Recent allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick include reports that he made sexual advances toward seminarians during his tenure as Bishop of Metuchen and Archbishop of Newark.
CNA recently spoke to six priests of the Archdiocese of Newark, and one priest member of a religious order who was a seminarian in New York in the early 1970s, while McCarrick was a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
Citing archdiocesan policy and concerns about ecclesiastical repercussions for their candor, the priests agreed to speak to CNA only under the condition of anonymity. The priests spoke individually to CNA, and their accounts were compared for confirmation.
The religious priest who spoke to CNA said when he studied in a seminary in New York, McCarrick, who was then an aide to Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York, would sometimes visit the seminary. The priest said that McCarrick’s reputation was already well established by this time.
“The dean of our theology school was a classmate at CUA with McCarrick, and he knew about the rumors,” the priest told CNA, “he spoke about them with the other faculty and theologians very openly.”
So well-known was McCarrick’s reputation, the priest said, that when McCarrick would accompany Cooke to visit the seminary there was a standing joke that they had to "hide the handsome ones" before he arrived.
The same reputation reportedly followed the archbishop years later, when he served from 1986-2000 as Archbishop of Newark. One priest of the Archdiocese of Newark told CNA it was an uncomfortable experience when McCarrick came to visit the seminary.
The priest said that McCarrick would often place his hand on seminarians while talking with them, or on their thighs while seated near them.
“It was really unnerving. On the one hand you knew — knew — what was going on but you couldn’t believe it.”
Several other priests from Newark spoke to CNA about similar experiences.
One priest worked in close proximity to the archbishop in the archdiocesan chancery for a number of years. “There were the ‘nephews,’ for sure,” he said. “He had a type: tall, slim, intelligent - but no smokers.”
The priest told CNA that, in addition to trips to a house on the shore, McCarrick would invite young men to stay the night in the cathedral rectory in central Newark.
“Priests would tell me ‘he’s sleeping with them’ all the time, but I couldn’t believe it — they seemed like perfectly normal guys,” the priest said.
Another priest, a former priest secretary to McCarrick, told CNA that McCarrick frequently ordained classes of priests among the largest in the country, and that the archbishop prided himself on recruiting young men from the diocese to enter the seminary.
But many in the archdiocese say that the high numbers of ordinations came at a cost. One priest said that some graduating classes from the middle 1990s have seen nearly half of their members leave ministry, and concerns have been raised about the behavior of some of those who remain in ministry.
Fr. Desmond Rossi was a seminarian in Newark in the late 1980s. He has publicly alleged that, in 1988, two transitional deacons sexually abused him.
According to Rossi, he told archdiocesan authorities about the assault and went before a review board. He said that his story was “found credible, but nothing happened.” Instead, he claims the archdiocese turned against him for bringing the allegation forward.
“They tried to turn it on me," Rossi said.
Rossi eventually left the archdiocese and now serves as a priest in the Diocese of Albany. In 2004, the Archdiocese of Newark agreed to an out-of-court settlement of approximately $35,000 with Rossi in response to his accusations. At least one of the alleged abusers is still in active ministry in the Archdiocese of Newark, Rossi said.
Rossi’s allegations have resurfaced in the wake of the current scandals and on August 2, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, current Archbishop of Newark, announced that he would reexamine the matter, and that he had referred it to his Office for Canonical Affairs.
While the Archdiocese of Newark declined to confirm the name of the accused priest remaining in active ministry, several priests in the archdiocese identified him as Fr. James Weiner, and told CNA that he has a reputation among the clergy, dating back to his time in the seminary, for active homosexuality.
In recent years, several priests said, Weiner is known for hosting cocktail parties in his rectory, which other homosexual priests of the archdiocese are known to attend.
Three Newark priests independently gave CNA nearly identical accounts of being invited to these parties when they were newly ordained.
One recalled that he attended a cocktail party, thinking he had been invited to a simple priests’ dinner. “I was led into the room to a chorus of wolf-whistles,” he said. “It was clear right away I was ‘on display.’”
Another priest told CNA that he was also invited to a party hosted by the priest. “They were all carrying big mixed drinks, pink ones, it was like something out of Sex in City.”
He recalled that after asking for a beer, he was told by his host, “you need to try something more girly tonight.”
All recounted overtly sexual conversation at the cocktail parties. “I was fresh meat and they were trying me out,” one priest said.
All three said they left quickly upon realizing what was going on. “Everyone was getting loaded and getting closer on the couches, I wanted out of there,” a priest told CNA.
“Everyone kept calling me a ‘looker’ and saying they had to ‘keep me around’ from now on,” a third Newark priest told CNA.
The archdiocese declined to answer questions related to those parties.
All three priests told CNA that while the experience was deeply unpleasant, they had seen similar behavior in Newark’s seminary.
Seminarians and priests from ordination classes spanning 30 years, during the terms of McCarrick and Myers, reported to CNA that they had observed an active homosexual subculture of priest and seminarians within Newark’s Immaculate Conception Seminary.
One priest ordained in the early years of McCarrick’s term in Newark said that “a lot of people lost their innocence in the seminary.”
