Father Joseph McLoone’s alleged scheme was a tricky one.
The 56-year-old pastor used his position at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Downingtown, Pa., to open a secret bank account in 2011, according to charges filed Wednesday by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office. With unbridled access to parish funds, he diverted donations and misappropriated fees, moving more than $100,000 into the “St. Joseph Activity Account,” and spent the money on boyfriends, a beach house and fine dining with men he met on dating apps, court documents say.
The theft went unnoticed for six years, according to court documents reviewed by The Washington Post, but McLoone was arrested on Wednesday and charged with 19 counts, including theft and receiving stolen property.
“Father McLoone held a position of leadership, and his parishioners trusted him to properly handle their generous donations to the church,” said Chester County District Attorney’s Office chief of staff Charles A. Gaza. “Father McLoone violated the trust of the members of St. Joseph for his own personal gain.”
In all, prosecutors allege McLoone stole $98,405 from the parish “to fund his personal lifestyle,” which included a beach home in Ocean City, N.J., travel and dining and payments to more than a dozen adult men whom McLoone admitted to meeting on Grindr, a police affidavit of probable cause said.
In early 2018, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia discovered McLoone’s off-the-books account, a violation of archdiocesan procedures. According to chief communications officer Kenneth Gavin, the archdiocese froze the account and launched an investigation into the parish’s financial records.
McLoone admitted to administrators that some of the account’s expenses were “of an inappropriate nature” and, Gavin said in a statement, “were related to relationships with adults that represented a violation of ‘The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries’ established by the archdiocese.”
Soon thereafter, McLoone was placed on administrative leave; St. Joseph Parish did not respond to The Post’s request for a comment.
Attorney Melissa McCafferty, who represents McLoone, told The Post Thursday that the charges were “based on a lot of suspicion, innuendo and personal feelings about [McLoone’s] personal life, which have nothing to do with a crime being committed.”
Released on $50,000 bail, McLoone is to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Sept. 18.
The New York Times published an extraordinary article this week based on interviews with two dozen gay Catholic priests and seminarians in 13 states. “Out” men and women today are often widely admired, but most of the interviews had to be conducted anonymously because the Vatican still treats homosexuality as “objectively disordered” — a policy that persists even though the representation of gay men in the priesthood is higher, probably far higher, than in the general population.
The relevant catechism about sexuality does not condemn people with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” just those who act on those tendencies. In other words, you can be gay so long as you don’t do anything about it. The Times article rightly presents this distinction as a trial for the priests involved — one of the last major throwbacks to the era of “the love that dare not speak its name” (as Oscar Wilde’s partner, Lord Alfred Douglas, put it). But I wondered how the church’s policy on homosexuality affects men and women, as well as boys and girls, who are not priests.
The gay priest is required, generally, to uphold the official teaching of his church and of his superiors, making him a collaborator in the suppression of his gay brothers and sisters outside the clergy. In this way, without intending to, the victimized become victimizers. How does that play out, to take an example, in the confessional? If a penitent confesses homosexual activity to a gay priest, does the priest channel God’s forgiveness of a sin that he does not himself consider a sin? This is just one of the many ways in which we Catholics, if we refrain from criticizing this particular stance of our church, contribute to the persecution of the LGBTQ community.
The deepest irony is that a priest who is required to go against his nature is told that he must do this because of “natural law.” The church’s quaint theory of natural law is that the first biological use of an activity is the only permissible use of that activity. If the biological use of sex is for procreation, any other use is “against nature.”
The absurdity of this view is made clear by considering the first biological use for eating: the sustenance of life. If every other use of nutrition is against nature, then any diet beyond what is consumed for life-maintenance is a sin — in other words, no wedding cakes, no champagne toasts. Yet the church continues to adhere to so-called natural law because it underpins doctrine on all sexual matters, including the condemnations of abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research.
Given the stakes in these and other matters, the ban on gay sex involves a larger “church teaching” than the single matter of homosexuality.
