, biologically-determinist analysis of the world led two millennia of devout queer folk to believe same-sex attraction was a quasi-divine revelation that they had a vocation to the priesthood and religious orders, which in turn incubated this subculture grounded in repression and self-loathing. “The higher you get [in the Church’s leadership system], the less they really know about the real world they are living in. The hierarchy, over my 36 years experience in this, really doesn’t have much of a clue as to what sexual abuse or sexual violation really is,” says Doyle. “They live in a rarefied world and they have been brought up to think anything to do with sex is a sin. And so they don’t even know what human sexuality is!”
The McCarrick Report contains accounts of harassment and assault that included witnessing the cleric engaged in consensual sexual activities with other seminarians. In essence, some of these accounts allege the survivor was involuntarily brought to a gay group sex session the survivor did not wish to participate in, which is significantly different from a rape.
This is makes such accounts even more complicated and strange. Obviously the availability of consensual sex does not by default negate the potential to engage in nonconsensual predatory behavior. There have been many famous clerics who had both consensual engagements with queer men while also harassing and assaulting subordinates. Until rather recently, a Catholic minor seminary was a privileged boarding school young men matriculated into after eighth grade and attended until completion of undergraduate studies, at which point they would usually attend graduate studies at another institution, major seminary. Sources have shared with me stories about that dubious priest during their days at minor seminary who would be just a little too friendly for comfort and always was offering “private tutoring” in the instructor’s apartment. But the presence of consenting sexual activities simultaneous with alleged assaults and harassment does raise complicated questions about veracity and the role of spin. Men who internalize homophobic self-loathing or seek to deny their own past homosexual episodes, especially when they work for institutionally-heterosexist organizations like churches that are exempt from anti-discrimination laws, have a long and public record of demonizing other queer men.
Same sex desire in all-male boarding schools is a legendary subset of the queer experience and a delicate matter. There are ethical lines to be drawn between same-sex conjugal activities only involving consenting minors and those involving a minor with an adult, particularly when the biopolitics of power positions factor into the equation.
But it becomes very complicated when you are dealing with consenting behavior between two parties who have both reached the statutory age of consent for heterosexuals at a space-time location wherein sodomy laws penalized any same-sex conjugal activities with incarceration. What are the ethical dictates of a biopolitics in such circumstances? What role does shame and fear of damnation over the “mortal sin of sodomy” play in this? Was Oscar Wilde completely innocent or should we scrutinize him for having sexual contact with so-called rent boys? The pioneering radical Harry Hay, founder of America’s first gay men’s civil rights organization, came to public loggerheads with his liberal contemporaries for adamant profession that his conjugal engagements with adult men while a juvenile had not only been consensual but emancipatory and, along with other elder queer men, cited no less than Plato’s Symposium in their arguments!
As should be evident, this is a very neurotic matrix to engage with.
But one must also balance against these points. Homosexuality and same-sex attraction are not in any way equivalent to pedophilia (attraction to prepubescent children) and ephebophilia (attraction to pubescent minors and teenaged statutory adults). The first two are natural conditions of human existence while the latter two are objective excitations that, when acted upon with malice or without viable consent, further reveal a sociopathic dimension to the personality that obviates a need for serious intervention so to prevent further harm. Conflating the first two with the latter two is vile and responsible for incalculable misery across the centuries, up to and including murders of people whose only crime was sexual engagement with another consenting adult.
It may seem almost redundant to explicitly spell that out for an Anglophone audience considering the vast majority of the Anglophone governments in the Global North have legalized at least same-sex civil unions, if not complete civil marriages.
But that is exactly what is necessary because of how extraordinarily one of the blocs of power in this story has muddied the water. Right now, on hard-right Catholic multimedia venues such as The Church Militant that have friendly connections with Steve Bannon, propaganda is being pumped out over the Internet conflating consenting homosexual behavior with sexual abuse of minors in service of an agenda targeting the more liberal wing of the Catholic hierarchy. The Breitbart website is trafficking in similar filth with all the calculus and sensational strategy per their metier. In the nearly 20 years since the Boston Globe first published headlines about the clergy abuse and cover-up scandal, extremist elements in the hierarchy and Catholic media venues have responded to the failings with deflective claims about a shadowy cabal of “homo-predator” clerics that infiltrated the hierarchy starting in that demonic age of “the Sixties,” sowing a culture of filthy toleration that blossomed into allowance for child rape. (The fact that this extremist wing had near-hegemonic control of the Church during this time of alleged infiltration is a contradiction they seem unable to brook, ergo they respond by claiming “the Devil” did it.)
