The Catholic Church’s future depends on true confession
The only thing that can save the Roman Catholic Church in America is the truth, and the truth is going to hurt. This is the choice facing the ecclesial establishment, which must decide either to release its vast records related to clergy sexual abuse, or wait for state and federal investigations to deprive them of those documents by force of law. If the Church awaits the latter, then the Pennsylvania grand jury report that sparked this summer’s blistering revisitation of the sex-abuse crisis will be only the beginning.
On a certain level, the Church seems to know that disclosure is not only what its members desire but also the only way ahead. Even Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who resigned as archbishop of Washington after revelations that he protected sexually abusive priests while a bishop in Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006, seemed to intuit as much. One of Wuerl’s last official acts was to release a list of 31 clergy credibly accused of sexual assault over the past several decades. The move, Wuerl wrote, represented “a necessary step towards full transparency and accountability and the process of healing”.
Wuerl’s diagnosis was correct. But the list left survivors and parishioners unsettled, with lingering doubts about the archdiocese’s honesty.
The list included Peter Michael McCutcheon, a Maryland priest who pleaded guilty in 1986 to sexually molesting three boys over several years. The archdiocese document asserted that McCutcheon’s conduct had only come to its attention in 1986, the year he was arrested and convicted. But those familiar with McCutcheon’s brief career found themselves questioning the archdiocese’s claim.
“When the list stated they knew in 1986, I thought: They are continuing to give the impression of innocence on their part,” said McCutcheon’s sister-in-law, Diana McCutcheon, the mother of two of the priest’s victims. “And how will anyone believe what they have to say going forward?”
Diana McCutcheon’s doubts are not unfounded. Court documents and interviews with parishioners familiar with Peter McCutcheon’s behaviour suggest that church officials had ample indications of his disturbing conduct several years before his arrest. But instead of dealing with it, they appear to have moved him from parish to parish, while the abuse continued.
This is, by now, a familiar story. But its details emerge at a critical moment for the Catholic Church in the United States. The Pennsylvania report — and the summer’s horrific revelations regarding a pattern of credible sexual-abuse allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick spanning decades — have brought the church’s ongoing mishandling of the scandal back to the fore. Catholics experienced one crisis of confidence when they realised they could not necessarily trust the clergy to whom they entrusted their spiritual care and daily lives. We are now undergoing another, as it becomes clearer and clearer that high-ranking prelates have neglected their duties to hold abusers and their enablers accountable. At this point, preserving Catholics’ trust in their spiritual shepherds is paramount for the survival of the American ecclesial establishment. Yet some prelates are still holding back — still trying to outrun a crisis that has already enveloped them, one that enveloped the lay faithful long ago.
McCutcheon’s abuse began in the early 1980s, according to court records and his victims’ recollections. In 1982, McCutcheon, then a 30-year-old Catholic priest, invited his 14-year-old nephew to spend the night at his apartment, where he plied him with alcohol and induced him to masturbate with him. Two years later, he repeated the offence with the same boy, and began initiating sexual activity with a second nephew, the first victim’s 13-year-old brother. In 1983, he persuaded an unrelated 14-year-old parishioner to trade oral sex with him in a church basement.
The McCutcheon boys’ mother, Diana, didn’t realise what was happening to her sons until 1986, when one of her sons told her what their uncle had done to him. She immediately contacted Maryland police, and her sons filed police reports. When news of McCutcheon’s offences broke, the third victim — a teenager named Richard Armstrong — came forward to report that McCutcheon had molested him in the summer of 1983, when he was 14. (The Washington Post does not identify victims of sex crimes without their permission. Armstrong agreed to be named.)
McCutcheon pleaded guilty to five counts of sexual abuse against the three minors and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, reduced to five years’ probation after he spent about a year behind bars. He was removed from ministry immediately upon his conviction, and formally laicised in 2004. His nephews never spoke to him again. His brother, Dick McCutcheon, handled all contact with him — such as managing affairs upon the death of their father — through attorneys. Peter McCutcheon did not respond to requests for comment.