Priests and bishops who cover up male homosexuality are prone to a mutual blackmail with those who commit and conceal heterosexual acts by the clergy — sometimes involving women, including nuns, who have been victimized by priests. The Times’s portrait of gay priests was followed by a powerful Feb. 18 article revealing that the church has internal policies for dealing with priests who father children. The Vatican confirmed, apparently for the first time, that a priest with progeny is encouraged to ask for release from his ministry “to assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child” — there being no requirement in canon law that a priest perform this basic act of love for his offspring and the child’s mother.
Secrecy in one clerical area intersects with secrecy in others. There is an implicit pledge that “your secret is safe with my secret.” If there are gay nuns — and why would there not be? — that adds another strand to the interweavings of concealment.
The trouble with any culture that maintains layer upon layer of deflected inspections is that, when so many people are guarding their own secrets, the deep examination of an institution becomes nearly impossible. The secrecies are too interdependent. Truly opening one realm of secrecy and addressing it may lead to an implosion of the entire system. That is the real problem faced this week by Pope Francis and the church leaders he has summoned from around the world for a conference at the Vatican to consider the labyrinthine and long-standing scandals of clerical sex abuse.
Fifty years ago a fierce debate erupted in the Catholic Church over the papal document “Humanae Vitae,” which reiterated the church’s ban on artificial contraception. Six hundred scholars, including many clergy, dissented from its teaching, sparking a debate that caused a crisis over authority in the worldwide church.
While much attention is focused on the epic battle between theologians and the institutional church, which undoubtedly was significant, as a historian of Catholic women, I find the responses of Catholic laywomen even more compelling.
As theologians dissented, bishops raged and popes dug in their heels, Catholic laywomen and their partners made their own family planning decisions, as they had for many years before and would for decades after.
What is Humanae Vitae?
Humanae Vitae was a papal encyclical released by Pope Paul VI in 1968. However, it wasn’t the first papal document to prohibit contraception use. Thirty-eight years prior to that encyclical, Pope Pius XI had released a document called “Casti Connubbi,” barring Catholics from using artificial contraception.
There were some clear differences between the two encyclicals. The first insisted that procreation was the chief purpose of the sexual act. The second said that the “unitive” purpose – that is, the use of sex as a means of expressing love and strengthening the marital union – was equally important.
But Paul VI ultimately insisted that the unitive could not be separated from the procreative. According to the Catholic Church, each and every conjugal act must be open to life.
Even though Humanae Vitae largely affirmed an established teaching, it was still controversial. This was because the debates among theologians and laypeople in the 30 years following Casti Connubi caused many to believe that the 1968 encyclical would overturn the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.
Role of Catholic women
What is important to note is that well before the 600 theologians expressed dissent, Catholic laywomen had already begun to reject this teaching. One major reason was what many believed to be a major flaw in the Vatican’s argument.
As early as the 1940s, large numbers of Catholic couples were encouraged to use the rhythm method, or timing sex to coincide with “the safe period” in a woman’s cycle, most commonly determined by charting a daily temperature reading. This was the accepted way to avoid conception, as they were not allowed to use a barrier method to achieve the same end.
Many failed to understand or accept this logic. If the church was admitting that couples could choose to limit their family size, why wouldn’t it allow them a more effective means of doing so, is what many women asked. They were also not convinced every sexual act need be open to life if the couple was open to having children.
They wrote eloquently about their marriages, their sex lives, their struggles with endless pregnancies and, increasingly, their frustration with rhythm. The only method of family limitation allowed them failed over and over again while the necessity of denying themselves sex caused rifts in couples already stressed by the care of large families.
Those frustrations often included the priests who promoted rhythm. “To me and many Catholics rhythm is a manifestation of an attitude of many clergymen looking down from their pedestals, offering us glib platitudes and the letter of the law, without seeing our real problems,” wrote Carolyn Scheibelhut, an American Catholic laywoman, in a letter to the editor of the Catholic magazine Marriage, in 1964.
