When a woman who says she was groped by the priest she turned to for counseling reached a $977,000 settlement with the Catholic community Opus Dei in 2005, she was promised that the priest she claimed harassed her — the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a star in the Catholic world who converted prominent politicians to the faith — would be prevented from doing it to someone else.
On Wednesday night, two days after Opus Dei publicly acknowledged the huge settlement for the first time, the Archdiocese of Chicago said that at least on paper, McCloskey was in fact allowed to minister with no restrictions for years afterward.
The archdiocese disputed some of the account provided by Opus Dei this week about how the conservative Catholic community handled McCloskey, and provided a 2005 letter from an Opus Dei leader that shows the leader vouched for McCloskey even though he knew about the settlement.
What emerges, from conflicting accounts, is a picture of Catholic leadership in both the archdiocese and Opus Dei who told the woman they would restrict McCloskey’s actions — and then left a paper trail describing him as having an unblemished record.
The woman reported the complaint in November 2002, and Opus Dei removed McCloskey from the Catholic Information Center — the K Street NW hub of conservative Catholic life — in December 2003, a delay that Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty said this week that he “hated.” In 2005, the community reached the nearly $1 million settlement with the woman. (The Washington Post does not identify victims of sexual assault without their consent.)
That year, McCloskey went to work in the Archdiocese of Chicago. That’s where the diverging accounts begin.
The woman says Opus Dei leaders told her they were asking the Chicago Archdiocese’s permission for McCloskey to practice there. Opus Dei priests anywhere in the country remain under the auspices of Opus Dei, not of the dioceses they work in, but they do need a letter of permission from the local diocese to fulfill some priestly duties.
The woman says she was told that Cardinal Francis George, then the archbishop of Chicago, was informed about her case and said he would only approve the transfer if he spoke to the woman.
So she spoke to the cardinal. “I was blunt and explicit,” she said on Wednesday. She got what she thought was a clear response. She said George told her there was no way McCloskey would be allowed to minister without restrictions. “I said, ‘I don’t want him to ever do this again.’ He made a commitment to me.”
The Rev. Peter Armenio, assistant regional head of Opus Dei for the Midwest, told The Post on Tuesday that George agreed to restrict McCloskey from direct ministry with women for one year; Opus Dei ensured that he followed the restriction for two years, he said. Finnerty said on Wednesday night that Opus Dei has records of McCloskey’s assignments in Chicago that show they were designed to uphold those restrictions, but he would not immediately provide those records.
In George’s own files, the archdiocese said Wednesday, he made no note of the call with the woman. Nowhere in any of its files could the archdiocese find any mention of any restrictions, of the prior settlement or of any other allegations of sexual misconduct involving McCloskey.
A spokesman for the archdiocese said the archdiocese does not dispute the woman’s account — that the call took place and that George promised to restrict McCloskey’s ministry — leading to the conclusion that whatever George did or didn’t do to restrict McCloskey, he did so without creating a written record.
The case has echoes of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò's fiercely debated allegations against Pope Francis this summer: He claimed, without documentation, that the prior pope, Benedict, had imposed similar secret sanctions on now-disgraced Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, and that Francis let those sanctions go by the wayside.
George died in 2015. His obituaries praised him for his role in urging the Catholic Church to more quickly expel priests guilty of sexually abusing children.
In 2009, the Chicago Archdiocese renewed McCloskey’s faculties — the term for his permission to practice as a priest, including celebrating Mass. His permission ended only when he left the archdiocese for California in 2013, according to the archdiocese.
One written record that the archdiocese does have? A letter from the then-vicar for Opus Dei in the Midwest: Armenio.
In the 2005 letter released by the archdiocese on Wednesday, Armenio recommended McCloskey for faculties in Chicago, saying he was a priest “in good standing,” “of good character and reputation.” He made two specific claims in the letter endorsing the priest: “I have no knowledge that Fr. Charles John McCloskey has a current, untreated alcohol or substance abuse problem,” and “I am unaware of anything in his background which would render him unsuitable to work with minor children.”
But in a brief interview on Tuesday night, Armenio said he knew in 2005 that there was a sexual misconduct allegation against McCloskey and that he had a “severe problem with alcohol.” He said he told George personally about both issues.
Armenio did not return a phone call from a Post reporter on Wednesday night asking about the discrepancy between what he said he told George and what he wrote in his letter at the time.
Finnerty, the Opus Dei spokesman, tried on Wednesday to explain Armenio’s conduct. “Father Peter’s intention was that we would prefer to talk to Cardinal George about it in person. Also it had been some time since the sad occurrences” of abuse in 2002, Finnerty said. “We thought that Father McCloskey would be capable of exercising his ministry as a priest. ... I think the point to remember is that Cardinal George was fully aware of what happened.”
Instead of condemning George for keeping McCloskey’s history a secret, Finnerty praised him. “He’s really a hero in all this. He treated [the victim] very well.”
When Opus Dei made the settlement public on Monday, Finnerty said one other woman had once reported McCloskey made her uncomfortable in the way he hugged her, and Opus Dei was in the process of investigating a third claim that was potentially “serious.” Both Finnerty and the Archdiocese of Chicago said no one ever reported any abusive behavior by McCloskey while he was practicing in Chicago.
Social media posts and articles in Catholic media show that until very recent years, McCloskey still celebrated Mass and advertised himself as a spiritual consultant.
Now, at age 65, McCloskey suffers from “advanced Alzheimer’s,” according to Opus Dei. He is “largely incapacitated and needs assistance for routine daily tasks,” the organization said.