I taught at Immaculate Conception Seminary from the late 1980s until 1996, when Theodore McCarrick was archbishop of Newark and Immaculate Conception was his seminary. What I heard in those days about McCarrick’s misbehavior with seminarians I used to refer to, until very recently, as rumors. Now I realize that “rumors” was not the right word, because rumor suggests uncertainty. What the seminarians would talk about among themselves and with some members of the faculty were experiences that they themselves had undergone, or that they had heard others had undergone. It may have been gossip, but it was gossip about real events.
Most people who have been following the case of Theodore McCarrick know by now that he had a beach house on the Jersey Shore at his disposal and that he would regularly request seminarians to visit it with him. This is how it went: he or his secretary would contact the seminary and ask for five specific seminarians, or would just contact the seminarians directly. Understandably, a request from one’s archbishop could not easily be refused. When McCarrick and the five seminarians arrived at the beach house, there were six men and only five beds. McCarrick would send four of his guests to four of the available beds and then tell the fifth seminarian that he would “bunk” with him in a separate room. When bedtime came, McCarrick stripped himself naked, almost always in front of the seminarian, before putting on some bedclothes. The expectation was that the seminarian would do the same, although some managed to avoid this by going to the bathroom or by some other ruse. Sometimes, I was told, the five seminarians raced from the car to the house to claim beds for themselves, and the slowest ended up with the archbishop.
Whenever a seminarian who had slept in the same bed as McCarrick shared his experience with a faculty member, the common response was “Did he touch you?” As I search my memory for what happened thirty years ago, this may very well have been my response, too. I never heard that McCarrick touched anyone. Since there was no touching and concepts like sexual harassment and abuse of power were rather unfamiliar at the time, and since there was no precedent for how to deal with an archbishop who slept with his seminarians but didn’t touch them, there seemed nothing to do but to accept this unusual behavior.
The behavior was not only unusual; it was also wrong. But why? Because it was unbecoming of an archbishop? Because some seminarians were the objects of their archbishop’s attention and others weren’t? (He liked to refer to his favorites as “nephews” and to himself as their “Uncle Ted.”) Because it was a near occasion of sin? In any event, what member of the faculty would approach the archbishop to tell him that it just wasn’t right?
It must be emphasized here not only that sexual harassment and abuse of power were things people worried less about back then, but also that no one at the time knew anything of the allegations of child abuse that would be made against McCarrick and revealed by the New York Times in June of this year. There was only his unusual behavior with seminarians, which seemed to be accepted by everyone.
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