Emil A. Wcela

Some of the priests identified as abusers, staring out from the pages of the local newspapers, are not strangers to me. I was on the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., from 1965 through 1979. I taught Scripture all those years and was rector for the last six. I knew many of these men.

 

We studied the Bible together and shared the Eucharist and prayer. We played together on the basketball court and softball field. We washed dishes and tended the seminary grounds together. As rector, I spoke to them about faith and priesthood. We met one on one about their vocation and their life in the seminary.

Psychological screening was part of the entrance routine for our seminary from the middle 1960’s. Psychologists outside the seminary staff were regularly available to interpret to the seminarians the results of the testing and to offer guidance.

Most of the men who came to seminary in those years were already fairly well known to us. Many had studied at the college seminary. There were reports and evaluations from that faculty. Some had an even longer history, having graduated from one of the high school prep seminaries. Not just priests were observing and advising, but also religious sisters and brothers and lay people.

At the seminary, the faculty met regularly to evaluate the seminarians and discuss with them their readiness to progress through the stages of preparation, based on our experience with them. Some men discerned that the priesthood was not their vocation. Others were helped to realize that they lacked some quality essential to serve well as priests. Some few were asked to leave because of obviously inappropriate behavior or attitudes.

Those who stayed the course to ordination and priesthood were not perfect. The priests teaching and forming them weren’t either. However, there was solid agreement that those recommended for ordination gave every sign that they would minister well as priests.

So what did we, as a faculty, miss? What did I, as rector, miss?

I still don’t know.

The psychologists’ sessions with the seminarians were confidential, but we regularly consulted with them for a general profile of the seminarians and for our own guidance. The advice we commonly received was that there is no foolproof psychological test that will predict the future for anyone, unless that person is very seriously troubled. We did not accept into the seminary anyone we knew to be in that state. The best indicator for the future, we were told, was present performance. We had to judge present performance by participation in the full life of the seminary, by signs of a healthy and growing spiritual life, by the quality of their relationships with other seminarians and faculty, by their ability to learn and present Catholic teaching, by how the seminarians fared in the parishes where they served in various kinds of pastoral ministry.

What went wrong with those who seemed to offer such promise and then failed so terribly in the priesthood?

Was it something they learned in the seminary? Did the shared life and support structures of the seminary not prepare them for the more individualistic life of the parish priest? Was it the culture of the time, too great an emphasis on individual freedom, not enough sense of duty, not enough awareness of sin? Was there a character flaw, perhaps unrecognized even by them? Was there something in their lives all along that they had been able to hide or keep under control? Was there immaturity that never got beyond narcissism? Did our example as priests, my example as a priest, not really model well for them?

I wish I could look back and pick out some cause or causes and tell everyone today, especially our seminarians and those involved in their formation, “Watch out for this.” But I can’t.

The great majority of seminarians from those years are true to their vocations and are still serving as priests. Recent studies have provided insights into what helped keep them faithful.

What about the others?

I suspect that many of those who did abuse young people, especially those who fell only once or a few times, feel great remorse now. What they might do to help heal those they hurt so terribly is very personal, depending on the abused and the abuser.

There is something they could do to prevent such tragedies in the future. They could continue to add to the developing understanding of what happened. What drew them into their conduct? How did they reconcile their daily celebration of the Eucharist and their preaching about Jesus with the sin in their lives? Can they now identify supports that were missing, that might have helped them get past the kind of temptations they faced? What advice would they give to seminarians, priests, bishops, families, today?

Perhaps some good might yet come from evil if we can learn from these tragic lives.

The Most Rev. Emil A. Wcela is an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and episcopal vicar of the diocese’s eastern vicariate on Long Island.

Comments

Deacon Thomas J. Evrard | 3/19/2004 - 6:50pm
Bishop Wcela, in those days, did not know what to look for. Neither did most rectors & spiritual advisors who by their faith & vocation proffer reconciliation & forgiveness.

The most recent bulletin (3/12/04) published by the experts, The National Catholic Risk Retention Group (Virtus online)states:

"Child molesters are consummate liars. They know how to manipulate conversation and situation to dispel any concerns about their behavior. They use their manipulation skills to groom children, parents, and the community. They convince others that concerns about their behavior are insignificant and unimportant."