On the superficial level, a purported hierarchical political heterogeneity might seem bizarre because the Church is an absolute monarchy. But consider this. What is the difference between a Catholic cleric who counsels Catholic legislators to uphold opposition to abortion as a personal ethic in their private lives (i.e. encourage women in your life to give birth to the child) as opposed to those who encourage legislating an extreme reading of Catholic theology (i.e. prosecute abortion-providing doctors for the death penalty and long prison sentences for women who terminate a pregnancy)? What is the difference between a prelate that encourages sexual responsibility for queer penitents as opposed to those who seek to re-criminalize sodomy? Catholic clergy members are granted a certain leeway by their Holy Orders that merits consideration.
Therein lies quite a wide spectrum that has existed for decades amongst priests, bishops, and cardinals who have seen their civic authority exponentially diminish over the past forty years. Gone are the days when an Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen or Cardinal Bernard Law could instruct the faithful over the television airwaves or publish newspaper editorials condemning politicians in a way that would sway elections. One McCarrick Report footnote about the way rumors within the hierarchy are assembled in political quivers says “In the case of McCarrick, those on the ‘right’ relished rumors that would make him look bad, just as people on the ‘left’ liked spreading rumors that made [Pope] Benedict [XVI] look bad.”
The liberal element of the hierarchy in America has been driving the fundamentalists insane for decades. And Theodore McCarrick was one of their major targets because of, among other things, his refusal to withhold Communion from pro-choice Catholic Democrats like Ted Kennedy, at whose graveside the former Cardinal offered a short burial eulogy and prayer that was broadcast nationwide. Raymond Arroyo is a fundamentalist news anchor at Catholic broadcaster EWTN and frequent Fox News guest with possible links to Opus Dei, the infamously-secretive prelature whose membership potentially includes Trump Atty. Gen. Bill Barr and Federalist Society officio Leonard Leo. Arroyo wrote this blog post at the time of the Lion of the Senate’s death, blasting McCarrick and Kennedy simultaneously:
The prayer intercessions at the funeral mass, the endless eulogies, the image of the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston [Seán O’Malley] reading prayers, and finally Cardinal McCarrick interring the remains sent an uncontested message: One may defy Church teaching [on abortion and same sex marriage in the legislative realm], publicly lead others astray, deprive innocent lives of their rights [by supporting pro-choice legislation], and still be seen a good Catholic, even an exemplary one. The casual viewer is tempted to think that Catholicism has become a Church of externals where core doctrines and major teachings are as malleable as they are in the nearest Protestant community. Or worse, to think it all a hollow show… What most in the media and the public fail to recognize is that this entire spectacle—the Catholic funeral trappings and the wall to wall coverage—was only partially about Ted Kennedy. It was truly about cementing the impression, indeed catechizing the faithful, that one can be a Catholic politician, and so long as you claim to care about the poor, you may licitly ignore the cause of life. The “Common Ground” argument was reinforced this weekend—the notion that supporting a host of “social justice” initiatives somehow cancels out or trumps the “grave”, “intrinsic” evil of abortion and the Catholic commitment to the life issues. As the Pope [John Paul II] has described in his letter of 2004, and subsequently, this is an untenable position no matter how many “pro-choice” Catholics on the right or the left attempt to make it. For those who find this hard to accept, ask Cardinal McCarrick.
Another role, geopolitical in measure, entails McCarrick’s diplomatic entreaties to China, having at one point worked with President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) to normalize relations with Rome. (The Cardinal later played a role alongside Pope Francis in the diplomatic backchannel that led to President Obama’s opening to Cuba, much to the chagrin of the conservatives.) The conservative wing of the hierarchy seeks to revive Cold Warrior strains of rhetoric about persecuted religious minorities, a gesture synoptic with the neocon saber rattling towards Beijing. For example, Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has links with the CIA-backed National Endowment for Democracy and previously expressed public skepticism of Pope Francis’ diplomatic overtures to the mainland. In contrast, the liberals have a much more nuanced and pragmatic approach, perhaps in part due to realization that, unlike the days of the adamant Polish patriot upon Peter’s Throne, it is very unlikely that an indigenous Chinese Catholic popular movement will dislodge the Communist Party in the fashion of Lech Wałęsa and Solidarność three decades ago. (Where the secular cynicism of the neocon militarist impulse diverges from the theological wishful thinking of over-zealous believers and clerics waiting on the divine intervention of St. John Paul II is hard to determine.)