Did the Vatican hear laywomen’s voices?
Laywomen’s voices finally reached the Vatican through the papal birth control commission assembled by Pope John XXIII, between 1963 to 1966, to study the issue of artificial contraception.
Patty Crowley, co-founder of the Christian Family Movement and one of the few married women invited to participate, brought with her the results of a survey of Catholic couples who overwhelmingly described their struggles with the teaching, despite often heroic attempts to abide by it.
She later remarked, “It just struck me as ridiculous….How could they be talking about marriage and birth control of all things without a lot more input from the persons involved?” Crowley testified before the commission, telling them that, besides being unreliable, rhythm was psychologically harmful, did not foster married love or unity and, moreover, was unnatural.
In what was surely a first in this group of primarily celibate men, Crowley explained that the majority of women most desire sexual intercourse during ovulation, precisely when they were taught to avoid sex. “Any simple psychology book tells us that people who are in a constant state of stricture in an area that should be open and free and loving are damaging themselves and consequently others,” she insisted.
Collette Potvin, another married woman who testified, recalled thinking “When you die, God is going to say, ‘Did you love?’ He isn’t going to say, ‘Did you take your temperature?’”
Persuaded by these testimonies and others, the commission voted to overturn the ban. Leaked to the press in 1967, this decision raised the hopes of laypeople all over the world. These expectations fed the outrage when Pope Paul VI chose to disregard the majority report of his own commission in 1968.
Use of contraception today
So, do the majority of Catholic women follow the teachings of Humanae Vitae on contraceptive use?
Available data show they do not. Their choice to disregard this teaching started well before the letter was released. Among American Catholic women, for example, as of 1955, 30 percent used artificial contraception. Ten years later, that number had reached 51 percent, all before the ban was reiterated in 1968.
By 1970 the number of Catholic women in the U.S. using birth control hit 68 percent, and today there is almost no difference between the birth control practices of Catholics and non-Catholics in the United States. Globally, as of 2015, there is little difference between Catholic and non-Catholic regions. For example, the percentage of contraceptive use in heavily Catholic Latin America and the Caribbean was 72.7 percent, – a 36.9 percent increase since 1970 – compared to 74.8 percent in North America.
I would argue the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae is a moment to remember the laywomen who changed Catholic history before, during and after 1968. It was laywomen’s collective decision to disregard the teaching that truly shaped Catholics’ modern attitudes toward birth control.
Nineteen groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Monday to drug store chain Walgreens expressing concerns about the company’s plans for a Catholic hospital to run its in-store health clinics in Washington state and Oregon.
In the letter, the organizations asked if the clinics would allow access to contraception, abortion drugs and prescriptions to help terminally ill patients end their own lives, which is legal in both states.
The groups note that other health organizations have stopped providing abortions after partnering with Providence Health, the Catholic hospital.
“In our states, we have consistently seen that when secular entities join with religious health systems, the services, information, or referrals provided at the secular entity become limited by religious doctrine,” the letter said.
When Swedish Medical Center in Seattle partnered with Providence Health in 2012, it stopped offering elective abortion services, the groups say. When Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton, Washington, affiliated with a religious health system in 2013, its doctors stopped prescribing aid-in-dying medications.
Highline Medical Center in Burien, Washington, also agreed to comply with Catholic ethical guidelines when it partnered with a religious health system in 2013.
Organizations including NARAL, Planned Parenthood, Compassion & Choices and several gay-rights organizations signed the letter.
It also asked whether Walgreens would continue to serve all customers equally, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It questioned whether transgender men or women will be able to receive a prescription for hormone therapy at one of the clinics.
“Can Walgreens offer assurances that its LGBTQ customers and LGBTQ patients at the clinics will be treated with dignity and respect and will receive the same medical standard of care as any other customer?” the letter said.
Walgreens has announced that Providence Health will be opening 25 health clinics within its stores.
