Covering Up for Cardinal Spellman

News: Commentary
by George Neumayr  •  •  February 13, 2019   

The Church plays dumb about his misconduct

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The recent Salon article detailing groping allegations against Cardinal Francis Spellman, the long-serving archbishop of New York City who died in the late 1960s, couldn't possibly have come as news to officials within the Church. Insiders have long whispered about his legacy of misconduct and the role he played in foisting McCarricks upon the Church.

"This is the first time we have learned of this allegation, and take what the writer says seriously, as we do all allegations of abuse or inappropriate conduct," Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the archdiocese of New York, said to the Catholic News Agency. "We have never had a substantiated allegation of abuse against Cardinal Spellman, who died in 1967."

Notice the use of the word "substantiated" in the statement. In other words, the archdiocese was aware of allegations against Spellman but didn't bother to investigate them. Now that the media spotlight is on abuse again, the New York archdiocese feels the need to sound more concerned. Zwilling said to CNA that the author of the Salon piece, Lucian Truscott, should report "his allegation to our Safe Environment Director and/or the Victim Assistance Coordinator, so that we might offer whatever assistance might be needed."

That wasn't the attitude of the archdiocese of New York in the 1980s about Spellman. Back then, it didn't want to hear anything untoward about him. As detailed by the New York Press, author John Cooney tried to report on Spellman's misconduct in a biography but was blocked by the archdiocese.

Cooney had spoken to a number of sources who could testify to Spellman's active homosexuality, including a former Broadway dancer who said that Spellman knew he could get away with his double life owing to the docility and naivete of the faithful. Cooney told the New York Press that the Church sent an influential diplomat to his publisher, Times Books, to make sure that the damning material didn't make it past the galleys:

"In New York's clerical circles, Spellman's sex life was a source of profound embarrassment and shame to many priests," Cooney had written in the original manuscript of his book. When Mitchell Levitas, who was then the editor of The New York Times Book Review, received the manuscript for review, he realized it was a book that would make big news; he sent the book over to Arthur Gelb, who was then the managing editor of The New York Times. Gelb assigned reporter Ed McDowell to the story. McDowell interviewed Cooney, and went about interviewing others who were relevant to the story, including church officials.

The archdiocese, however, went ballistic when presented with the information, and became determined to keep it from being published. ... The church sent John Moore, the retired U.S. ambassador to Ireland and a close friend and confidant of several church officials, to appeal to Sidney Gruson, then vice chairman of the New York Times Co. "The Times was going to report that Cardinal Spellman was a homosexual," Moore later told journalist Eric Nadler, who wrote a piece for Forum about the ugly little coverup, "and I was determined to stop it." Moore told Nadler that this was the "third or fourth" time he had appealed to the Times regarding a sensitive church matter. "They've always done the right thing," he said.

As Cooney describes it, he was soon told by his editors at Times Books that his sourcing wasn't good enough, and that the four pages would have to be cut. He could keep a paragraph that alluded to the "rumors," but he would have to state that the rumors had been strongly contested by many people, even though, in his research, that had not truly been the case. The discussion of Spellman's homosexuality in the book was reduced to mere speculation, which was branded as irrelevant.

The expunged pages from Cooney's biography would no doubt give added credibility to the Salon piece, which features West Point cadets instead of Broadway boys. According to the piece, Spellman, then in his seventies, made repeated attempts to grope a West Point cadet, Truscott, who was interviewing him for a school publication. The attempted groping all happened in plain sight, with Spellman's personal assistant in tow, to keep the groping from going too far. It was surreal, recounts Truscott:

His assistant the monsignor showed me to a chair next to him. I took my seat and got out my pen and notebook and started the interview, but before I could even ask my first question, Spellman put his hand on my thigh and started moving it toward my crotch. He was just about to reach my private parts when the monsignor, who was standing behind him, reached over his shoulder and grabbed his wrist and put his hand back in his lap. "Now, now, eminence," the monsignor whispered to Spellman.

The Church is playing dumb about Spellman now, but even within the compass of this one incident, it is clear that Church officials knew about his gay predation. Should the New York attorney general's office obtain Spellman-related files, it is likely to find more mentions of his predation.

The will to root out the Spellmans and McCarricks remains weak. To the extent that the Church gets around to them, it only does so under substantial legal and media pressure.

Spellman, who ordained McCarrick, is one of the godfathers of the ecclesiastical culture that made the enabling of their misconduct possible. But, amazingly, as this picture comes into focus, the hierarchy continues to prattle on about lesser issues.

Recently, Pope Francis implied that the abuse of "nuns" by bishops and priests is a serious problem, which sounded like an attempt to deflect attention from the much greater problem of gay predation. The latter problem has been well documented and is undeniably pervasive. But the will to root out the Spellmans and McCarricks remains weak. To the extent that the Church gets around to them, it only does so under substantial legal and media pressure.


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