I have thought long and hard about writing this story.
As in, I have thought about it for exactly 17 years…
I thought about it that morning – September 13, 2001 – but the smoke from the World Trade Center, still rising like a blackened pillar, the top drifting off over Brooklyn, distracted me as I drove down 280, home from the seminary.
I thought about it a few months later when I found myself working as a production assistant for the top-rated morning news program in New York. The “Boston problem” and subsequent Long Lent had broken open and the assignment editor, having chatted with me about my recent past, thought it was a fascinating tale. The executive producer, however, did not grasp the magnitude of that crisis and ran a segment on “the stripper workout” instead. To his credit, I would much rather have watched our aging features report (gracefully aging, she was a dear woman) comedically wrap her legs around a metal pole at 7 o’clock in the morning than to hear this story.
I thought about it when I actually had a chance to tell it to someone I thought might be able to help. One of the plentitude of auxiliary bishops in the Archdiocese of Newark had run into my mom at a parish function. She was worn down. Having lost three children in a housefire years earlier she would go on to tell me that what happened to me was worse for her because it struck at her faith. The bishop asked her how I was doing. He had been my college seminary rector and seemed unaware of my situation and wanted to meet with me. I honestly believe now that he may have simply been looking to see if I was interested in a lawsuit. He was not much help. For the record, Dad never spoke much about it either. I think he was sad for what happened to me. But he had lived through so much in his time on earth, this was just one more nail in the cross.
And after that I never really thought about telling it much to anyone again. I realized that no one would believe it. It’s not that they would distrust my veracity but that the details were so incredulous. Look, before this past summer if I had told you that a prominent cardinal of the Church had taken a seminarian to his secret pad on top of a hospital in Manhattan and made the young man don a sailor suit; would you have believed it? That story is not mine but mine is equally as strange.
The Beginning of the End
Let me begin during the early summer of 2000. I was between First and Second Theology. Teddy McCarrick hosted a cookout every year for all the seminarians. He called us his sons. We’ve since learned that he called some his “nephews”. We gathered for mass in the CYO center and then adjourned to the back lawn for hot dogs and hamburgers. McCarrick, like the consummate room-worker he was, made the rounds to all the tables. The man had a ton of seminarians. There were the 25 or so guys from the college seminary, the 40-50 guys from the major seminary, and then there were the dozens from the archdiocesan mission seminary, Redemptoris Mater. These were mostly foreign-born men who belonged to a group called the Neocatechumenal Way. By some accounts of late, the mission seminary functioned as a sort of pipeline in the funneling of young men into the US. Priesthood and favors for the bish in exchange for a green card. THAT part of the story I had heard during my time in seminary, minus the sexual favors part. We (the guys from the major seminary) all thought the guys from the mission seminary were here for purposes other than or in addition to ordination. Statistically, many of them left the diocese within a few years of ordination anyway.
Being the smoker I was I got up from the picnic table and excused myself. McCarrick knew I smoked. He had called me on it before. I never tried to hide it. But I still didn’t know if I was allowed to smoke on these grounds and I didn’t want the hassle. As I was walking toward my car a priest I had not met approached me. He called me by name and made a bee line toward me. “Going for a smoke?” he said. “Yes I am,” I replied with confidence.
There was a brief silence. And then:
“Mind if I join you?”
This man was the newly appointed vocations director for the archdiocese. “How’d you know my name?” I asked as we walked around to hide behind the building like a couple of high school kids. I flipped out my Zippo to light his cigarette. “I’m the vocations director,” he responded and told me that he had spent time looking over all the files. “Figured there had to be another smoker in this crowd.” A headshot of each seminarian was in his file. He matched my face to my picture. He had read my psychologicals and thought I’d be a down-to-earth, thoughtful, and fun person to talk with. In other words, “I could tell you weren’t on the puritanical bastards.” And before you get crazy over his language keep in mind we talk differently in New Jersey and this was two grown men speaking to each other on a sort of equal footing. I had, after all, just provided him with a smoking buddy. He hated these functions (as did I) and we did enjoy our conversation that afternoon. I told him how odd all of this was since the previous two vocations directors didn’t seem to know much about me at all. They were pure numbers guys in my view. But this guy was different. He had been taken from a parish and put into this role with no experience.
We became friends, he and I. Truly friends. I think he saw me as a connection to information about what was going on in the seminary. The rector apparently wouldn’t share much with him. He also saw me as someone he could trust if he had questions about the new guys and how they were doing. I enjoyed having a priest to talk to who truly seemed to get parish life. He was holy, practical, and fun to hang out with. The priests in the seminary had little to no parish experience. He got to know my family, came to the house often. He and I would grab dinner at a typical Jersey Italian restaurant. In short, this was a good friendship and I came to value his advice not only as vocations director but as a friend.
From him I learned interesting tidbits. Not really gossip but stuff that I had never heard that was apparently common knowledge. Again, I never heard about the beach house or the sex with seminarians thing. No, I learned instead that when Bishop Edward Egan of Bridgeport, CT was appointed to New York following the death of John Cardinal O’Connor, Teddy McCarrick was “moping around the chancery for a couple of days, depressed.” He had thought that was his next assignment. He really wanted a red hat. I also learned what life was like a decade earlier when he was in the same seminary. From him I learned about McCarrick’s close friendship with billionaire Leona Helmsley. And from him I also learned what how fear can grip even the most stalwart of hearts and induce a man to abandon his friendship…
*This is a blog post and I think 1200 words is sufficient for the moment. Shall I call the next one “Part 5-B?” I promise if you agree to read on I will have the next installment up tomorrow. Please leave a comment if you feel inclined and share this blog with your friends.