The Catholic community Opus Dei in 2005 paid $977,000 to settle a sexual misconduct suit against the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a priest well-known for preparing for conversion big-name conservatives — Newt Gingrich, Larry Kudlow and Sam Brownback, among others.
The survivor is a devout, D.C.-area Catholic who was among the many who received spiritual direction from McCloskey through the Catholic Information Center, a K Street hub of Catholic life in downtown D.C. She told the Post McCloskey groped her several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.
The guilt and shame over the interactions sent her into a tailspin and, combined with her existing depression, made it impossible for her to work in her high-level job. She spoke to him about her “misperceived guilt over the interaction” in confession and he absolved her, she said.
“I love Opus Dei but I was caught up in this cover-up – I went to confession, thinking I did something to tempt this holy man to cross boundaries,” she said. The Washington Post does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.
There are two other allegations against “Father C. John,” as he was known to friends and associates, now being investigated by Opus Dei. One of them it calls potentially “serious.” According to an Opus Dei spokesman, after the order substantiated the first woman’s claim, it transferred the priest out of DC, and gave him other assignments. The reason it’s all coming out now is at the woman’s request. She said that she wanted other victims, if they exist, to know about him, and come forward. She tells the Post that she’s happy with the way Opus Dei handled the matter, and she’s still involved with the group.
According to the story, Father C. John is living back in the DC area, and has advanced Alzheimer’s. It must have come on him very quickly. As recently as 2017, he published a book review.
For a lot of conservative Catholics, McCloskey is iconic of the late 1990s and early 2000s in American Catholicism, at least in the New York-DC community. It’s hard to state how prominent and admired he was by conservatives back then. He was really smart, and really personable. The Post is right about his reputation for courting celebrities and evangelizing them for Catholicism. I was already a Catholic when I arrived in New York in 1998 as a New York Post film critic, and got the hard sell from Father C. John to become a member of Opus Dei. I was somewhat interested in joining the group, based on their reputation for Catholic orthodoxy. Father C. John’s aggressive approach was off-putting, though, and I put some distance between us because I didn’t like being recruited, and hated the feeling that he was instrumentalizing our relationship. Still, I liked him, though. If you watch this short clip from a talk he gave on the Road to Cana series, you’ll instantly see his easygoing charm.
McCloskey had a way of talking about how corrupt the world was — and he wasn’t wrong about that. He had a way of making you feel that the Church was the only safe haven. He was definitely a company man. I remember seeing him on “Meet The Press” (or perhaps one of the other interview shows) once talking about the scandal. He was asked what percentage of the priesthood he figured was gay. He said something like “between three and five percent” — the percentage of homosexuals in the general population. I knew perfectly well that McCloskey knew better than that, and that he was propagandizing to protect the image of the Church.
In 2015, the New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer wrote a favorable profile of the priest, talking about how gentle he is, and how good he is at making friends. He was instrumental in getting Larry Kudlow, now the director of President Trump’s economic council, to put booze and drugs behind, and embrace Jesus Christ. I had wondered what happened to Father C. John, seeing as how he disappeared after 2005. I had heard that Opus Dei leaders were not happy with seeing Father C. John’s name mentioned so prominently in stories about the 2004 corruption trial of Mark Belnick, a very rich corporate lawyer who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism under McCloskey’s direction (Belnick was acquitted of the charges).
I recall that there was a lot of angry talk in New York Jewish circles about how Belnick converted to Catholicism without telling his family what was going on. Some accused Father C. John of being a kind of Svengali who targeted Belnick because he was rich and spiritually vulnerable. I honestly don’t know how fair that was, but it played badly in the local media, and I had assumed that it had something to do with why Father C. John disappeared. I figured that Opus Dei higher-ups trimmed his sails in the wake of the Belnick bad press. His reputation for evangelizing the rich and powerful had become a liability, I figured.
Now we know that it was not that at all. The prominent, well-loved, highly respected conservative evangelizing priest “groped [a woman] several times while she was going to pastoral counseling with him to discuss marital troubles and serious depression.”
What would he say about the sexual abuse holocaust that engulfed the global church and continues unabated to this day? A month doesn’t go by without another cardinal, bishop, church official or priest getting dragged into court, or the court of public opinion.
UPDATE: A DC friend who sees him at mass confirms that Fr. McCloskey really does have advanced dementia.