Finally, McCarrick had a long history of pastoral care for nationally-heterogeneous administrative districts, including US urban centers with large Latin American immigrant populations, and served on numerous American and Vatican NGO boards that advocate for immigrant human rights protections. As the Trump administration rolled out its brutal nativist agenda over the past four years, is it possible to imagine a counterfactual Cardinal McCarrick raising a prominent public voice had he not been marginalized mere months after the 2017 inauguration? Could he have delivered harsh condemnations of the family separation policy at the border and ICE detention conditions via the popular media havens, such as Meet the Press or CNN, where he was a frequent guest? Would the media-savvy cleric have gone as far as leaking to the press that he was offering spiritual advice to Joe Biden, the closest to an imprimatur he could offer to a pro-choice presidential candidate? The possibilities of such a voice in the conversation about migration over the past several years cannot be underestimated.
The fact that reactionary Catholic news venues were blasting the accusations as soon as they broke across the Internet, including a long interview with James Grein, was rather extraordinary given their record of apologetic Vatican propaganda in the past. Why come forward now, almost two decades after the original clergy abuse headlines broke in the Boston Globe? Why not tell this earth-shattering story during previous papacies? And why utilize hard-right Catholic news venues that have a demonstrable Republican Party bias alongside a twenty year history of denying and minimizing the severity of the clergy abuse scandal?
Grein’s statements for Church Militant interviews obviate an individual with some clear mental disturbance. But Grein also makes statements that could be described as hyperbolic at best and outright fabrications in some instances, such as that the Church is maintaining a conspiratorial, obstructionist veil of secrecy. One Catholic news site, David F. Pierre, Jr.’s TheMediaReport.com (sometimes a little overly-apologetic on behalf of the hierarchy), points out that Grein has repeatedly altered his story, including making accusations that span the width of the continent to include not just McCarrick but Cardinal Bernard Law, Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, and two Boston-based priests, Paul Shanley and Bill Cummings. In the case of the latter two, Grein makes the lurid claim in a story for Nixon speechwriter/Catholic nativist Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine that Law dispatched the priests to threaten and sexually assault him while residing in a Beantown halfway house when he was age 33 in 1991! (In 1990 Shanley had relocated to California as a result of ostracism by the homophobic Boston hierarchy and was operating a queer-friendly bed and breakfast near Palm Springs, ergo such a mafia-style mission on behalf of his homophobic antagonists merits a little skepticism.) Grein has retained for representation Mitchell Garabedian, who is accorded unwarranted high stature in Spotlight. Wypijewski wrote in a contrarian review following the film’s Best Picture win:
To suggest…that Mitchell Garabedian, another prominent personal injury lawyer, played by Stanley Tucci in the film, was a selfless worker among the downtrodden, wanting nothing beyond justice and the thin gruel of his lonely lunch, is more outrageous. Both [Garabedian and attorney Eric MacLeish] thundered about morality, both got richer in the process, and the only journalist I’m aware of to have investigated the lucrative legal business of the church scandal was Daniel Lyons, whose revealing articles appeared in Forbes in 2003.
Church Militant, operated by self-proclaimed “ex-gay” Michael Voris, is documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBT extremism and full-throated endorsement of Trump policies, including using xenophobic rhetoric in covering immigration issues.
Could it perhaps be that, only now with Pope John Paul II canonized a saint and retired Benedict XVI marginalized into obscurity by his incompetence and self-inflicted delegitimization regarding clergy abuse while serving as “God’s Rottweiler” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that the Vatican finally has shifted away from the right wing paradigm that arose in reaction to the Second Vatican Council’s promulgation of a preferential option for the poor, the mustard seed that grew into Latin American Liberation Theology? Could this tidal shift underwrite the undeniable opportunism of many reactionary actors in this sordid saga?
