On January 7, the Washington Post reported that in 2005 Opus Dei paid the astonishing sum of $977,000 to a woman who accused Fr John McCloskey (pictured), one of its priests, of groping her.
The revelation was a shocking one, for reasons that go beyond McCloskey’s indefensible behaviour. But it did explain one mystery. Until 15 years ago, the telegenic Fr John McCloskey was the unofficial chaplain to the upper echelons of the Republican Party. He did not just make friends with Washington conservatives: he had a knack for turning them into Catholics. He saw his spiritual networking as “like the brokerage business” – about which he knew plenty, having worked for Citibank and Merrill Lynch before his ordination in 1981.
Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback, Larry Kudlow, Robert Bork, Robert Novak – McCloskey drew all of them into communion with the Holy See. That some were liberal hate figures did not bother him. They may have been attracted by his uncompromising style. “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic,” he once said. “The definition of a person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church is teaching is called a Protestant.”
McCloskey loved the glare of the studio lights, which illuminated his silver hair and expensive clerical suit. His theology was reliably orthodox, but rarely dull: he knew how to craft a soundbite. “A few doses of Fr McCloskey and we’ll turn this country around,” said Kudlow, the financial pundit who is now President Trump’s Director of the National Economic Council. But then, suddenly, there were no more doses of McCloskey. He was reassigned elsewhere, leaving behind his celebrity conquests and the Opus Dei-run Catholic Information Center, which he had transformed into a hub of social and intellectual life for DC’s most enterprising Catholics.
It was through the Center that an unnamed woman received spiritual direction from McCloskey. She told the Post that he “groped her several times” during counselling over marital difficulties.
Now that the news is out, the supposedly secretive Opus Dei has been relatively transparent about McCloskey – who, sadly, is stricken with advanced Alzheimer’s at the age of only 65. Its spokesman said there had been two other complaints about the priest, one involving “hugging” and another more serious. He did not give details, which is understandable if the cases are confidential.
Less easy to explain is the bumper payment to the original complainant. Nearly a million dollars, in 2005 money, in compensation for groping? According to the New York Times, a victim of Fr Donald Timone, accused of serial sexual abuse of teenage boys, received just $150,000 from New York archdiocese in 2017.
“When you consider the disparity between the Timone and McCloskey settlements, you do wonder if we have the whole story,” says one well-placed source. Some suggest that the compensation reflected the fact that, according to the Post, her interactions with McCloskey, “combined with her existing depression, made it impossible for her to work in her high-level job”.
Opus Dei is invariably described as “controversial”. Its rigid discipline, austere spiritual practices and, at times, opportunistic cultivation of the rich and powerful has long divided Catholic opinion – though less so today, as it has become more integrated into the wider Church.
But even at the worst of times, when ex-members were accusing it of mind control, it could point to dioceses, monastic orders and other new movements mired in sexual scandal and claim that its hands were clean.
No longer. McCloskey’s conduct, so far as we know, is fairly low on the Richter scale of clerical crimes, though that is no comfort to the woman (or women) involved. But it does mean that there is now no important religious order or movement in the Church untainted by abuse. And Opus Dei, although generally helpful to the media, will still have a public relations problem on its hands until it can explain why it parted with $977,000.