By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
NEW YORK – Opus Dei has a reputation as perhaps the most buttoned-down, by-the-book group in the Catholic Church, so when the Washington Postreported last week that it had paid nearly a million dollars to settle a sexual misconduct allegation against one of its most prominent priests, it set off shockwaves and raised new questions about the Church’s response to the clerical abuse crisis.
From his post at the influential Catholic Information Center (CIC) on K Street in the early 2000s, Father C.J. McCloskey was responsible for bringing some of the country’s most prominent conservatives into the Catholic Church, among them now Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback; Larry Kudlow, who currently serves as the Director of the National Economic Council; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich; and one-time Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert Bork.
Founded by a Spanish priest in 1928 and established as a personal prelature by St. John Paul II in 1982, Opus Dei has grown into an organization of nearly 100,000 individuals, primarily made up of lay men and women. With its emphasis on personal holiness, Opus Dei is among the best-known groups within the Church, and has been the source of various controversies related to charges of secrecy, wealth, and undue control over members as well as its generally conservative profile.
Fallout from the previously undisclosed settlement over misconduct with a woman he was counseling in 2002 has raised new questions about McCloskey’s past and Opus Dei’s handling of the case, and also has shed new light on the ongoing challenges of the U.S. Church’s efforts to respond to sexual abuse.
The Princeton Era
When Father McCloskey arrived on the scene as a chaplain at Princeton University in the mid-eighties, he was immediately a polarizing figure.
With a degree from another Ivy League institution – Columbia University – and having worked a stint on Wall Street before joining the priesthood, Father McCloskey acquired a reputation for an “in-your-face” defense of Catholic teaching and values, a trait that inspired some students and infuriated others.
“You’d think he was from New York with the confidence he espoused,” one source who was close to Father McCloskey at the time.
Father McCloskey, an ardent theological and political conservative, would advise students which classes to take and which ones to avoid, sending out a list of recommended courses with the warning: “Remember, everything depends on the outlook of the teacher giving the course. The latter may seem quite interesting and stimulating, but if it is given by an anti-Christian, its impact is counterproductive.”
As the associate director of the Aquinas Institute, the university’s Catholic campus ministry, he introduced students to spiritual classics and encouraged an active spirituality, with particular attention to the sacrament of confession.
According to multiple reports chronicled in the Daily Princetonian, his allies saw his zeal as a natural part of his role to push students to pursue holiness. Detractors questioned how he advised students in course selection and the manner in which he discussed sex in the confessional.
A February 1990 article in the Daily Princetonian noted that an informal group of 15 Catholic students met regularly for three years to strategize on how to force Father McCloskey’s departure.
One student, who spoke to The Tablet on the condition of anonymity, described Father McCloskey’s style as eager to clash over ideological disagreements. The individual also noted that Father McCloskey had a reputation for asking probing questions in the confessional, and at least on one occasion they recall a female student leaving his office in tears.
Another Princeton professor praised Father McCloskey’s intellect and defended the manner in which he challenged students, but noted that Father McCloskey seemed to have a dependence on alcohol leading him to slur his speech while speaking at public events on occasion.
An official with Opus Dei confirmed his struggle with alcohol to The Tablet.
In July 1990, after Father Vincent Keane, then head of the Institute, received a dozen letters of complaint against Father McCloskey and a petition signed by 50 students and faculty members calling on him to be fired, Father McCloskey was removed from his post.
From Washington to London to Chicago
In Washington, as the newly minted head of the CIC – a bookstore and hub for intellectual engagement and spiritual activity – Father McCloskey hobnobbed with the city’s powerbrokers.
The noon Mass at the CIC became known as a “Who’s Who” scene in conservative circles, and his “Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan” – with works ranging from George Weigel’s biography of St. John Paul II to modern classics by G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton to spiritual standards such St. Augustine’s Confessions and Story of a Soul by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux – shaped both the bookstore’s inventory and the minds of his patrons.
In 2002, a woman now in her fifties, who said she was seeking spiritual support for “marital troubles and spiritual depression,” alleged that Father McCloskey repeatedly asked detailed questions about her sex life and went on to grope her on multiple occasions, furthering her depression and leading to her decision to leave her high-profile employment at the time.