But all of that is settled history. The questions about McCutcheon’s career of abuse, and the archdiocese’s possible role in abetting it, arose in the afterlife of his conviction, when his victims, their families and bystanders had time to reflect on the strange progression of events.
McCutcheon was ordained in 1979. It did not take long for indications of problematic behaviour to surface. His first parish assignment out of seminary was at St Peter’s Church in Waldorf, Maryland.
Civil court documents indicate that the late Monsignor John Scanlan, pastor of St Peter’s until 1984, began refusing to allow McCutcheon to have overnight guests at the church’s rectory, where some of the sexual abuse took place, according to his victims, sometime during his two years there. McCutcheon’s nephews said they were among his periodic guests.
McCutcheon’s family recalled that he took a leave of absence in the first half of 1982. Afterward, parish records show, McCutcheon arrived at Sacred Heart in Bowie, Maryland — and then abruptly vanished after just a few months.
Jenn Morson, a longtime Sacred Heart attendee, contacted me after the archdiocese released its list of clergy accused of sexual assault to share her astonishment at the assertion that authorities were only alerted to a problem with McCutcheon in 1986. “That is patently false,” Morson e-mailed me. “I am afraid I don’t trust the ADW [Archdiocese of Washington] since they are not telling the truth about McCutcheon.”
Morson’s mother, another longtime Sacred Heart parishioner, had a similar reaction. “I thought, this doesn’t make sense,” she told me. She and her family had attended Sacred Heart back then, she said, and heard rumours in the early 1980s that McCutcheon had been removed from their church at the request of their longtime pastor, the late Monsignor John Hogan. Marianne Gill, a Sacred Heart parishioner who researched the church’s clergy for a book on its history, told me the same thing.
In 1983, McCutcheon appeared on the rolls at St John Baptist de la Salle in Chillum, Maryland. According to police records, it was on the grounds of St John Baptist de la Salle that McCutcheon molested Armstrong, as well as the priest’s younger nephew. “I remember being in the rectory of St John’s with a beer in my hand, smoking cigarettes, with people coming in and out,” McCutcheon’s younger nephew told me. “People saw. People knew.”
Throughout the course of McCutcheon’s criminal hearings, Diana and Dick McCutcheon became convinced that the archdiocese had known of Peter McCutcheon’s proclivities long before his arrest. A year after his conviction, the McCutcheon couple filed a civil suit against the archdiocese, alleging that the church had been recklessly negligent.
Court documents related to the civil suit show that, before his arrest, Peter McCutcheon admitted to seeking counselling for his psychological issues — including alcoholism and paedophilia — from at least three priests, one of whom worked in the Archdiocesan Consultation Centre. In the case of the priest who worked in the Consultation Centre, McCutcheon testified that their discussions did not take place in a confessional context — although later he seemed to recant, as attorneys sought his counsellors’ depositions. The priest associated with the Consultation Centre asserted that the discussions were protected by the confessional privilege, and thus refused to supply the court with a full explanation of what McCutcheon had disclosed to him about his sexual activities in the early 1980s. St Luke’s Institute, a Catholic mental health facility where McCutcheon had received treatment, also fought against releasing depositions or records concerning McCutcheon’s time there.
On August 26, 1988, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Stanley B. Frosh ruled that McCutcheon’s statements were not protected by the seal of confession or by normal confidentiality rules surrounding psychologists and patients, and acknowledged plaintiffs’ frustration with St Luke’s refusal to comply with requests for information.
By October 14, the archdiocese offered the McCutcheon family a $500,000 settlement.
Diana and Dick McCutcheon had been prepared to go to trial. In fact, they had wanted to. “We were originally determined to bring the civil case to trial,” Dick McCutcheon told me. The couple wanted the public to know what the archdiocese had done — especially after a strange visit from their now-deceased family priest, the Reverend Americo DiNorcia, in the wake of Peter McCutcheon‘s arrest. “He told us: We’ve been addressing this, so why didn’t you come to us first, instead of the police?” Dick McCutcheon recalled. “He said that, in the past, when people would come to the Church with complaints, they would move priests around to parishes with fewer children.” The pattern he referred to seemed to fit Peter McCutcheon’s assignments to Maryland churches, and the McCutcheons were eager to expose the truth.
