In late July, I was just an hour from Hoxie, Kansas, (where I was born and spent my first 10 years) when I passed the exit on Interstate 70 for Victoria, Kan., home of “The Cathedral on the Plains.” For miles you can see the twin 141-foot limestone towers of the St. Fidelis Catholic Church.
The church and school dominate the town of 1,200 distinctly German and overwhelmingly catholic residents. St. Fidelis is the only church in Victoria. German immigrants moved to the area in the late 1800s. St. Fidelis was dedicated in 1911. The building features seating for 1,100, 44-foot ceilings and a 220-foot nave.
St. Fidelis is pretty much in the middle of nowhere out on the vast High Plains, and that’s how Victoria, Kan., and the church, came to be in the national news a year ago. As Ruth Graham writes in the Sept. 3 Slate magazine, “Last fall, God brought to Victoria an unexpected visitor: Theodore McCarrick, once the most powerful Catholic priests in America.” He was the archbishop of Washington D.C. from 2001-06. He was the priest “Meet the Press” relied on to talk about the abuse crisis. At the funerals of Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden, Tim Russert and William Rehnquist, McCarrick participated.
Just over a year ago, the jet-setting priest suddenly became the country’s most well-known accused perpetrator of clerical sexual abuse. The Vatican quickly removed McCarrick from public ministry, and McCarrick resigned his position as a cardinal, the first cardinal to ever resign over sexual-abuse allegations.
Graham writes that some in the church hierarchy had known for decades about the accusations brought against McCarrick. At least two accusations resulted in financial settlements. When more credible stories arose, McCarrick’s disgrace was swift. It left the Catholic Church with a problem, though. Where do you put a cardinal who has resigned under these circumstances?
At the end of August 2018, the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese announced that McCarrick had been moved from Washington to a small friary in Victoria, Kan. Suddenly a priest who once hobnobbed with popes and presidents was living more than 1,300 miles from Washington, D.C., and more than a four-hour drive from Denver or Kansas City.
The Victoria, Kan., residents were not happy. But in fact, it was one of the only places that would accept McCarrick. At the time of McCarrick’s arrival, Father Christopher Popravak was serving as the provincial minister for the Denver Archdiocese. The archdiocese operates the friary, and Popravak negotiated for McCarrick to be placed in the rural northwestern Kansas community.
Popravak said he has encountered clerical abuse victims many times, and says he prays for victims daily. McCarrick was accepted at the rural Kansas friary because Popravak and the priests there feel that showing mercy is part of their mandate as a Christians, not because they are sympathetic to abusers.
When the news broke last September of McCarrick’s arrival, parishioners at St. Fidelis were shocked, especially given the Catholic school being located just 150 feet from the friary. Father John Schmeidler assured his St. Fidelis flock that he loved them and would protect them. He said McCarrick not only would never be seen by their children, McCarrick would be seen by virtually no one. And he hasn’t been. That in itself leaves some people unsettled, knowing that a known predator is in their midst, especially one who is invisible to them. His being 89 years old and increasingly frail is of little comfort.
McCarrick’s room looks on an interior courtyard, not the school. Both Father Popravak of the Denver Archdiocese and Father John Schmeidler of St. Fidelis closely monitor McCarrick, assuring parishioners that he never has left the friary, even to enter the basilica next door. While many St. Fidelis parishioners want McCarrick moved somewhere else, their initial angst has died down. The only people who have ever seen him are the cooks and housekeepers in the friary.
In February, McCarrick was defrocked by the Vatican. The former priest now is “Mr. McCarrick” or just “Ted.” Technically, he can’t stay at the friary since he is no longer a priest, but it is letting the 89-year-old McCarrick stay put for now, and the Denver Archdiocese still is paying $500 a month for his room and board.
Though Graham was told she could not talk with McCarrick, he did briefly speak with her in late August. He told her he attends morning Mass in the friary and each week participates when a priest comes to the friary to hear confession. When Graham asked him if the stories about him abusing young seminarians were true, he said, “I’m not as bad as they paint me. I do not believe that I did the things that they accused me of.” Does that mean McCarrick doesn’t “believe” he did those things, or that he doesn’t remember them, making it sound like he’s leaving it an open question?
The heart of confession is owning the truth. Who of us hasn’t heard someone commit an indiscretion and say, “Sorry. That’s not the person I am"? In fact, it is the person we were at that moment. It may not the person we want to be. And that’s why we all had better keep praying with deep sincerity, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”