In August 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States (equivalent in diplomatic standards to an Ambassador) from October 2011 to April 2016, published an 11-page letter accusing Pope Francis of ignoring repeated warnings about McCarrick, a scandalous development unprecedented in modern history. The accusations in the letter eventually were discredited entirely. These sorts of breaches in conduct traditionally are the forewarnings of an outright schism in the vein of Martin Luther or, more recently, the extreme sedevacantists that fundamentalist film star Mel Gibson’s father Hutton dabbled with. (Last June, Viganò also wrote a letter to President Trump describing the nationwide George Floyd protests as forces aligned with “children of darkness.”)
Richard Nixon’s legacy haunts these proceedings like Hamlet’s Ghost. His infamously paranoid style of distrusting all but the most subservient, the peripatetic inclination to formulate out of thin air treasonous cabals populated by elitist enemies aligned with minority demographics opposed to his policy agenda, the incessant and racialized red-baiting, militant anticommunism in league with strange Southeast Asian Catholic lobby groups, and his willingness to tarry with political hatchet men free from any scruples underwrites the behavior of the reactionary Catholic media outlets and actors who so deeply loathed McCarrick. When Woodward and Bernstein published All the President’s Men, they revealed that Nixon’s lieutenants called their misdeeds “ratfucking.”
All belonged to a campus political party called Trojans for Representative Government. The Trojans called their brand of electioneering ‘ratfucking.’ Ballot boxes were stuffed, spies were planted in the opposition camp, and bogus literature abounded. [White House Press Secretary and Assistant to the President Ron] Ziegler and [Deputy Assistant to the President Dwight] Chapin had hooked onto Richard Nizon’s 1962 campaign for governor of California—managed by Bob Haldeman. After graduation, Ziegler and Chapin and [Press Assistant Tim] Elbourne had joined the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, where Haldeman was a vice president. [Attorney Donald] Segretti had been summoned to Washington and trained to work in a presidential election, according to Karlyn Barker’s friend.
The juvenile mentality inscribed into such an orientation towards public office has inflected conservative politics since the 1968 election.
Ratfucking has now apparently been absorbed by the reactionary element of the Catholic Church and informs their approach towards affairs they once held in much higher regard and supposedly inoculated against such scandalous tactics. It has been literally centuries since members of the hierarchy and sections of the laity have been so openly contemptuous of a papacy, as has been the case with the current Pope, and powerful interests have made common cause with them, including not just Bannon but the Koch Brothers.
One can see the Iago-like Bannon as a backstage director, having at one point tried to build a neofascist political incubator on the grounds of an old Italian monastery. From America he has imported into European Catholic political discourse elements of the racist Christian Identity movements that flourished in the United States over the past 35 years. While Bannon emphasizes that Europe’s identity crisis requires the regressive embrace and protection of whiteness, Pope Francis by contrast embraces an ecumenical multiculturalism that embraces and integrates immigrants and refugees from the Global South into the EU polity. Whereas Bannon and his ilk reiterate Reaganesque platitudes deploring the welfare state and emphasizing “personal responsibility” in the austerity-wracked Eurozone, Francis restates Christian Democratic sentiments of yesteryear that endorsed a robust social safety net and decry economic inequality. The collision course could not be more apparent.
Looking at the McCarrick Report through the lens of a textual critic, despite the acclamation of liberal Catholics, it is a travesty of justice. It is merely a sex crime allegations dossier, less of a document making sound judicial statements about a complex, multi-faceted history taking place over decades than a funhouse theater of the absurd. Bacchanal episodes of near-pornographic debauchery that could have been written by the Marquis de Sade are described in detail before being directly contradicted in later sections.
Who is the reader to believe and why, especially when some of the narratives are offered by other confirmed predator priests? How does one process that an Irish Catholic mother claimed to write letters to every Cardinal in America warning about McCarrick’s grooming of her sons, including giving them alcohol, and now (allegedly) none of those letters can be found in any archives in the world whilst similar letters were reprinted verbatim in the report text? What should one make of the underlying heterosexist current in the text, including lack of skepticism for a Church-friendly psychotherapist who conflates consensual adult homosexuality with statutory rape? That is extraordinarily important to interrogate and the dearth is damnable because there is no denying an aggressive heterosexist culture within the clergy caused the sexual misconduct of membership over the decades.