But when the archdiocese’s settlement offer arrived, the McCutcheons told me, it proved hard to turn down. They weighed the amount against their interest in making their story public, and how much their family had already been through. “Our kids were severely traumatised by this,” Diana McCutcheon told me, “and we felt that they couldn’t be put through trial.” Dick McCutcheon agreed. “I guess we got worn down by it.” Armstrong filed a similar suit against the archdiocese, which was also settled. “It was basically hush money,” Armstrong told me. Both settlements came with the stipulation that they remain sealed, though I was able to obtain some information relevant to those suits in the course of this reporting.
And there were still loose ends. Diana McCutcheon recalled that DiNorcia had informed her that the archdiocese was aware of two paedophiles who were still in active ministry at the time of Peter McCutcheon’s arrest. She was never told their names. Court records also state that there were two other victims of McCutcheon who chose not to come forward in 1986. Their identities were never shared in court. The trail died there.
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington said its records “do not reflect any of the statements or assertions that The Washington Post has attributed to the priests mentioned,” including any penalty imposed on McCutcheon by Monsignor Scanlan or any request on Monsignor Hogan’s part for McCutcheon’s departure. The archdiocese’s spokeswoman further said McCutcheon’s rotation of assignments through Maryland parishes “do not appear unusual”, and declined to comment on the archdiocese settlement with the McCutcheons and Armstrong.
The archdiocese continues to stand by its statement that it first learnt of Peter McCutcheon’s abuse when he was arrested in 1986.
McCutcheon’s case is not the only one to leave concerned onlookers with troubling questions about the Church’s transparency — and thus its commitment to resolving the sex-abuse crisis once and for all. In March, the Archdiocese of Buffalo released a list of 42 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. “Seeing the name in print, acknowledged by the church, can liberate and empower that [victim] to come forward,” Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone said at the time, “and we want them to come forward for help.”
Yet Malone’s assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, knew from viewing internal e-mails and documents that there were more priests with histories of sexual misconduct in the archdiocese than the bishop’s list had supplied. “I felt that instead of being transparent, we were almost being the opposite or — or half transparent,” O’Connor told CBS News last month.
In August, O’Connor leaked personnel files and other records to a Buffalo journalist that put the total number of credibly accused priests in the archdiocese at 118. Then she quit her job.
“I knew that the truth was locked up in the diocese’s secret archives and believed this toxic secrecy created an enormous injustice for survivors as well as for our diocese and our community,” O’Connor told me via e-mail.
Malone’s office released a statement shortly thereafter claiming that O’Connor’s comments about the bishop’s conduct were “plainly and embarrassingly contradictory”, based on remarks she had made before about how much she loved the church, her former boss and her Catholic community.
“It is precisely because I love my Catholic faith and our Church that I took the action I did,” O’Connor countered in an e-mail to me. “The more you love a person or an entity, the more you desire to preserve them from corruption of any kind. How could I witness duplicity and complicity at the highest level of our diocese and not do something about it?”
How indeed? Faith and hope endure: this is why many Catholics are still rallying around transparency and truth, and still seem to believe that, in the end, goodness will prevail and the Church will survive in a purified form. But there is suffering, too, and defection, despair. The victim of a sexually abusive priest scoffed when I told him over the phone that I go to Mass at a parish not far from the one where he was molested. “You’re still Catholic?” he asked. I had to pause. My answer — yes — felt almost like an insult. I wonder how many more ordinary Catholics now find it hard, when similarly pressed, to say the same. And the thought haunts me.
Still there is a path forward, but it branches only after the point of pain. One path — the path of confession, accountability, repentance and healing, the path of full disclosure, willing self-sacrifice on behalf of Catholic leaders — leads to a damaged ground from which the Church can nonetheless rebuild. The other route — the path of continued omissions, lies, recalcitrance and cowardice, hiding behind nondisclosure agreements and meting out reluctant, highly curated admissions — leads only farther into a mire of mistrust and doubt. Only the truth can set them free.
• Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post
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