Ponder this please. When you hear that someone has landed an exclusive “interview” with a leader of global importance, how much content do you expect this “interview” to contain?
I am not, of course, talking about one of those two- or three-minute “Entertainment Tonight” reports — “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Brad Pitt!” — in which a star answers two dishy questions during a Hollywood junket. I am talking about an “interview” with a newsmaker about a serious subject.
I bring this up because of a fascinating Slate piece that is billed as the first interview with former Washington D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been exiled to the vastness of Western Kansas, a region that journalists from elite zip codes rarely visit, to say the least. I happened to drive past the Cathedral of the Plains the other day and it just as hard to imagine Uncle Ted McCarrick in Victoria, Kansas, as picturing Truman Capote in nearby (relatively speaking) Holcolm, Kansas.
The dramatic double-decker headline proclaims:
Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess
Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.
Please understand: I think that reporter Ruth Graham’s brief encounter with McCarrick showed moxie and yields interesting and, some will say, predictable answers from the fallen prince of the church. I also enjoyed (I kid you not) her 2,500-word introduction to the interview, which is both a quick summary of the McCarrick disaster story and a touching look at the lives of the intensely Catholic Volga German culture of West Kansas. If this second subject does not intrigue you, reading this intro is going to seem like a long, long drive across the Kansas plains.
The interview itself is short — but important. This is true even though it reinforces many themes that have been woven through this tragedy from the start. McCarrick, for example, does believe that he was the victim of a conservative-Catholic plot.
When the reader finally reaches the encounter with the fallen cardinal, Graham stresses that she had been told he was not doing interviews. Still, she rang the doorway at the friary he now calls home:
A small plastic sign in the entryway asks visitors to ring once and wait three or four minutes for a response. It took about that long before an elderly man in a wheelchair opened the door; I told him I was a reporter and that I would like to speak with Ted McCarrick. He wheeled over to a phone on a small end table, and after a few false starts, his voice echoed through the building on the internal intercom: “Ted, there’s somebody here to see you.”
A few minutes later, a small man with a deeply hunched back walked slowly down the wooden staircase. He was wearing a pale blue T-shirt with a “KC” logo, knit pants, and loafers. He looked smaller and more stooped than he did in his last public appearance, but perhaps that was because this was the only time I had seen him without the elaborate vestments of clerical power. I introduced myself again as a reporter, and asked if he would be willing to talk. “I really haven’t up until now,” he said. I know, I replied, but I’ve come all this way.
McCarrick had a few minutes before lunch, so they stepped aside into a small meeting room. He is thankful for the way the priests and friars have treated him. He says he spends most of his time in the chapel and the library.
Then there is The Question, which receives a careful, even legalistic, answer.
I asked him if he had done it. He has been accused of sexually assaulting minors and making unwanted advances on seminary students he invited to his beach house in New Jersey over the course of many decades. Were those stories true? “I’m not as bad as they paint me,” he said. “I do not believe that I did the things that they accused me of.” I told him it sounded like he thought it was possible — that saying he didn’t “believe” he had done those things, or that he doesn’t remember them, makes it sound as if he’s leaving it an open question. No, he said.
There was only one accusation he wanted to discuss specifically: James Grein’s allegation that McCarrick had groped him while hearing Grein’s confession. McCarrick raised this incident before I’d had a chance to ask about it. “The thing about the confession, it’s a horrible thing,” he said, sounding suddenly more urgent. “I was a priest for 60 years, and I would never have done anything like that. … That was horrible, to take the holy sacrament and to make it a sinful thing.” …
But why would so many people lie? I asked McCarrick. In the case of the seminarians at the beach house, how did they come up with such similar stories? “I think that they were encouraged to do that,” McCarrick said. “There were many who were in that situation who never had any problems like that.” This was a point he made several times: that plenty of young men had come to the beach house and had no problems there. He couldn’t have done it, in other words, because look at all the people he didn’t harass. As for who would have orchestrated such a campaign, he declined to name names, but referred vaguely to “enemies.”
McCarrick says exactly what conservative Catholics would expect him to say about the Catholics that he believes were his tormentors.
Here is a key thought from Graham that journalists should note: “The McCarrick story became a Catholic litmus test for attitudes about homosexuality, church politics, and Pope Francis himself, seen as a McCarrick ally.”
Following this logic: Does this mean that continuing to investigate the lives and work of McCarrick and his disciples (some in red hats) automatically helps pro-Catechism Catholics, and that is bad? That would explain the lack of coverage from key newsrooms, especially in greater New York City — the region that shaped this man’s life and career.
I also wonder if Graham should have mentioned, in this section of her long feature, that McCarrick himself — in a public address in 2013 — claimed to have been part of a behind-Vatican-doors network that ELECTED Francis. Were those on-the-record words relevant to this story?
One final point. Those inclined to feel compassion for McCarrick will appreciate how Graham ends this piece.
The question: Does McCarrick go to Confession? Here is the next-to-last paragraph:
A priest comes to the friary to hear confession once a week, and McCarrick participates. Confessionals — and the Catholic Church — are places where both honesty and secrecy are holy. It is impossible for me not to wonder what he says there, when he has the sacred freedom to tell the truth about his life, now winding to a close in lonesome notoriety. He reminded me several times in our conversation that he was a priest for 60 years, but no matter what he sees when he looks backward, he must know that he will not be remembered as a shepherd. In this small town in western Kansas, he’s a living icon of both the crime of clerical sexual abuse and the church’s toxic willingness to cover it up. He’s not optimistic about having the chance to move back east. “I don’t know how many years are in my calendar,” he said. “One tries one’s best to accept where one is.”
Read it all. And don’t just skip to the short interview at the end.
Congratulations to Graham for landing this exclusive, while so many reporters are just letting the clock on this story tick down to zero.