She told the Washington Post that she spoke to Father McCloskey about her “misperceived guilt over the interaction” during confession and he absolved her.
Opus Dei, who was informed after the individual sought legal counsel, opened up an internal investigation that lasted for over a year.
Nicholas Cafardi, a canonist, dean emeritus at Duquesne University School of Law, and an original member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, told The Tablet that had Father McCloskey absolved the victim of a sexual sin in which he participated, it would result in automatic excommunication.
A spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States, Brian Finnerty, told The Tablet that Opus Dei did not find that Father McCloskey violated canon law.
Following the incident, Father McCloskey was removed from his post and was sent to London on what he termed a sabbatical.
In an interview with The Tablet, the Opus Dei press officer for the United Kingdom, Jack Valero, said they were informed that Father McCloskey was being sent to Britain and in need of rest following misconduct with a woman during his time in Washington and an ongoing struggle with alcohol.
Valero said that all internal communications between Opus Dei centers take place via unsigned memos.
While in London, Valero said Father McCloskey received regular treatment for alcohol abuse and took part in Opus Dei’s regular programming.
Multiple sources told The Tablet that Father McCloskey took an active part in London’s Catholic circles – meeting with Members of Parliament, regularly writing, and leading retreats.
Both Valero and Finnerty said that Father McCloskey’s formal ministry was restricted to men following his departure from the CIC.
In 2004, when the decision was made that Father McCloskey would permanently leave the CIC, and henceforth no longer have priestly faculties in the archdiocese of Washington, Opus Dei sent a letter to the diocese of Westminster requesting permission for him to exercise his ministry as a priest in London.
The letter deemed him suitable for ministry. Valero told The Tablet the letter did not state that Father McCloskey had received treatment for alcohol abuse, but he noted they verbally informed an auxiliary bishop of Westminster that he was currently being treated for issues involving alcohol.
While in London, Father McCloskey’s alleged victim made her claim for financial compensation, leading him to stay a full year instead of his previously planned 6 month stint. Then, on January 10, 2005, he arrived in Chicago.
On January 31, 2005, Father Peter Armenio, Opus Dei’s vicar for the Midwest, sent a letter to Chicago Archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, requesting permission for Father McCloskey to have faculties in the archdiocese.
“To the best of my knowledge in the external forum, I am of the opinion that Fr. Charles John McCloskey is of good character and reputation,” stated the letter obtained by The Tablet.
“Further, I have no knowledge that Fr. Charles John McCloskey has a current, untreated alcohol or substance abuse problem,” he continued.
In a statement on January 10, Monsignor Thomas Bohlin, Vicar of Opus Dei in the U.S., clarified that Armenio had informed George in person of Father McCloskey’s misconduct allegations and that George also spoke by phone with the victim.
“Restrictions were placed on his activities in the form of the assignments he was given,” according to the statement, which added, “During his whole time in Chicago he was given few pastoral assignments for activities with women.”
The archdioceses of Chicago and Opus Dei have said that they received no complaints against Father McCloskey during his time in Chicago, where he left 2013 for assignment in Menlo, Park, California.
Mike Brown, director of communication for the archdiocese of San Francisco, told The Tablet that representatives of Opus Dei met with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to brief him on Father McCloskey’s history.
Finnerty confirmed that meeting took place on September 10, 2013, between Cordileone and vicar for the United States, Monsignor Thomas Bohlin and the Vicar for California, Father Luke Mata.
“They informed the Archbishop that Father McCloskey had an ongoing issue with alcohol and that he was receiving treatment for it,” said Finnerty. “They did not mention the incident with the woman, because it was now over ten years since it occurred in Washington and there had been no complaints in this area since then (and none before he was in Washington).”
In California, Father McCloskey exercised a relatively quiet ministry, though he regularly contributed columns for the National Catholic Register and The Catholic Thing and appeared on EWTN as a television commentator until late 2016.
