When the Rev. C. John McCloskey returned to his hometown of Washington in 1998 at age 44, he had a mission. As the newly appointed director of the Catholic Information Center, he wanted to transform it from a sleepy operation downtown to a vibrant spiritual and intellectual hub. He wanted to communicate his enthusiasm for his faith and bring others to it. And he wanted to do this, not just for ordinary Catholics, but for the capital’s movers and shakers, Catholic or not.

In what seemed like no time at all, McCloskey — a member of Opus Dei, a small, ultra-conservative and controversial Catholic community — made his mark. The center moved to its current K Street NW location, just two blocks from the White House, and became a bustling gathering place for conservative academics, politicians, journalists and young professionals. Weekday Masses in the center’s chapel were always packed. ­McCloskey was an energetic evangelist for his unyielding vision of the church, welcoming strangers and political celebrities alike to commit to its radically conservative beliefs.

Soon, the telegenic priest was sharing his views as a regular on political talk shows such as “Crossfire” and “Meet the Press,” and on the Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic cable channel. Political Washington didn’t just take notice, it embraced him. He kept company with a rotating cast of right-of-center bigwigs, including Judge Robert H. Bork, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), economist Larry Kudlow and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), all of whom he helped convert to Catholicism. Articles described him as the “Catholic Church’s K Street lobbyist,” “a firm voice, fostering faith” and a “crusader.”

But what no one envisioned was his rapid fall just five years after arriving in Washington for reasons that weren’t disclosed until last week.

At his peak, McCloskey was a central figure in political Washington.

“There’s no question that he was the chaplain of Washington conservatives and he held a real appeal for them,” said journalist Mark Shields, who met ­McCloskey only a few times, but knew him through his friend and longtime political sparring partner, Robert Novak. Shields, a liberal Catholic, said he often jousted over faith issues with Novak, who was drawn to McCloskey’s traditional Catholicism and was later baptized and confirmed by him.

As his reputation grew, ­McCloskey opined often on matters of faith and church and culture. He criticized lay groups that wanted more control over investigations of clergy sexual abuse. He advocated forcefully against abortion and said married Catholic couples using birth control should refrain from taking Communion. He argued that American men suffered from “Friendship Deficit Syndrome” and said wives should encourage their husbands to spend more time with their male friends and less time at home. He added that men were afraid to go out in groups in big cities, because observers would think they were gay.

If other Catholic clergy members were circumspect about sharing their views, McCloskey didn’t hold back. “A liberal Catholic is oxymoronic,” he told Slate in 2002. “The definition of a person who disagrees with what the Catholic Church is teaching is called a Protestant.”

For friends and followers, ­McCloskey’s approach was overdue. And his message was one they wanted official Washington to hear.

“I’d like to unleash him on Capitol Hill,” Kudlow told the Washington Times in 2001. “A few doses of Father McCloskey, and we’ll turn this country around. He’s an old-fashioned evangelical pastor. In some ways, the Catholic Church has fallen short in its evangelizing mission, and I think Father John is awakening that.”

And then in late 2003, as his profile grew ever larger, ­McCloskey was gone. Not disappeared exactly, but nowhere to be seen, at least in any official capacity. He left, he told some friends and associates, for an opportunity to study in England. The work of the Catholic Information Center would continue, but without the direction of the man who had reignited its flame.

'Quite a shock'

McCloskey’s abrupt departure left some scratching their heads, but they assumed he had good reasons for giving up on the Washington grind of green rooms and galas. Last week, the real explanation for McCloskey’s hasty exit from Washington was revealed.

A woman who had gone to him in 2002 for spiritual guidance told The Washington Post that the popular prelate had victimized her. On several occasions during and after private spiritual counseling sessions in his office to discuss her troubled marriage, he put his hands on her hips and pressed himself against her, kissed her hair and caressed her, the woman said. She said she had smelled alcohol on his breath.

The global Opus Dei community confirmed last week that it ordered McCloskey to leave Washington in 2003 and said his priestly duties were restricted. Subsequent reports have raised questions about whether his duties were restricted and in which ways. He was later sent to Chicago and California. Opus Dei paid the woman a $977,000 sexual misconduct settlement in 2005.

For her, McCloskey’s actions were a deep and humiliating betrayal.