He told CNA that there were two distinct groups of students. “You had the men who were there because they had a deep love of the Lord and a vocation to serve his Church,” he said, adding that those men were the majority of seminarians.
“But there was a subculture, with its own group of men, that was openly homosexual and petty and vindictive with everyone else,” he explained.
The same priest said that before he entered the seminary he was warned he would “see things that weren’t right.” He said he was counseled by an older priest to “just remember who you are and why you are there.”
Several Newark priests told CNA that the same atmosphere existed under Archbishop John Myers, who led the archdiocese from 2001-2016.
One priest who studied during that period recalled being told, as a newly arrived seminarian, to lock his bedroom door at night to avoid “visitors.”
“I thought they were kidding — they really weren’t,” he said.
Another priest told CNA that, as a senior seminarian and transitional deacon, young seminarians would come to him in tears.
“They were just so scandalized by what they saw, these upperclassmen flagrantly carrying on with each other in gay relationships.”
A third priest says that these seminarians were frequently visited by other priests of the diocese, some of whom he later saw at the rectory cocktail parties.
“There was definitely a group of, well I guess we’re calling them ‘uncles’ now. They would come by to visit with the effeminate crowd, bring them stuff and take them out,” he said.
One priest told CNA that, in his judgment, many of Newark’s priests felt resigned to that culture, even after McCarrick left.
“It is so horrible, so repulsive, no one wants to look straight at it,” one priest said. “You don’t want to see it and at the same time you can’t miss it.”
Another told CNA that among diocesan authorities “there is a huge culture of toleration.”
“It is generational at this point. In seminary you’re told to mind your own business, keep your head down and not start trouble - they are over there doing whatever and you leave them to it. And then you’re ordained and it is the same story - you don’t win prizes for picking fights.”
Nevertheless, some cases still have the power to shock.
One Newark priest told CNA that he had direct knowledge that Fr. Mark O’Malley was in 2014 removed as rector of St. Andrew’s Hall, the archdiocesan college seminary, after an allegation that he hid a camera in the bedroom of a young priest at the seminary. Two additional Newark priests independently reported to CNA they had been informed in 2014 that O’Malley had been removed for that reason.
Additional sources close to the archdiocese confirmed that they had heard this allegation, with one characterizing it as a kind of open secret among Newark’s priests.
The Archdiocese of Newark announced in 2014 that O’Malley was seeking a ”medical leave of absence.” He has since returned to ministry, albeit not in a parish setting.
The archdiocese declined to comment on that allegation.
All three priests who relayed the story said incidents like that embittered them.
“It isn’t that a guy did a bad thing - that happens. It’s that it’s just not acknowledged. Everybody talks about it, everybody knows, but nobody looks right at it,” one of the priests said.
All six Newark priests CNA spoke to expressed hope that the sexual abuse scandals now embroiling the Church will lead to change. Several stressed that reforms of the seminary had already begun by the end of Myers’ term in office, and that a recent succession of diocesan vocations directors had imposed newly rigorous standards on prospective seminary candidates.
“When I was sent for graduate studies I heard the jokes from guys from other dioceses - ‘what the world disdains, Newark ordains’ they’d say. Those days are over and that’s a real comfort to me,” one priest said.
As for the problems with priests already in ministry, the priests agreed it was demoralizing, for priests and lay Catholics alike.
One said that priests living unfaithful lives are a scandal playing out “with the mute button on.”
“Our people aren’t stupid. They know who their pastors are, for good and bad. They know who drinks too much, they know if their priest is celibate or not. But they see nothing is done about it and they understand that the Church doesn’t mean what it says, or even care.”
Another told CNA, “nobody is fooled by the medical leave thing anymore. I’m terrified I might actually get sick, my parishioners would probably think I’d done something terrible.”
One priest said that expectations of change were raised during the brief tenure of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, appointed in 2013 to be Myers’ coadjutor archbishop, his successor-in-waiting.
Hebda chose to live in a dormitory at Seton Hall University and was a frequent sight around the archdiocesan seminaries. He was also reported to make unannounced visits to parishes, suddenly knocking at the back doors of rectories or sliding in to a back pew at Sunday Mass.
In 2015, before Hebda could become Newark’s archbishop, he was asked to serve as apostolic administrator of Minneapolis- St. Paul, in the wake of Archbishop John Nienstedt’s resignation. Hebda was appointed Nienstedt’s permanent replacement in 2016.
“He wasn’t kidding around. You could tell he wanted to know everything, who was who and what was what - and who was into what,” one pastor who received a surprise visit from Hebda told CNA.
Newark priests told CNA that they are still waiting to see what changes Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who became Archbishop of Newark in 2017, will bring to the archdiocese. Sources in the Newark chancery describe the cardinal as reserved, eager to listen to suggestions and proposals, but unwilling to be drawn into making decisions quickly.
Meanwhile, in parishes the priests of Newark wait to see, wondering if the current crises might bring about change.
“You hope that at some point the cardinal will act, that there will be nothing left to lose by acting, but we will see.”