If the McCarrick Report were submitted for publication by a postmodern fiction author, it would be thrown into the garbage for being a bad Thomas Pynchon rip-off. There is no internally-homogeneous juris prudence, no sustained metric of moral or ethical standards, not even an introductory essay explaining the logic used to evaluate the veracity of claims, an important factor given that one or more religious crackpots sent anonymous, crazily-worded letters to various Church authorities that were dismissed as ramblings from disturbed character assassins. As Wypijewski explains, “believe survivors” may be a great sentiment but it quickly lends itself to the furor of public sex crime panic, which she defines as “a social eruption fanned by the media and characterized by alarm over innocence (stereotypically, white women and children) imperiled. The predator is a lurking, mutable social presence, a menace against which the populace must be mobilized.” This in turn leads to show trials (or, in many instances, merely sensational media circuses) lacking the proclaimed goals of survivors, true justice.
Most astonishingly, the conclusion of the report, consisting of less than single page, does not make any definitive policy recommendations at all, instead it just offers a pithy and under-whelming quote from Pope Francis. Apologists might claim that other documents published by this papacy in the past few years fill in such gaps. But there is no postmortem dissecting the episodes that cross-references these new policies and definitively indicating what clerics in positions of authority should have done otherwise. This is as vile as any cover-up because it continues to refuse to lay the blame conclusively at the feet of the forces responsible for this disaster in the first place!
The first force is hyper-vigilance to protect the Church from scandal. Repeatedly Bishops and Cardinals heard rumors about McCarrick but, rather than focus on concern for the safety of survivors and the vulnerable, they instead prioritized the public image of the Church. In 1999, when asked to provide a character witness about McCarrick, then under consideration for appointment as his successor, Archbishop of New York Cardinal John O’Connor wrote a letter to the Vatican that should damn his filthy soul to hell. He laid out in detail how McCarrick’s reputation for sexually harassing seminarians was becoming a joke within the ranks of the clergy. Appallingly, the epistle is solely focused upon protecting the Church’s reputation, implying McCarrick should not be held accountable in any fashion for his actions so not to publicly scandalize the good name of the Church. That is an extraordinary ethical and moral breach that further enables perpetrators.
This vigilance against scandal is part of a larger matrix, the gross idolatry of clericalism. The report is filled with individual Catholics who are not devoted to the principles of Christianity but instead to the pomp and circumstance within the walls of Church buildings. Rather than being seen as all-too-human actors capable of gross misdeeds, members of the clergy are equivalent to superheroes. One priest who once witnessed McCarrick retire for the evening with a younger man into his quarters said “I just thought it was kind of a masculine, buddy type of thing… In a way I could not imagine that something incorrect might be happening. The bishop is a special figure…[and] it did not dawn on me that there could have been something strange going on.” Though these clerics claim to love a deity, it is implicitly not in the Eucharist but in their bedroom mirror. Their dogma is not relative to Jesus Christ, it instead is indebted to the older pagan god Narcissus. Clericalism in the American Church is further inflected by absorption of Puritan sexual mores, leading to neuroses indebted to the parties responsible for the Salem Witch Trials.
Ultimately it seems that Francis will have won this battle, if not the war (yet). By delivering a report laying conclusive responsibility for what has taken place at the feet of John Paul II, this would seem to be a death-blow for the fundamentalists. Viganò, the seditious former Apostolic Nuncio, gets named 306 times and held responsible for not following through on a direction to investigate accusations when McCarrick was still in the hierarchy.
But this does not mean that anyone else has won.
We still have a US Supreme Court populated by a large number of reactionary Catholics, endorsed by Opus Dei, who can mandate from the bench laws that embrace the Prosperity Gospel and fundamentalist mandates regarding racial justice, reproductive health, sexual orientation, gender identity, pay equity, and significant sites of contention in public policy. We still have an active network of Catholic fascists, congregated around venues like the Church Militant, that will incubate white nationalism, homo-/bi-/trans-phobia, and misogynist sentiments that materialize in violent manifestations, such as the murder of healthcare providers and queer people in localities with more conservative sexual politics.
And we still have McCarrick, marginalized and vilified without any way to explain his side of the story. Was he forcing himself onto minors and adults for all those years he was in positions of power? Or was he a closeted queer Irish Catholic who fooled around with other consenting adults?
