Still a Chance To Right a Wrong

Banished from the Westchester County rectory where he’d become a beloved pastor at Saint Elizabeth Seton Church, Bishop James McCarthy may take some solace in knowing that his friends have not abandoned him. In fact, they have rallied around him, demanding that the Catholic Church’s leaders here and in Rome account for the injustice they have perpetrated in the name of saving face.

After writing about the bishop in this space last week, I was inundated with letters, e-mails and telephone calls from his many friends and parishioners, most of whom agreed with my contention that the bishop had been unjustly punished for sexual indiscretions in his past. Some 15 years ago, he privately confessed that he’d had several love affairs with adult women during the first two decades of his priesthood-a violation of his vow of celibacy. But when one of those women, now 34 years old, reopened the issue through a letter to Cardinal Edward Egan earlier this year, the bishop was removed from his parish, leading to his resignation.

It’s important to remember that this is not a case of pedophilia, that the affairs took place between consenting adults. Of course, it’s fair to argue that the power dynamic between a priest and a younger woman is far from equal, but some of those who might make such an argument didn’t seem overly concerned about the power imbalance between a certain middle-aged President of the United States and a certain young intern some years ago.

Friends of the bishop confirmed to me details of an awful conversation between the papal nuncio-the Pope’s representative in Washington, D.C.-and the bishop, which were first reported in Neal Travis’ column in the New York Post . According to Mr. Travis and confirmed by several sources, the nuncio, Archbishop Gabriel Montavlo, told the bishop that he should leave New York and would never be able to celebrate Mass publicly again. An associate of the bishop said that based on what he’d heard about the meeting, he would describe the nuncio’s tone as “atrocious”-except that the word somehow seemed too benign. It was impossible to tell whether the nuncio was acting on instructions from Rome or elsewhere, the bishop’s friend said.

(Bishop McCarthy is making no public comment while his friends and parishioners lobby for his reinstatement.)

It’s interesting to note that among the bishop’s most stalwart allies are the friends and colleagues of the bishop’s late mentor, Cardinal John O’Connor. The bishop served as O’Connor’s secretary for years and was among the his most trusted aides-if anybody (besides the women involved) has a right to feel betrayed by the bishop’s sins, it would be the late cardinal’s friends. But they are among the bishop’s strongest supporters and, according to sources, some have been quietly advising the bishop since his resignation.

Although nearly everyone involved in the archdiocese publicly denies any sense of a rift between Cardinal O’Connor’s people and his very different successor, the McCarthy scandal has laid bare palpable tensions between the O’Connor camp and the incumbent cardinal. In fact, O’Connor’s friends, allies and former colleagues constitute a virtual chancery in exile, and while they are without a champion (although Bishop McCarthy might have been one), they are not without clout, especially in the fields of public relations and charitable giving.

The treatment meted out to Bishop McCarthy-Cardinal Egan’s abrupt order removing him from his parish for a sin to which he had confessed years before-has further strained relations between the late cardinal’s friends and the current cardinal. And those animosities will do nothing to ease Cardinal Egan’s attempts to reorganize, consolidate and otherwise reconfigure the Catholic Church’s money-losing network of schools, health-care facilities and social-service providers.

He needs the good will of all New Yorkers, especially those who worked closely with O’Connor, whether as advisers, as fund-raisers or as boosters (former Mayor Ed Koch comes to mind). These are the people who rally to such causes as the Inner City Scholarship Fund, which underwrites Catholic-school tuition for poor children, and who sell tickets to fund-raising dinners. But many influential New Yorkers-Catholics and non-Catholics alike-believe their services or advice are unwanted; some, in fact, complain privately that phone calls from the cardinal’s residence stopped the day O’Connor died more than two years ago.

Reconsidering the McCarthy case would go a long way toward healing some of the church’s self-inflicted wounds. Failing that, Bishop McCarthy’s friends at least deserve an explanation from those-whether based in New York, Washington or Rome-who insist that he is no longer qualified to serve his flock. If the bitter events of the last few months have demonstrated anything, it is that the Catholic laity simply will not take dictation from the church’s hierarchy.

They believe their voices and opinions should count for something, and they’re right.