Former students, Catholic community reflect on controversy surrounding former U. chaplain| Apr 4, 2019
Several months ago, Catholic prelature Opus Dei revealed they had settled a sexual misconduct case regarding Father C. John McCloskey, who previously served the Catholic community at the University.
During his time on campus in the late ’80s, McCloskey was considered a controversial figure by students, who believed he infringed upon their academic freedom.
McCloskey’s act of assault was originally reported in 2002, and Opus Dei reached a settlement with the victim in 2005.
“What happened was deeply painful for the woman, and we are very sorry for all she suffered,” Msgr. Thomas Bohlin wrote in the Opus Dei statement. “A settlement was reached with her in 2005. She has remained in contact with our activities.”
According to reporting by the Washington Post on January 7, 2019, the victim was receiving spiritual counseling from McCloskey at the time of the incident. McCloskey groped her repeatedly. After her initial complaint, Opus Dei mandated that McCloskey only work with women in traditional confessional settings and later enforced that he stop working with women completely. They also sent McCloskey into treatment for alcohol abuse that may have been related to his inappropriate behavior.
From 1985–1990, McCloskey served as Associate Chaplain for The Aquinas Institute, the University’s Catholic ministry. The University said it has no knowledge of allegations of sexual misconduct made against McCloskey while he worked with The Aquinas Institute.
“We are not aware of any complaints made against this person at Princeton,” Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian.
Robert Taliercio ’90 first met McCloskey during his first year at the University, when he attended a class he was teaching on the catechism. At McCloskey’s invitation, Taliercio then worked at an Opus Dei camp in Spain over the summer. Taliercio soon realized he was not interested in Opus Dei’s approach to Catholicism, but he kept up a standing meeting with McCloskey back on campus.
“But it became increasingly clear that he was promoting a very conservative view of Catholicism, including handing out some fliers to students which told them which courses were being offered from an anti-Christian perspective,” Taliercio said. “I thought that was not appropriate in a university setting.”
Taliercio and some of his Catholic peers viewed McCloskey’s preaching about academic choices as an infringement on their academic freedom. Some students were also uncomfortable with the manner in which McCloskey spoke to them in their private meetings with him.
“In the meetings I had with him, he would pressure me to go to confession,” Taliercio said. “I did not appreciate somebody pressuring me.”
According to Taliercio, his relationship with McCloskey ended when McCloskey kicked him out of his office at the end of one of their meetings.
“He called me invincibly ignorant and said I was a waste of time,” Taliercio said.
By 1990, McCloskey’s fifth year on campus, a group of students brainstormed how to combat his inappropriate behavior. Taliercio was among the leaders of these efforts, and he helped collect about 12 letters from students that detailed their negative encounters with Father McCloskey.
“We met with the bishop in Trenton and gave the letters to Joe Williamson the Dean of the Chapel,” Taliercio said. “We kept the letters confidential, so I never saw the letters.”
Following the collection and processing of the letters, McCloskey was asked to end his engagement with The Aquinas Institute and the Catholic students at the University. Since chaplains are not officially employed by the University, this injunction must have come from the leadership of the Aquinas Institute or directly from the Diocese of Trenton. However, University officials could have been involved in persuading the Diocese toward this decision, according to Father Gabriel Zeis, current Director and Chaplain of The Aquinas Institute.
“Princeton does not have authority except to speak to the bishop or the chapel to ask them to kick him out,” Zeis said. “The chaplain could have said ‘you’re not allowed on campus anymore, you’re not working with Aquinas anymore’, and it could have been at Princeton’s request.”
When asked whether allegations of sexual assault were made, Taliercio responded that he did not know of any, but he could not know for sure, since the letters were kept confidential.
“He didn’t try to abuse me,” said Taliercio. “I don’t know if he tried to abuse anyone. All I know is that some students were very upset with their interactions with him and willing to put down in writing their experiences with him.”
The Office of Religious Life has no record of the students’ letters, nor of complaints of sexual misconduct against McCloskey.
“I’ve never heard of such letters or seen evidence of them,” Reverend Alison Boden, current Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “I don’t know of any instances [of sexual misconduct], and it’s inappropriate to speculate.”
According to Zeis, the Aquinas Institute’s records of McCloskey made no reference to controversy. Father Zeis learned of the controversy in 1990 primarily from the ‘Prince’ articles that were written at the time.
“The only thing that we [the Aquinas Institute] remember is that Father McCloskey was a well-educated Columbia graduate, very committed to very conservative living of his faith,” he said.
Noting that McCloskey’s sexual misconduct was linked to inappropriate use of alcohol, Zeis said, “We don’t even have a record of alcohol when he was here.”
Taliercio claimed he was surprised that the controversy at the University did not appear to have a negative effect on the next stage of McCloskey’s professional life. In his next role, at the Catholic Information Center in D.C., McCloskey developed a well-known public persona, in part for his involvement in the conversion of public figures like Newt Gingrich.
“It was interesting to me that the episode at Princeton didn’t seem to have any negative impact on his career,” Taliercio said. “He was actually asked to leave the campus of the University, and he went on to a very high profile position in Washington D.C., and it didn’t seem there was any repercussion.”
Members of the University’s Catholic community expressed remorse over the news about McCloskey. They, like the officials at Opus Dei, wished to extend their prayers for the wellbeing of the victims.
“The Church is (and always has been) composed of sinful people, and this news is further evidence of that fact. I hope that those whom he injured — and all victims of clerical abuse — may receive God’s comfort. My prayers are with them all,” wrote Charlotte Moss ’19, former student president of the Aquinas Institute.
Zeis echoed this sentiment, noting his sadness for everyone involved in the situation.
“I think it’s very sad. We are all human beings, all of us. We have our demons and we face them. It’s just a sad story of a man with such a great mind who found addiction to be his downfall. You lose control and all kinds of other things can happen,” he said. “My heart goes out to him, and I pray for the victims.”
Several members of McCloskey’s family have not responded to request for comment.