Could it have been a little bit of both?
Could he be one of those millions of queer men, raised in a very conservative and heterosexist Irish Catholic milieu, who entered the seminary at age 20 and saw it as a Church-endorsed grey zone where same-sex relations were given certain allowance? Is a male at 16 and 17 years old, the age of McCarrick’s anonymous first accuser at the time of the alleged sexual congress in the 1970s, capable of consenting to sexual engagement with an older man? America’s jails and prisons are packed today with people incarcerated for long prison sentences for sex crimes committed when they were under 18 but were prosecuted in adult court, including many on death row. There have been incalculable marriages licenses over the past century alone solemnizing heterosexual unions between an older man and a teenaged woman that were happy, healthy, and lifelong. Romeo is either 16 or 17 while his beloved Juliet is 13 in the Shakespeare play elevated to the pinnacle of Hallmark greeting card romance, a text mandated by the federal Common Core standards for freshman high school English classes. The Central Park 5 spent years sentenced as adults for sexual assaults they did not even commit, thanks in no small part to a sex crime panic that Donald Trump, the man James Grein stands in allegiance with, fomented via the press. If the Central Park 5 should have been regarded as adults in the eyes of the law, why not use that same lens with consensual engagements with clerics?
Did McCarrick engage not only in consenting same-sex conjugal behavior while a seminarian but perhaps was also assaulted by someone in a position of power? He was ordained in 1958 by infamous closet case Cardinal Francis Spellman, fellow traveler of queer anticommunist witch hunters like J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy. The toxic brew of machismo, over-compensatory bluster, and internalized homophobia was so thick Cohn went to his grave a pariah in the New York queer community, refusing to acknowledge even on his deathbed he had sex with men or that he had contracted HIV/AIDS. Though McCarrick was ordained in New York, that milieu was light-years away from James Baldwin and the Beat Generation’s Greenwich Village where such writers were demolishing heterosexist norms and the censorship laws that upheld them.
Is the tragedy of McCarrick that he has been put on the pillory and flogged for wrongdoing by hypocrites that gladly ignored monsters like Mexican prelate Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, responsible for molesting numerous youths, because Maciel was a reactionary who filled the collection plates to the brim? The laicized Fr. Thomas Williams, a longtime functionary within Maciel’s Legionaries of Christ who fathered a child with Elizabeth Lev, daughter of George W. Bush’s Ambassador to the Vatican Dr. Mary Ann Glendon, has become the Rome Bureau Chief for Breitbart, pushing hard right political line that demonizes LGBTQQIIAA+ folx, abortion rights, the nebulous demon known as “secular humanism,” immigrants, and Muslims. Last month he offered glowing praise of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the jurist with links to Opus Dei and the strange sex-repressive People of Praise sect. His concentration on McCarrick is a brilliant illustration of the sexual hypocrisy of these forces.
Wypijewski concludes her anthology with a poignant essay on James Baldwin, described as America’s great phenomenologist by Dr. Tony Monteiro, the post-Christian prophet who went places where McCarrick dared not journey and thus became a more fully-formed human being. In his frightening short story “Going to Meet the Man,” perhaps the greatest anatomy of our distinctly American flavor of fascism, the author describes the painful link between repressed homosexual desire, white nationalism, and police brutality. Told from the perspective of a racist policeman who brutalizes civil rights protesters, it describes how the protagonist cannot maintain an erection for lovemaking with his wife until he recalls from memory when his parents brought him to a lynching as a young boy. It is only after the man vividly recalls the castration of the Black man prior to immolation that he can sustain arousal. What Baldwin clearly understood when he published that short story in 1965, whilst the New Deal coalition imploded because of President Lyndon Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, was a lesson for us all, the deep-seated link between heterosexism, the closet, and fascism, the background political current of this sordid drama.
