When I was almost nine years old, my mother and I moved from Vermont to New Jersey in search of a better school district. I lived full-time in New Jersey until I started college and I continued to go back to Jersey on break until a semester or two before I graduated in 2014. While I was living in New Jersey I was not Catholic. I was only tenuously familiar with the Catholic culture in the state through my stepfather’s family. My grandmother and grandfather on that side were devout Catholics right up until their deaths in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Jim, my stepfather’s father, was especially knowledgeable about the histories and parish cultures of the different churches in Morris County, where he lived for most of his life.
What I did become personally familiar with through my years living in the Garden State was the Jersey Shore—that world-famously gaudy—some would say gauche—expanse of beaches and resort cities along the state’s Atlantic coastline between Monmouth County and Cape May. Several summers my mother and I spent time on Long Beach Island, either by ourselves or with my stepfather’s family. On other occasions I visited friends whose families lived “down the Shore,” took school trips to different sites of natural or historical interest, or even just went there with my mom to “get away.” I have strong opinions on several of the famous places along the Jersey Shore (LBI, Avalon, Cape May), and secondhand knowledge of many others (Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Wildwood).
Reading the parts of the McCarrick report dealing with the Jersey Shore—especially the Archdiocese of Newark’s now-infamous beach house in Sea Girt that was one of McCarrick’s favorite places to sexually assault seminarians—was like the world’s worst homecoming for me. It was a jaunt into desecrated nostalgia and lost faux-innocence. The lack of an exact overlap in space and time—Sea Girt is further north along the Shore than the parts I’m familiar with, and McCarrick had already been transferred to Washington by the time I moved to New Jersey—is cold comfort. I inhabited roughly the same place and time as some of McCarrick’s most heinous acts. Tenuous as that connection is, it feels bad enough. Moreover, Catholics all over the planet who may never have even heard of New Jersey are now hearing about one of the most important and in some ways most charming aspects of the state’s culture, but hearing about it in the worst imaginable light. I’m struggling to think of what to compare this feeling to. Perhaps it’s a close cousin of the way Catholics in general feel about people knowing our Church first and foremost for sex abuse, except one level deeper: people within the Church now know a time and place that is important to me as first and foremost a setting for the abuse crisis.
I have acquaintances in the Archdiocese of Washington—Mike Lewis not least among them—who have more direct and personal memories of McCarrick himself. One woman I know was an altar server at Masses that McCarrick celebrated. I certainly don’t mean to say that my having the heebie-jeebies about the Jersey Shore I loved as a child is in any way comparable to those who actually met and interacted with McCarrick. It’s even more difficult for me to imagine what it must be like to realize that someone I actually knew and worked with was a moral monster. Nevertheless, I do think I know now (at least a little bit) what it means to have one’s experiences, one’s memories, one’s inner landscape, poisoned by association with McCarrick’s foul deeds.
Speaking more generally, I think almost all of us have at some point or another had good memories spoiled by after-the-fact revelations about people or places or things involved in them. Think of the favorite family member as a child whose poor treatment of others you only come to understand as an adult, the former friend or lover with whom you fell out hard, and the way it affects the memories of the places and experiences you shared with them. Can we still remember them fondly, even though, so to speak, the serpent has entered the garden of those memories? Should we? Dare we?
There is a continuum of disillusionment and bereavement, from the benign to the horrifying, even traumatizing—as in people’s personal memories of McCarrick. My own experience, of loose “cultural” association with a predator (the way, say, someone who studied at the University of Chicago would be “culturally” associated with Leopold and Loeb), falls somewhere in between. One could argue that it falls somewhere on the more benign end of the spectrum. However, I don’t think this is saying much.
In sorting through my feelings about the Jersey Shore and McCarrick, I keep coming back to Hannah Arendt’s conclusion in Eichmann in Jerusalem about what was established at Adolf Eichmann’s trial. According to Arendt, what ultimately sent one of the architects of the Holocaust to the gallows wasn’t any reproducible legal theory but, rather, the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision that “no one could be expected to want to share the Earth with him.” Can we say the same about McCarrick? It would certainly be easy to say so, considering what’s known about him now. On an instinctive level, I do not want to share New Jersey with him—just as my Archdiocese of Washington acquaintances likely do not want to share the DC area with him, just as most Catholics don’t want to share the Church with him. And yet we do; and yet I do. He’s become part of the rogues’ gallery of great villains of Catholicism now, who make up a part of Church history along with the saints. He’s part of the Jersey Shore’s history, just as much as Bruce Springsteen—or Meyer Lansky. Moreover, as a man who has done gravely evil things, he (one must presume and hope) suffers the pains of his evil, and thus is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
So what am I going to do with all of this? I have no idea. I’m sure it’ll settle into my perception of the world eventually, and be integrated into my schema for understanding things. But until then, all I can really do is wonder.