Politics & Policy

The Monsignor Clark Problem

In New York City, and the greater environs of the city, which reach to Rome going east and to Los Angeles going west, Catholic men and women are up against a wrenching problem. It has to do with Monsignor Eugene Clark. How to deal with him?

Monsignor Clark has had a big tabloid hour. The husband of the monsignor’s secretary engaged a private eye to follow them around. The detective made a videotape that showed the monsignor and the secretary entering a motel on Long Island and leaving five hours later, wearing different clothes. The husband turned the tape over as supporting data in a lawsuit asking the court to end his marriage and to assign to him ownership of their house and custody over their two children.

It is lurid stuff, especially because Monsignor Eugene Clark is a singular figure. When in August the explosion came, he was doing duty as rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the single most exalted rectorship in America. Add to this, Clark’s long career as intimate of three New York cardinals. And as a priest of great eloquence who has thoughtfully, in ways quiet and unquiet, sought to extend the faith and enhance the best ideals of his country.

His eloquence resulted in a regular television program. Attention has focused on a talk he gave in 1999 under the title, “Falling, Being, and Staying in Love.” It was a tough statement striking out at the popular culture. “Hollywood is not a Christian place at all, at all, at all. Most of the writers, the creative people, are homosexually inclined or homosexually recruited.” These folk are “the enemy of Christian marriage and Christian falling in love and all the tenderness that goes with that. They are saying ‘Don’t pay attention to that business of permanence and fidelity.’”

Such tongues as could be expected to wag under the circumstances lost no time in doing so. But what was the cardinal to do? In a matter of days, Monsignor Clark resigned his exalted post at St. Patrick’s. And admitted his lapse?

Oh no. He said that he had been up to nothing more venal than letting his secretary, tired after a full morning sorting books and a full lunch, have a nap on the beach before driving the eighty miles back to New York City. He hardly made it a point to draw attention to other factors one would think relevant, but others did. Namely, the monsignor is 79 years old, has had prostate cancer, and is presumably past the age of frolic. Sometime, somewhere, a court will listen to the divorce suit against the secretary, and one prays for exoneration. But the problems of Monsignor Clark don’t get adjourned until then. He lives under a very black cloud.

It is one that presents extraordinary problems to his friends, who include this writer.

Specific questions arise. Should an invitation be sent to the monsignor to a celebration which, by long tradition, he had attended? He is probably better known to the American conservative community than any cardinal. The lengths to which people have gone who trust his judgment and learning and disposition to sacrifice are legendary. Decades ago the American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, in a furious letter to me, intimated condescendingly that he would consent to visit with a priest, if only to prove his invincibility to Christian argumentation against racism.

Would Monsignor agree to see him?

I asked; he did. Rockwell’s assassin ended that story, but those who have had experience of the priest could not enumerate the instances of care he has taken in looking after others.

But what is the obligation of friends, Christian and non-Christian, at such a juncture? It is not as easy as declaiming his innocence. To begin with, he is clearly not innocent of violating such circumspections as are reasonably expected of ministers of the gospel. Even if it is established, down the road, that the detective fabricated the videotape, no one is denying that the monsignor and the secretary were at the motel, and registered as guests. The cardinal has not sounded a clarion call to right an injustice.

Those associated with the monsignor and aware of the commands of his calling can’t act as if indifferent to accusations of infidelity. If one finds oneself seated next to the monsignor at dinner, how does one skirt the subject? It is an affront to the principles the monsignor preaches, to proceed as though social indifference to them was the higher good.

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