Jim Cohn, a spokesman for the Deerfield, Illinois-based drug store company, said he could not immediately comment on the letter.
The Catholic hospital did not immediately return a phone call and email seeking comment.
Now that the smoke has cleared from St. Peter’s Square, the future of the Roman Catholic Church is on the minds of many. Catholics are eternally hopeful, so the news of the papal election of an Argentine Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man of simple personal ways, engendered a certain enthusiasm.
My first official act in the new pontificate was to call a wise octogenarian friend in Buenos Aires, my favorite city in the world, to join in that country’s pride and get an initial assessment of the man. Her reaction was what I would have expected from a Catholic in Boston if Cardinal Bernard Law had been elected. Her one word that stood out was “scary.”
Progressive Catholics had low expectations of the conclave since only what went in would come out, only hand-picked conservative, toe-the-party-line types were electors. Moreover, the process was flawed on the face of it by the lack of women, young people, and lay people. It was flawed by a dearth of democracy. Not even the seagull that sat on the chimney awaiting the decision was enough to persuade that the Holy Spirit was really in charge.
Structural changes in the kyriarchal model of church are needed so that many voices can be heard and many people can participate in decision-making in base communities, parishes, regions, and indeed in global conversations among the more than one billion Catholics. Short of this, no amount of cleaning up the curia or leading by personal asceticism, which are both expected of Pope Francis, will suffice for more than cosmetic changes. Leaving aside the ermine-lined cloak that his predecessor favored is symbolically notable but not institution changing.
The papal selection process, long thought to be secret, is now quite transparent. Once the white smoke rose, but before the name was announced, the Italian Bishops’ Conference tipped off the world in their email of congratulations to Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. Oops! He was not elected pope, even though he was widely considered the choice of the Pope Emeritus and those who want the curia reformed. Instead, the second highest vote getter at the previous conclave (2005) that picked Benedict XVI was chosen this time. Cardinal Bergoglio was apparently more acceptable to left, right, and center of a very conservative group of electors.
Geography is destiny. A cursory look at the Roman Catholic Church worldwide shows more than 400 million Catholics in Latin America, 125 million each in Asia and Africa, 265 million in Europe, 100 million in North America, and 8 million in Oceana. A Latin American pope is a good business decision, consistent with what an economist suggested as part of a wholesale makeover of the institution. The European Catholic Church has simply lost market share (from 65 percent a century ago to 24 percent now). The Global South is the church’s future. So a Latin American pope is a logical choice. But let the record show that this one comes from a country where Mass attendance numbers are more like France today than Italy of old. Argentina is an increasingly secular democracy where Cardinal Bergoglio grew used to being on the losing side of social change efforts, including divorce and same-sex marriage, which are now legal there. Argentina is Argentina.
After completing a doctoral dissertation in which I compared Latin American liberation theology and U.S. feminist theology, I spent 1980-81 as a visiting professor at ISEDET, the ecumenical Protestant seminary in Buenos Aires. I volunteered at Servicio Paz y Justicia led by Adolfo Perez Esquivel, where I got an education about social justice. The “Dirty War” was raging. Religious people were working feverishly to find thousands of people who had been “disappeared” and prevent others from suffering the same fate. Many Catholic priests perished; Jews suffered disproportionately to their numbers in the population.
Our faculty, some members of the Lutheran school, and those of Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano led brilliantly by Conservative Rabbi Marshall Myer (to whom Jacobo Timmerman dedicated his stirring book, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number) met monthly for lunch and discussion of how we could be useful in a difficult situation. I do not recall any Jesuits in attendance. Plans to host a weekend meeting at our school focused on human rights and youth resulted in the firebombing of the ISEDET library in November 1980 with the loss of 2,000 books. I learned close up and personal that theology has consequences.
