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Opinion: How do you know there were no red flags?

The case of Fr. Robert McWilliams demonstrates that it’s not enough to lament what wasn’t known; rather, there must be an effort to find out just exactly what went sideways and when and how.

Fr. Robert McWilliams, 41, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland, is seen in this undated photo. The former priest was sentenced to life in prison in Akron Federal Court Nov. 9, 2021, after being convicted of several federal charges involving child pornography and the sexual exploitation of children. (CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of Cleveland); right: Image of red flags (Zachary Keimig/Unsplash.com)

If you’re Catholic, and if you make any effort to stay abreast of news about the Church, you probably read this week about the two bishops and an entire seminary staff who exonerated themselves of any responsibility for the criminal predations of the sociopathic sexual deviant they trained, ordained, and assigned to ministry.

I’m referring to the case of Fr. Robert McWilliams of the Diocese of Cleveland, who entered a guilty plea in July to federal sex crimes including child pornography and was sentenced this week to life in prison.

The National Catholic Register quoted the rector of the Cleveland seminary where McWilliams trained, Fr. Mark Latcovich, to the effect that there were no red flags on McWilliams, for whose formation Latcovich was responsible.

“Were there any flags that said, ‘Oh, now that this has happened, I did notice X’? Absolutely not,” the Register quoted him as saying. The Pillar reported that McWilliams was known to his peers as a tech-savvy fellow who kept his private affairs to himself, and an inveterate rule-breaker who bragged about using his cellular phone to avoid seminary security measures and also dealt in contraband.

So, there were no red flags that Fr. Latcovich saw waving, if we are to take him at his word.

Then again, Fr. Latcovich also recalled the words of Archbishop Nelson Perez – then Bishop Perez of Cleveland – at the time police collared McWilliams: “Only one person is responsible [for McWilliams’ malfeasance] and that’s Bobby McWilliams.” I mean, maybe? Sorta? Yeah, but … still?

Fr. Latcovich also recalled Archbishop Perez saying, “[McWilliams is] the one who never allowed the formation program to help him.”

Wait, what?

If by “help” he means “spot his sociopathy and sexual deviance before he can get into orders and act on his proclivities,” then, sure. Fr. Latcovich told the Register they’d have helped McWilliams come to grips with his issues before he committed the crimes that got him life in prison. The thing is, McWilliams wanted to be in Orders. Apparently, the bishops and the seminary formators wanted him to be in Orders, too. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been ordained.

Meanwhile, their concern is apparently for what they could have done for the sociopath, if only he’d acknowledged his depravity and asked them for help. That’s all fine and good, but their concern for the victims that their failure to police McWilliams had a hand in creating is rather conspicuous by way of absence from their stated considerations, at least from the Register piece.

The whole business is eerily similar to the line taken by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend recently, when it emerged that one of his new men allegedly decided to go on a bender and get frisky with a couple of girls from the local high school where he was a chaplain, after plying them with alcohol. Twice.

“Temptation and sin, I guess, you know, happens,” Bishop Rhoades told journalists at a hastily arranged (not to say “Shepilovian”) press conference on September 29th, a little more than a week after the diocese had learned of the allegations against the priest, Fr. David Huneck, “but I can’t really think of anything that we could have done differently – I mean, there were no red flags – so, it really is extremely troubling.”

It is extremely troubling. The two questions nobody in attendance asked are: “How do you know there were no red flags?” and, “Have you even tried to think about what you could have done differently?”

A week – even two – is barely enough time to compile a list of all the people investigators would want to interview as a matter of course. It’s certainly not enough time to get any real digging done into the guy’s history, associations, extra-curriculars, etc. Not to mention his time in formation, his teachers, classmates, the pastors and laity of parishes to which he was assigned, administrators and teachers and students – current and former – at the high school where he was a chaplain.

Now, the business in Cleveland is worse by orders of magnitude than the business in Fort Wayne-South Bend – incommensurable, really – but the leadership responses track with each other in troubling ways.

“If there was a magic thing that we could do that would predict this,” Fr. Latcovich told the Register, “we would be first in line to get it, and it would be worth all the money we could spend on this for the good of the Church.”

“I don’t know if there’s any kind of protocol that would have fixed it,” Fr. Latcovich also said. He’s not wrong. There isn’t. Bad guys will fly under the radar. Bad actors will get through. Terrible things will happen.