This is a harsh statement. But, when speaking with such diseased individuals they will look you right in the eye, tell you they did nothing wrong....and believe it!!

That's why like any addiction, the condition is never cured. It must be consistently arrested.

Doug McFerran | 3/6/2004 - 9:53pm
Bishop Wcela has asked one very right question: how do abusive priests, especially those who were "the best and the brightest" in the seminary, explain their own actions?

One answer, of course, is what we might call the David principle, after the Jewish king who arranged the murder of a man who had been among his most loyal supporters because, so inconveniently, he did not bed his wife after David had already made her pregnant. Those who see themselves as selected by God can easily rationalize acting on their desires as somehow an exception to the rules they otherwise preach themselves.

Is this the story? Or is it, as the recent report of National Review Board suggests, one effect of the moral relativism that characterized much of the thinking of the 1960s? Or is it, as the Board also suggests, owing to a "gay culture" prevalent in the seminaries?

Only the men who fell from grace can really answer this, and, sadly, no one seems to be asking them.

(Rev.) Stephen F. Duffy | 2/9/2007 - 12:40pm
Regarding Bishop Emil C. Wcela’s title query, “What Did I Miss?” I should like to suggest that the missing category about which he is puzzled is the use of “peer review” (3/15). If seminarians had been polled regularly, perhaps some weeks before the seminary authorities met to discuss and vote on the candidates for priesthood at the end of each academic year, much more could have been learned about the candidates and their ability to relate effectively and appropriately. While “peer review” never tells the whole story, it does add another dimension. Ordained in 1965, I too, like the bishop, wish I could have been more effective, but there was no way at the time to help.

T. F. Stock | 2/9/2007 - 12:35pm
I would add one more question to the three listed in your editorial “Fraternal Correction” (3/15): “Did he exercise his responsibility as shepherd to find out?” Finding out involves more than passive listening. It requires hard questions, first of oneself, to determine the extent of one’s knowledge and understanding, then of those involved, and finally of any “expert” on whose views one is relying. It may also require that questions be asked of others faced with similar problems. It is not clear that this kind of honest and painful inquiry was made by our bishops.

I would also add a thought to Bishop Emil A. Wcela’s excellent article, “What Did I Miss?” (3/15). It is refreshing to see one charged with priestly formation willing to examine his role in presenting candidates for ordination who were later found to be unsuitable. But in the spirit of the call for “fraternal correction,” and remembering that we are all frequently referred to as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” I suggest that each of us, from the throne of Peter to the back pew of the parish church, need to ask the same question: “What did I miss?” After all, it is the assembly that proposes one of its own for ordination. And it is the assembly with whom the priest comes in daily contact. Everyone who knew of abuse but kept silent shares responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen our church.

Deacon Thomas J. Evrard | 3/19/2004 - 6:50pm
Bishop Wcela, in those days, did not know what to look for. Neither did most rectors & spiritual advisors who by their faith & vocation proffer reconciliation & forgiveness.

The most recent bulletin (3/12/04) published by the experts, The National Catholic Risk Retention Group (Virtus online)states:

"Child molesters are consummate liars. They know how to manipulate conversation and situation to dispel any concerns about their behavior. They use their manipulation skills to groom children, parents, and the community. They convince others that concerns about their behavior are insignificant and unimportant."

This is a harsh statement. But, when speaking with such diseased individuals they will look you right in the eye, tell you they did nothing wrong....and believe it!!

That's why like any addiction, the condition is never cured. It must be consistently arrested.

Doug McFerran | 3/6/2004 - 9:53pm
Bishop Wcela has asked one very right question: how do abusive priests, especially those who were "the best and the brightest" in the seminary, explain their own actions?

One answer, of course, is what we might call the David principle, after the Jewish king who arranged the murder of a man who had been among his most loyal supporters because, so inconveniently, he did not bed his wife after David had already made her pregnant. Those who see themselves as selected by God can easily rationalize acting on their desires as somehow an exception to the rules they otherwise preach themselves.

Is this the story? Or is it, as the recent report of National Review Board suggests, one effect of the moral relativism that characterized much of the thinking of the 1960s? Or is it, as the Board also suggests, owing to a "gay culture" prevalent in the seminaries?

Only the men who fell from grace can really answer this, and, sadly, no one seems to be asking them.

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