The controversy over then Cardinal Bergoglio’s role in the kidnapping of two Jesuits during this period is instructive. As a Jesuit leader, Padre Jorge, as he liked to be known informally, opposed liberation theology and the ecclesial model of base communities that was consistent with it. In my view, he opposed the most creative, politically-useful, scripturally-sound way of thinking about how people who were made poor by the avarice of others could change their context and bring about justice.
Instead of putting the public weight of the Jesuit order behind the efforts of some of his brothers in slums and shantytowns (and the women who were involved in both theological and pastoral work from this perspective), he ordered Jesuits to stick with parish assignments. The two priests in question chose to cast their lot with the poor instead of obey the dictates of the order.
Did the Jesuit superior-now-Pope Francis call the military dictators and agree to their kidnapping? No one is accusing him of this. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a human rights champion and Nobel Peace Laureate (1980) knew the scene so I trust his word. He says that the now pope was not involved with the military. There were bishops who played tennis with the generals, but Bergoglio was not one of them. In fact, Padre Jorge is alleged to have intervened with military leaders for the release of the two Jesuits. But this is small comfort.
The larger conservative theological program—which was in public opposition to the best efforts of church people to bring about justice by living out liberation theology principles—helped to create the dangerous situation in the first place. To apologize thirty years later and say the institutional church did not do enough does not bring back the disappeared. Theology has consequences. Moral do-overs are few and far between.
The hierarchical church’s behavior was to Argentina what the sex abuse cases and episcopal cover-up have been for U.S. Catholics, namely the straw that broke the camel’s back. I am haunted by a picture of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers of the disappeared, who went to the church center where the bishops were on retreat to clamor for their help in finding their children. The picture shows a line of police between the mothers and the bishops, the mothers on one side of the fence and the bishops on the other. The institutional church in Argentina has never recovered its credibility. To the contrary, it is further eroded by similar instances of being on the wrong side of the history of justice.
The election of a doctrinally conservative pope, even one with the winning simplicity of his namesake, is especially dangerous in today’s media-saturated world where image too often trumps substance. It is easy to rejoice in the lack of gross glitter that has come to characterize the institutional church while being distracted from how theological positions deepen and entrench social injustice. A kinder, gentler pope who puts the weight of the Roman Catholic hierarchal church behind efforts to prevent divorce, abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage—as Mr. Bergoglio did in his country—is, as my Argentine colleague observed, scary. While he may clean up some of the bureaucratic mess in the curia, he shows no evidence from his Argentina actions that he will be any more responsive than his predecessor to changing policies and structures that oppress the world’s poor, the majority of whom are women and children.
There is something perverse about opposing condom use and then washing the feet of people with HIV/AIDS. There is something suspect about opposing reproductive health care for women who may not want to get pregnant and then generously insisting on the legal baptism of children whose parents are not married. There is something dubious about calling the hierarchical church to a simpler way of being and ignoring the many women whose ministerial service would enhance its output. The Spanish expression that comes to mind is “what you give with the wrist, you erase with the elbow.” This seems to be the Jesuitical pattern of the new pope.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people kill themselves because Catholic hierarchs tell them that their sexuality is “intrinsically morally disordered.” Women die from unsafe, illegal abortions because the Catholic hierarchy spends millions of dollars opposing legislation that would make their choices safer. Survivors of sexual abuse by clergy live tortured lives because the cleric-centric structures of the church favor their abusers. While a few nuns famously ride the bus, the Vatican’s current crackdown on women religious makes most of them feel as if they have been thrown under the bus. Theology does indeed have consequences.
It is early to opine about the pontificate of Pope Francis. Catholics, including this one, are a hopeful lot. Five thousand journalists in Rome for the conclave should have asked more critical questions. My observation is that the recent papal election only serves to reinforce and reinscribe the Vatican’s power. In the absence of a religious counter-narrative, at a time when progressive Catholic voices are all but silenced, the papal theatrics—complete with an appealing hero triumphing in the end—keep the focus on the personal and spiritual, off the political and theological. It is time to reverse that pattern before any more people disappear.