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Boniface Ramsey: The Case of Theodore McCarrick

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.

Eventually, though, I began to have difficulty accepting it. The unusual behavior was exacerbated by the silence surrounding it; I sensed no disapproval, just a kind of resignation. I was a newcomer on the seminary scene and, at that time, a Dominican friar rather than a priest of the diocese of Newark. Perhaps I was able to view the situation with more critical distance than the other faculty members. In search of advice, I spoke with a fellow Dominican whose counsel I respected. It was obvious to him that I should bring my concerns to the rector of the seminary, which I did sometime in the late ’80s (I no longer remember exactly when). The rector knew exactly what I was talking about and promised to do what he could to stop it, after admitting that he felt strung between his loyalty to his archbishop and his realization that what the archbishop was doing wasn’t right. Whatever the rector may have done—and I believe he took some sort of action—McCarrick was unperturbed, and the visits to the beach house continued.

Sometime in the early ’90s (again, I no longer remember the exact date), the voting members of the faculty had their customary meeting at the end of the academic year to discuss the seminarians and their possible promotion to the next year. One of those seminarians was a man who, for several reasons, I believed should be expelled. I raised my concerns with the other voting members; they agreed with me, and the student was expelled. When I returned to the seminary to begin the next academic year, the rector (different than the one to whom I had brought my concerns some years previously) told me that McCarrick knew that I was largely responsible for the expulsion of the seminarian in question, and that in consequence he had removed me from the voting faculty. I have come to realize, in retrospect, that McCarrick must have learned this from another member of the voting faculty who was present, and that this was a breach of confidence.

Shortly after this I telephoned the archbishop of Louisville, Thomas Kelly, a friend of mine now deceased, to tell him what had happened. I recall what he said—that “we all know” that McCarrick had “picked up” someone at an airport. From what I understand, McCarrick had met a good-looking flight attendant and invited him to become a seminarian then and there. (I’ve been told this was not the only such spontaneous invitation.) Whether this person shared McCarrick’s bed at the beach house or anywhere else, I don’t know, but he was clearly significant enough in McCarrick’s eyes for McCarrick to fire me when I led the charge to have him expelled. I understood that the “we” of “we all know” meant McCarrick’s fellow bishops. This was my first inkling that knowledge of McCarrick’s behavior was not restricted to the seminary, or to the archdiocese of Newark, but was widespread among the American bishops.

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