When a train derails, the NTSB doesn’t say, “Look, if we knew it was going to crash, we would’ve done something.” There would be calls for heads on plates. That’s why they say things like: “We’ll find out what happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Then, they find out what happened, and then write and release reports of their findings, which usually contain lots of helpful suggestions about how to make sure whatever happened doesn’t happen again.

Could one of these guys, just once, acknowledge that things went horribly sideways – maybe on their watch, maybe not – and promise to toss the whole place in an effort to find out just exactly what went sideways and when and how, and then make good on the promise, and resolve to fix it or die trying?


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About Christopher R. Altieri 146 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

22 Comments

  1. Journalists often believe that they and the public for whom they purport to speak have a right to full responses and answers and that all should trust that those words of confession will be treated in a just, temperate and prudent manner. Bishops and seminary rectors have legal advisors. If they were going to admit that there was more they could do, maybe that admission would not be made to a journalist, however faithful that journalist may be. There is no doubt in my mind that these bishops and Fr Latkovich, are sick about all of this, not only for the victims but also for the perpetrator whom faces a grisly future devoid of the mercy that is the Church’s stock in trade. I do not know how much they blame themselves but I do know they simply cannot say that they share a responsibility even if they understand clearly that they do. It is all horribly sad with one woman’s faith being the shining light in the whole episode.

    • Yes, Latcovich and Archbishop Perez are just so sick about ordaining and installing as a pastor a homosexual rapist and predator that their primary concern is to heed their “legal advisors” and do everything they can to minimize their civil and criminal liability.

  2. One thing I know for certain having worked for a number of years in a diocese, as well as being closely associated with the organizational Church for most of my adult life. It is this: no predator or sexual pervert among the clergy operates totally under the wire. IMPOSSIBLE! There are numerous other clergy who are aware of the malfeasance and say nothing. None are so blind as those who will not see. It’s easier just to ignore the crimes and go about your business. Just don’t make waves. Keep your mouth shut and don’t concern yourself.

    Take McCarrick for example. You can count on it that hundreds of priests and bishops knew about his sinful misdeeds FOR YEARS! And no one ever came forward.

    My conclusion: Our Church is chock full of moral cowards. And victims just keep coming. But thank God that our God is a just God.

    • People with incomplete information prefer to think the best of others, not the worst, even if it involves lying to ourselves. In our St. Vincent de Paul conference, we constantly make up fictitious explanations that allow us to justify helping people who do not make the best choices. “I think he’s somewhat confused.” “Her relatives could being exploiting her generous nature.” “He’s just not smart enough to manage his finances.” Nobody says, “He probably blew his disability check on drinking and internet porn and lottery tickets…again.”

    • Right On! This has been one of my reflexive reactions to clergy abuse disclosures for years. Hundreds of fellow priests were (are) surely aware of red flags of potential abusers and knew more about them than their bishops could ever know. Not just bishops but many fellow priests are at least silent passive, if not blantant, enablers of the clerical abuse.

  3. Our Lord warned us about times like these. The bishops and rector in this story are not true pastors. They are “hired hands” who do not care so much about a few boys being raped, but they do care very much about their own reputations and lifestyle. Because these stories are so widespread, they are the signs that our beloved Church is dead. The buildings remain, but the spirit of Faith has departed.

  4. Let’s just praise the Lord that they were exposed now and not after they became bishops, cardinals and other heads of the Church like McCarrick. Today, I see and hear of many ordained priests who are spreading the lies of Satan as piety throughout the world. Matt.18:6 – have they no fear of the Lord?

    • Your 2nd to last sentence is disturbing; are these reportable offenses being preached? or are you referring to the ‘feel good’ preaching?

      • Knowall, not sure what part of the country or world you are a part of but here in California there are some priests who openly embrace the LGBTQ community, have no problem with contraceptives and equate abortion with the problem of open immigration. At my work where safety is job #1, deviance from the norm is a recipe for disaster and a good manager takes any infraction seriously. A poor manager either pretends not to see it or works very hard to kick it down the road. Evil clowns like McCarrick and this joker McWilliams are not that clever but the ones who have been given the authority and responsibility to be alert and astute Shepards need to take their jobs seriously or step down.

        • Midwest

          Yes, CA is very liberal. Your governor may have the look but ‘he is a piece of work,’ as we say out this way.

