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In emotional interview, Opus Dei spokesman said he ‘hated’ how prominent priest’s sexual misconduct case was handled

The Rev. C. John McCloskey on NBC's '”Meet the Press” in 2002. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A day after announcing that the global Catholic community Opus Dei had paid nearly $1 million to settle a 2005 sexual misconduct suit against a big-name D.C. priest, a spokesman for the ultraconservative institution Tuesday expressed regret that the Rev. C. John McCloskey had been allowed to remain in ministry after the allegations came to light.

“It’s an argument that is no longer tenable — this ‘Let’s quiet things over so priests can continue to do good,’ ” said Brian Finnerty, choking back tears as he spoke with unusual frankness.

Catholics in the region were stunned by the news that McCloskey, a high-profile media presence and adviser to Washington’s Catholic elite who prepared Republicans Newt Gingrich and Sam Brownback for conversion, was responsible for the $977,000 payout. An eloquent and intellectual priest, McCloskey for many years ran the Catholic Information Center, a bookstore, chapel and meeting center on K Street NW — a hub of Catholic life in the city.

Opus Dei paid $977,000 to settle sexual misconduct claim against prominent Catholic priest

“The reality is that there are many people out there who felt Father [McCloskey] was instrumental in bringing them closer to God. And whatever he did, that is true,” said Finnerty, adding that McCloskey had introduced him to Opus Dei. “But there is also the reality at the same time that he behaved in a way that was deeply wounding. If we were to handle the situation today, we would likely do it differently. Today is different — there is a deeper recognition that if something like this happens, you can’t keep it quiet.”

Finnerty said among his regrets was that the complaint came to Opus Dei in November 2002 but the community did not remove McCloskey from the Catholic Information Center until December 2003. He said he personally “hated” that decision. “The reality is he was around for a year after we were informed,” Finnerty said. “That’s the reality. It’s not good. But we may as well own it.”

The woman who reached the settlement with Opus Dei in 2005 told The Washington Post she began seeing McCloskey for spiritual direction at a time when her marriage was crumbling and she was experiencing serious depression. The priest groped her several times during tight hugs, she said. She said she expressed shame and guilt about it to him during confession and he absolved her. (The Post does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.)

McCloskey also asked the woman detailed questions about her sex life with her husband, she said.

An Opus Dei priest in Virginia whom she went to told her not to tell anyone, she said. Another Opus Dei priest urged her to seek medical and legal help.

Finnerty said Monday that Opus Dei knows of another woman who was made uncomfortable by McCloskey’s hugs and is investigating the possibility of a third woman who may have a “serious” complaint about the priest. The group has not spoken with the third woman.

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The woman in the settlement has expressed gratitude since Monday to Opus Dei, saying she appreciates them going public this week at her request. She was worried there are others who may have been harmed by the priest, who has been a spiritual director in the Washington region as well as in the Chicago area and in California over the past two decades. She continues to participate in Opus Dei spiritual activities.

The woman, who was 40 at the time of the misconduct, said the episodes sent her into a tailspin and she suffered serious health and professional failings as a result.

Men and women are kept quite separate in Opus Dei activities, and priests are supposed to give women spiritual direction only in the confessional, separated by a divider.

McCloskey, 65, moved back to the Washington region in late 2016, Opus Dei said in its Monday statement, to be near family as he “suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s,” adding that he “is largely incapacitated and needs assistance for routine daily tasks.” Catholics who have seen him recently said he appears childlike and with limited short-term memory.

A 2005 letter from Opus Dei’s attorney to the woman’s attorney said McCloskey acknowledges he “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with the woman and apologizes. However, the letter said, the two sides see “significant differences” in facts. It said McCloskey and Opus Dei were making a settlement offer “without any acknowledgment of liability” on their part. The letter was from Kevin Baine of the firm Williams & Connolly.

This week, Opus Dei did not dispute the woman’s account.

The news has distressed many Washington-area Catholics who said Opus Dei erred greatly in allowing McCloskey to continue for more than a decade to operate as a priest and guide.

It was not completely clear Tuesday what restrictions had been put on McCloskey and whether he had violated them. The woman said she was told by Catholic officials in Chicago that he would not be given permission to operate fully as a priest — celebrating Mass and other sacraments. Finnerty said he understood that McCloskey was told not to serve as a spiritual director to women for one year, starting in the early 2000s, and observed the ban for two years.

The Rev. Peter Armenio, Opus Dei’s regional assistant vicar for the Midwest, said Tuesday that he was part of discussions when McCloskey first came to Chicago — around the time of the settlement. Then-Cardinal Francis George, now deceased, was Chicago’s archbishop, a position responsible for granting permission for priests to fully function in a region — even those in religious orders and communities such as Opus Dei.

Armenio said he was told around that time that McCloskey had “a severe problem with alcohol” when he worked in Washington and that there was a misconduct case with a woman. He said Opus Dei and the archdiocese, when they were discussing his punishment and restrictions, did not know the woman’s report about McCloskey absolving her during confession.

George said McCloskey could not have pastoral dealings with women for a year, Armenio recalled. Armenio said McCloskey abided by that for two years and that even after that, in the archdiocese “he never ministered to women in formative activities,” he said. The priest heard confessions when parishes were busy but was not involved much beyond that, Armenio said.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese was not able Tuesday to immediately clarify what the archdiocese and George may have said or done when McCloskey came to Chicago.

At some point soon after the settlement, it appears McCloskey ministered to women.

Dawn Eden Goldstein, a writer and theology professor who went to McCloskey for spiritual and professional guidance starting in 2007, said she found him very helpful. She remained in touch with him until this past weekend, when she saw him at a party at the Reston Study Center, an Opus Dei facility where he lives.

“I’m extremely disturbed,” Goldstein said. “I have to hold these two things in tension. On the one hand, Father McCloskey should not have been allowed to personally advise me. On the other hand, I truly benefited from his advice.” She said she was upset that Opus Dei would allow someone “morally compromised” to serve as a guide.

McCloskey made news from the start of his career. News reports from the 1990s say he was removed as a chaplain from Princeton University after some students complained that he was urging them not to go to professors he considered not sufficiently Christian and was critical of the way priests he saw as insufficiently orthodox ministered.

A long profile of Opus Dei in 1995 in the Jesuit magazine America quoted unnamed sources as saying McCloskey had asked some students questions about their sexual practices. Some said he was coercing students into going to confession. The profile said McCloskey denied both charges.