“He absolutely radiated holiness and kindness and caring and charisma,” the woman said Thursday in an interview. “He persuaded me that I needed to be hugged, which of course I did, but I needed to be hugged by my husband, not by him.” The Post does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.

Another woman told Opus Dei that she was “made uncomfortable” by the way McCloskey hugged her, the group told The Post. The community says it is investigating a third claim described by an Opus Dei spokesman as potentially serious. In a statement, Monsignor Thomas Bohlin, the Opus Dei vicar, said McCloskey’s actions at the center were “deeply painful for the woman” who made the initial complaint “and we are very sorry for all she suffered.”

McCloskey, 65, is once again living in the Washington area and has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Opus Dei officials said.

The revelation about McCloskey’s actions and the reason he was sent away stunned many who knew him at the height of his powers in the capital.

“This whole thing has come as quite a shock to me,” said Russell Shaw, who co-wrote a book with McCloskey, “Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith.” “I thought it was abrupt when he left and now I wonder why I didn’t dream of anything like this.”

Helena Metzger, a longtime volunteer and former board member at the Catholic Information Center, said she was surprised when McCloskey left and shocked when she found out the reason a few years later from another Opus Dei priest.

“He was a very visible priest and I knew him quite well, and there were never any signs that anything like this was taking place,” she said.

Many of those closest to McCloskey when he was in Washington — including Brownback, Gingrich and Kudlow — did not return messages seeking comment.

'A brashness about him'

McCloskey did not take a typical path to the priesthood. After graduating from St. John’s College High School in Northwest Washington, he went to Columbia University, where he majored in economics. With his Ivy League degree in hand, he headed not to the seminary, but to Wall Street, where he worked for Citibank and Merrill Lynch. A few years later, he moved to Rome to begin his training to become a priest.

After his ordination in 1981, McCloskey returned to the United States and within a few years was installed as the Catholic chaplain at Princeton University. He soon became enmeshed in campus controversies. Critics said he told Catholic students to steer away from certain classes he considered insufficiently Christian, reports at the time said. Others were angered by his uncompromising positions on birth control and premarital sex. McCloskey had a way of finding controversy and attention no matter where he went.

“There was a brashness about him that I always associated with the Wall Street ethos,” the Rev. John Paul Wauck, an Opus Dei priest who knew McCloskey, wrote in an email. “You could say that, as a priest, he maintained an entrepreneurial attitude. For some, this was off-putting; for others, it was, I’d say, invigorating and even entertaining.”

McCloskey harnessed that entrepreneurial spirit to persuade people, mostly men, to become Catholics. In New York in 1997, he converted Kudlow, who was recovering from addiction. Mark Belnick, a former general counsel of Tyco International, who described McCloskey as a “great friend” in a New York magazine article, soon followed. They would be among the first in a long line of high-profile conversions that McCloskey facilitated.

“It’s just like the brokerage business or any business of sales,” McCloskey told the National Catholic Reporter in 2003. “You get a reputation, you deal with one person and they mention you to another person . . . and all of a sudden you have a string of people.”

The conversions came naturally to McCloskey because “he just had an absolute certainty about what he was proposing, and he had no hesi­ta­tion at all about unapologetically offering Catholicism as an option,” said Shaw, his co-author.

Although he left Washington at perhaps the height of his fame, McCloskey’s legacy is the ongoing influence of the Catholic Information Center. The center’s board includes Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, which helped shepherd the Supreme Court nominations of Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch. White House counsel Pat Cipollone is a former board member, as is William P. Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush and is now President Trump’s nominee for the same position.

The small center — its members and its leaders — continue to have an outsize impact on policy and politics. It is the conservative spiritual and intellectual center that McCloskey had imagined and its influence is felt in all of Washington’s corridors of power.

But for the woman who suffered years of emotional despair, the success of the center has two aspects. She remains a deeply religious Catholic and celebrates the center’s work. But she is also left with the unshakable memory of the center’s famous champion as he pushed against her 17 years ago.

“I was just thinking, this can’t be happening. Am I crazy, this can’t be happening,” she remembered. “He knew what buttons to push and then just let me go and glided serenely in his cassock to his desk and asked, ‘When would you like to make the next appointment?’ ”

Michelle Boorstein and Marisa Iati contributed to this report.