          These lefties are a product of the intentional infiltration of the church with liberals from the 1970s and 1980s

    • I think this is the point. These guys actually were discovered pretty quickly. And yes it is possible for people to get away with crimes and depravity for a while. This is a particular gift of sociopaths.

      I doubt if the Seminary staff or supervisors of these two creeps were culpable. But it is also true there is little or nothing they could have done to “help” them since this kind of sociopath is refractory to intervention. But they sure could have kicked them. Sounds like sociopathic personality WAS evident in McWilliams, albeit not the sexual deviancy. A lesson here is that the behavior of inveterate rule flouting that was observed should have been enough of a predictor. The correlation is substantial I should think.

  5. This situation speaks loudly that there is a scandalous absence of depth spiritual direction and development in formation programs across the spectrum of dioceses and religious congregations. The gross inadequacy in this most important facet of formation is buttressed by an erroneous theological academy.
    Where there is no faith there can be no conversion. Psychological screening is no substitute for an encounter with Jesus Christ.

  6. Why would a man with such inclinations want to become a priest? I wonder about that. I doubt all this starts in the seminary…there must be a reason. Guilt?

  7. Rhoades & Perez: both coming from the stockpile of mitres approved, appointed, supported by the likes of Mr mccarrick.
    Its the corrosion from the top down that needs to be exposed & purified.

  8. “When a train derails, the NTSB doesn’t say, “Look, if we knew it was going to crash, we would’ve done something.” There would be calls for heads on plates. That’s why they say things like: “We’ll find out what happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Then, they find out what happened, and then write and release reports of their findings, which usually contain lots of helpful suggestions about how to make sure whatever happened doesn’t happen again.”

    Years ago, a plane went down in a storm over northern Indiana with the loss of everyone on board. The subsequent safety investigation simply concluded that the the plane had assumed an “unrecoverable attitude.” In other words, you can fly a plane into a situation that you can’t fly it out of. Period. Sometimes it’s just pilot error.

  9. I am sure Bishop Rhoades was both shocked and deeply disturbed by these crimes, because he is one of the Bishops who has spoken up and affirmed both The Sanctity of Life, and The Sanctity Of Marriage. When so many of our Bishops refuse to speak up against those who continue to present themselves to receive The Holy Eucharist, even though they do not respect and affirm The Sanctity of the Life of a beloved son or daughter residing in their mother’s womb, and The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, raising all kinds of red flags, how can anyone claimed to be surprised that so many Baptized Catholics have not been faithfully formed to The Word Of Perfect Love Incarnate. Shame on all those unfaithful priests, bishops, and members of the laity, who do not respect The Sanctity of Life and The Sanctity Of Marriage, and have led so many astray.

    “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy
    Ghost; it is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, that Holy Mother Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Essence Of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, exists.

    It is not the Faithful who are responsible for The Great Apostasy. You can only have A Great Apostasy from The True Church. Let us Pray that Our Blessed Mother, Destroyer Of All Heresy, including that heresy that claims sin done in private, is not, in essence, sin, will Intercede for us.

    If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected.” Jorge Bergoglio, prior to his election as pope, denying the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament Of Holy Matrimony, while denying that sin done in private is sin, and thus denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), and the fact that “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

    Pray for the safety of Pope Benedict XVI.

  10. People are right to be shocked when seminary staff claim ignorance. If this were the naïve 1970s, perhaps seminary staff could hide behind the equally naïve social scientists employed by the Church who thought sexual predators could be reformed. However, it’s 2021 and there is little or no excuse for naivety of any kind. The Rev. Deacon Peitler has it right.

  11. One tiny ray of hope here. At least this McWilliams is now behind bars where he will not pose a threat to more children, instead of being welcomed into another unsuspecting parish on the other side of the diocese, as used to be the norm.

    I’m not saying that’s a lot to learn in forty years, but at least it’s not nothing.

  12. What was he doing before he joined the seminary?
    Where’s the investigation into his friends, family? The guy was over 30 when he joined the seminary process, there must be some background there?

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Opinion: How do you know there were no red flags? – Catholic World Report – The Old Roman
  2. Opinion: How do you know there were no red flags? – Via Nova Media
  3. MONDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
  4. The McWilliams Sex Abuse Scandal: Critics Say Cleveland Diocese Must Do More to Address Problems - JP2 Catholic Radio
  5. The McWilliams Sex Abuse Scandal: Critics Say Cleveland Diocese Must Do More to Address Problems| National Catholic Register – The Old Roman

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