Like Robert Frost’s diverging roads, I see so much of McCarrick in myself. I too was raised in a heterosexist Irish Catholic milieu, including enrollment in parochial and an all-male prep schools. When the child abuse scandal was broken in the headlines by The Boston Globe, I was an impressionable teenager who knew by the winter of my freshman year of my queerness. Many nights of hard drinking and other self-harming activities were fueled by the embarrassment, shame, and fear of Hell, as well as being told by teachers and priests there was a definite link between my attraction to men and tendency to pedophilia. As someone who knew sexual assault survivors at a young age, this mortified me to no end. Having been raised in a large family where child cousins, nieces, and nephews are a wellspring of joy and happiness, such a forecast felt like a death sentence. Since coming out in college, I have dealt with sexual harassment from several older gay men unable to hog-tie their piggish inclinations so I understand very well the scenario that suggested involving McCarrick.
When McCarrick sexually harassed and assaulted nonconsensual parties of any age, he was definitely wrong. In this day and age, there is never any sane moment for an adult to engage in sexual activity with a minor, if not for the legal reasons than for the ethical ones. When Harry Hay and Allen Ginsberg began advocating on behalf of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in the last two decades of the twentieth century, they were playing with fire in irresponsible ways. It is very possible to advocate for a reformation of our extremely hypocritically-heterosexist, Puritanical, and antiquated sexual consent laws while simultaneously not incubating circumstances that allow for child abuse. Indeed, in countries like The Netherlands that have far more liberal vice laws, rates of sexual violence against children are demonstrably lower than the United States. In 2015, the rape rate for Netherlands was 7.1 cases per 100,000 population while, by contrast, the United States that same year had a rate of 38.6, according to data tabulated by Knoema. There exists a tautological link between the anti-sex currents of a society and fomenting of the guilt, shame, and fear that underwrites anti-social crime. For instance, economists have noted that violent rapes are dramatically reduced in municipalities with high availability of adult entertainments, either via the traditional adult bookstore/dance club/brothel or now on cyberspace. In other words, perpetuation of Puritanism is the engine that catalyzes abuse, a lesson that should outrage many.
However, and this might cause chagrin for quite a few, where and when McCarrick was involved in consenting sexual congress, such episodes are none of our business. In those instances, where legal consent was involved, less harm was being done than when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke his marriage vows. Part of breaking down the idolatry of clericalism requires a bottom-up disillusionment with the absurdities of heterosexism and its binary constructs of celibacy, monogamy, and the mythical “nuclear family.”
But I cannot help simultaneously pity McCarrick for his fate. Partially this is because of the vacuum created in his absence where he could have done a public service. But also, had he instead been honest with himself, he might have lived a productive life as an openly gay Protestant minister in a liberal denomination where he could have still become a powerful national figure given his ambition and skills, assets that are definitely nondenominational. “He was a very good politician. He could have been Mayor of New York if he wanted to go in that direction,” says Tom Doyle. The fact he prioritized carnal desires over using a bully pulpit in service of immigrant human rights, those seeking peaceful relations with Cuba and China, and a more civil, humane understanding of a woman’s right to choose is the most damning indictment of him and it is never mentioned once in this Report.
These are not questions purely in the realm of a defrocked prelate’s private life. This is about whether or not the Catholic Church still has within the ranks of its leadership those who can, have, and will perhaps again in the future turn a blind eye to sexual misconduct and assault in service of a reactionary political agenda. The dubious nature of McCarrick’s case and the way it has been blatantly politicized by his enemies in Washington and Rome demonstrates a tremendously dangerous dynamic within a highly-secretive absolute monarchy which claims to have thoroughly cleaned house after being exposed for systemic abuse of minor children.
Can they truly be worthy of our trust again when such questions need be said aloud? Does it even matter now that US Mass attendance has cratered, shuttered Churches are being sold off to finance lawsuit settlements, and, increasingly, adults are either opting for a secular lifestyle or, alternatively, membership in an Evangelical polity whose subservient fealty to extremity has been even more homogenous than anything Rome could foster at the height of the Cold War? The Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich once opined that the entire institutional Church, both Catholic and Protestant, was the manifestation of the antichrist in our midsts, which certainly can refract in novel ways reflections upon this ever-progressing secularization of America.
Only God truly knows the answer. But as Shakespeare wrote in one of his tragedies about statecraft and its diabolical machinations, reflecting upon the heavenly lights seen in the night sky that were construed as visible manifestations of deities, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
In memoriam: Kathleen Maura MacElroy Blank, June 7, 1926 ~ December 19, 2020
Tha gaol agam ort Grandma
This post was originally published on Radio Free.