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Prominent Opus Dei priest was sent to Chicago after sexual misconduct complaint

The Rev. C. John McCloskey on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' in 2002.

Opus Dei says the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a once-prominent priest in Washington, D.C., was sent to Chicago in early 2005 after a woman made a “credible” allegation of sexual misconduct. He's seen here on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' in 2002. | Getty Images

A Catholic priest and author who belongs to the tradition-minded Opus Dei organization and once tended to the conservative elite in Washington, D.C., later became a fixture in the Chicago area, where he lived and worked for almost nine years, until late 2013.

Why the Rev. C. John McCloskey left Washington and later was sent to Chicago in early 2005 is only now coming to light: Opus Dei confirmed Tuesday that he faced a “credible” allegation of sexual misconduct against a woman while working in Washington, and Chicago was considered a more structured environment for him.

McCloskey reportedly groped a woman he was counseling at the Catholic Information Center, described by The Washington Post as “a K Street hub of Catholic life in downtown Washington.”

Opus Dei settled a legal claim by the woman for just under $1 million in 2005, around the time he started working in Chicago, Opus Dei spokesman Brian Finnerty said. He said Opus Dei is speaking about the case now because the woman recently asked the organization to publicize it.

This is the only misconduct-related legal settlement paid by Opus Dei in the United States, according to Finnerty, who said the payout was covered by a donor who wants to stay anonymous.

A complaint from the woman came to light in November 2002, according to a written statement from the Rev. Thomas Bohlin, vicar of Opus Dei in the United States. That complaint was investigated by the organization, and McCloskey was removed from his position at the center a year later, according to the statement.

Asked why McCloskey was sent to Chicago, Finnerty said that in Chicago “it’d be easier for us to make sure this didn’t happen again.”

McCloskey — now 65, suffering from Alzheimer’s and living in Virginia — started working in Chicago in January 2005.

Then-Cardinal Francis George, who died in 2015, was made aware of the accusation against McCloskey and told the group he wouldn’t let him serve as a priest in Chicago unless the cardinal spoke with the woman who made the allegation, according to Finnerty.

“Cardinal George did speak to her,” then gave McCloskey permission to minister as long as his work didn’t directly involve women for a year, Finnerty said. That meant not hearing confessions from women or providing them with spiritual direction, though he was allowed to offer mass to men, according to Finnerty, who said Opus Dei kept the restriction for an additional year.

Finnerty said there have been no complaints regarding McCloskey’s time in Chicago or prior to his time in Washington, though there is another allegation of inappropriate behavior with a woman being looked into for his time at the Catholic Information Center. A third woman has mentioned feeling uncomfortable about a hug from McCloskey.

In Catholic tradition, the faithful are supposed to regularly confess their sins to a priest. While that act has become less formalized over the years by many Catholic priests, Opus Dei priests still hear confessions in private booths in churches, with a screen between them and those confessing.

Finnerty said McCloskey’s interaction with women “was very limited in Chicago” even after restrictions were removed. He said signs of “cognitive impairment” were detected in 2010 and that McCloskey “did have a problem with alcohol . . . and he received treatment for that.”

Chicago was the first American city for Opus Dei to settle in — in 1949. It’s involved with several schools and, in 1991, was “entrusted” by then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin with St. Mary of the Angels, a Bucktown church near the Kennedy Expressway known for its towering dome and angel statues along the roofline.

McCloskey heard confessions and said mass at that church among others in the Chicago area, Finnerty said.

At one time, McCloskey was something of a clerical superstar, writing books, appearing on TV and helping convert high-profile political figures to Catholicism, including former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

McCloskey also helped officiate the late-in-life baptism of the late political columnist and commentator Robert Novak.

Finnerty said, “There are many people out there who thought he was a great help to them . . . but there’s also what happened to her . . . It’s very sad, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.”

While the church is in the midst of a worldwide scandal involving child sex abuse by priests and cover-ups by the hierarchy, the crisis also involves sexual misconduct by priests against adults, men and women.

Bohlin said in his statement: “I am very sorry for any suffering caused to any woman by Father McCloskey’s actions and pray that God may bring healing to her. I would also ask you to pray for Father McCloskey as his health continues to decline.

“I am painfully aware of all that the church is suffering, and I am very sorry that we in Opus Dei have added to it.”