That same year, however, he returned to the Virginia area where, his family told the Post, he is now living at age 65 with advanced Alzheimer’s and receiving full-time care.
Reports of his misconduct, however, come at a time when the U.S. Church is facing a broadening crisis over sexual abuse and its cover-up.
Finnerty told The Tablet that the Father McCloskey revelations have rocked Opus Dei and resulted in an internal scrutiny of their own policies.
“Our understanding of the situation [with Father McCloskey] has evolved over time,” he said.
“What we heard was very hard for us to reconcile with what we knew about Father C.J. McCloskey as a hard-working, dedicated priest,” he maintained.
Finnerty said the 2002 incident of sexual misconduct was the first – and to date, the only – that Opus Dei has had in the United States, and he was candid that they lacked the internal protocols to assess the situation.
He noted that two other women have come forward related to Father McCloskey, and that they are investigating those complaints. One, he said, involved objections to the manner in which Father McCloskey hugged her.
Finnerty told The Tablet that hugging women is against Opus Dei protocol.
“We did everything we could to try and get Father McCloskey to lower his profile,” he said.
When asked about the specific restrictions placed on Father McCloskey after Opus Dei first received the initial complaint, Finnerty said that immediately after his departure from Washington, Father McCloskey’s “pastoral ministry was limited to men.”
Spiritual activities of Opus Dei are already segregated between men and women, with confessions taking place behind the screen of a confessional. Finnerty said that despite some public criticisms of that practice, “this case demonstrates that there are good reasons for it.”
He went on to add that Father McCloskey did not follow those policies, resulting in the incident.
“The fact that she was emotionally fragile, that constitutes even more as sexual abuse,” he admitted. “Regardless of where his hands were, this was sexual abuse. Period.”
While Finnerty said that “it seems so far, the restrictions we put into place [on Father McCloskey] worked,” when asked if this happened today would Father McCloskey be removed from public ministry, he said “I think so.”
“In this current environment, we would have to make public this accusation. Once something like this happens, his ability to function as a priest would be devastated,” he said.
Cafardi, who helped guide the U.S. bishops through the sex abuse crisis when it first exploded, said that while this is not a Dallas Charter case, “you could make some logical comparisons.”
“It seems to me that restricting his ministry would be one way of handling it,” he continued. “In this situation, you have an element that is very similar to child sexual abuse, which is a priest taking advantage of his power.”
Given what is known now, he added that “it would have been better to take him out of ministry completely.”
While Finnerty said that Opus Dei has an internal review process for cases of abuse against minors in order to comply with the 2002 Dallas Charter of the U.S. bishops, he said they have yet to establish protocols for assessing other cases involving vulnerable adults.
He told The Tablet that within the past week they had reached out to the archdiocese of New York in order to utilize their expertise on how to best handle these cases going forward and have opened up a hotline for other potential victims to come forward.
As the prelature seeks to process the events of the past week, Finnerty said that he, along with many others within Opus Dei, are still hurting and trying to strike a delicate balance between re-litigating the past, properly responding to the victim, and re-establishing its credibility.
“What has become clear is that in that office, there was not only one emotionally fragile person, but what has emerged is that there were two,” he reflected, adding that he didn’t want to discuss further specifics of this case so as not to prevent further victims from coming forward.
Given the ongoing crisis in the Church, where both the Church’s handling of abuse cases of minors and vulnerable adults – as well as the cover-up of both – have been brought under a global spotlight, Finnerty said that such a position is no longer tenable.
“We in the Catholic Church have lost the discretion to do that,” he said.
At a time when dioceses throughout the country are reckoning with past cases and the uptick of disclosures of priests accused of abuse have skyrocketed, particularly in light of this summer’s Pennsylvania grand jury report which chronicled seven decades of abuse within the state’s six Catholic dioceses, Cafardi observed that for religious orders and movements like Opus Dei, “I don’t think we’ve fully heard from them.”
“Until that day comes when we get the full history of events such as what happened with McCloskey or such as what happened with the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the Church is going to keep dying a thousand deaths by its own choosing,” he surmised.
Claire Giangravè and John Allen contributed to this report from Rome.