Revelations that former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick faces credible allegations of unwanted sexual advances aimed at Catholic seminarians, in addition to fresh accusations that he sexually abused minors, raised questions about conditions in Catholic seminaries. Some experts believe that while many seminaries have established policies to protect adults studying to be priests and members of religious communities, seminary culture sometimes remains an obstacle to protecting them from predatory behavior.
Gerard McGlone, S.J., a psychologist and the associate director for the protection of minors at the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an umbrella organization representing the heads of male religious orders in the United States, said that he believes most dioceses in the United States have guidelines for how a seminarian should report allegations of sexual misconduct, which often involve telling a spiritual director or a rector.
But because both of those positions are often filled by priests or other church officials—who might have power over a seminarian experiencing harassment or abuse—vigilance is required. He said battling harassment of seminarians by church officials remains an ongoing challenge.
“Do we still need to work on this? Damn right we do,” Father McGlone told America. “Just because we have policies and trainings doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. It is still happening.”
He said that he has seen inappropriate behavior still taking place, even decades after new human formation programs have been instituted in seminaries at the insistence of the Vatican.
“I’ve observed and seen formators act inappropriately,” he said. “People have been removed because of inappropriate behavior. Is it in the newspaper? No. Is it happening? Yes.”
Seminary culture sometimes remains an obstacle to protecting students from predatory behavior.
He said the violations can include invading physical boundaries, sexual harassment and even sexual assault.
“What you see in society, you see in the church,” he said.
Take Bartholomew, who was a novice in a religious community in England in 2009 when an older monk struck up a friendship. Bartholomew said this was “exhilarating” given how isolating life in a monastery can be. The older monk, who had just returned from living at a monastery in the United States, asked about Bartholomew’s family and his hobbies, and he eventually coaxed the novice into the admission that he was gay. The older monk disclosed at that time that he was also gay.
Then, over the course of a few weeks, Bartholomew said, the older monk committed small physical intrusions that made him uncomfortable, including touching his arm and back. At one point, the older monk invited Bartholomew into his bedroom, in violation of monastery rules. The older monk closed the door, sat on his bed and, as Bartholomew recalls, said, “We just are sexual beings.”
“Looking back on it, he was grooming me,” said Bartholomew, who asked that his last name not be used. “By that point, we had a vaguely trusting relationship, and he was trying to find what my vulnerabilities were.”
Bartholomew, whom I met in 2014 and who first told me about his experience at the monastery in 2015, said in a recent interview that he reported the harassment when it happened. But he says he faced resistance from senior members of the community when it came to taking his concerns seriously.
He says it was not until an official at the monastery’s school contacted the diocese that Bartholomew felt appropriate steps were taken, which concluded in the older monk being assigned to ministry in a location away from the monastery. A spokesperson from the monastery declined to comment.
Jane Dziadulewicz, who works as a consultant in child protection policies and who previously held a similar post for a U.K. Catholic diocese, testified last year as part of a government inquiry into sexual abuse. She said that members of the community where Bartholomew was a novice described a “bullying” culture and when asked if she encountered a culture that believed allegations of abuse and harassment “should be kept in-house,” answered, “Absolutely.”
Thomas Plante is a clinical psychologist in Santa Clara, Calif., who has interviewed hundreds of Catholic priests and seminarians. He said there has been reticence among clergy to discuss sexuality in a healthy way, which has helped foster a culture that is “ripe for abuse.”
“Our church never seems to be very comfortable talking about sex or sexual behavior—and not just among clerics. I think it’s always uncomfortable for Catholics and the world in general to talk about sex,” he told America. “When it comes to clerical sexual behavior, people are just freaked out. It makes so much of it go underground in an unhealthy way.”
“Just because we have policies and trainings doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. It is still happening.”
He said harassment or abuse often includes a power differential that makes the victim feel that he or she has little control over the situation.
“We see this all over the place, where there’s a significant power imbalance and somebody sort of owns you,” Mr. Plante said. “Certainly in seminaries it’s particularly hard because it’s not a job; it’s a life. It’s living, working, spiritual. It’s not like you can give a two-week notice and switch jobs.”
Catholic bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Minors and Young People in 2002. While that document did not include safeguards from harassment or abuse for seminarians, it did bring the question of sexual misconduct in the church to the fore.
Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., told America that since the 1990s, when she encountered “a few instances” of sexual harassment in seminaries, additional safeguards have been put in place, including an emphasis on human formation.
Today, she said, “seminarians are much better informed, and they have a better sense of their own integrity.”
As for those who work in Catholic seminaries, Sister Schuth, who said she has visited every U.S. seminary multiple times, noted they are “carefully vetted” and that their behavior is “carefully monitored.” While there are “drawbacks” to the “somewhat closed system” that are often characteristic of U.S. seminaries, where priests supervise, train and often live alongside those studying for the priesthood, there are laypeople and priests not directly associated with seminaries who are available to listen to the concerns of seminarians.
“You get to know students as academic advisers,” she said, adding that “they would tell me all kinds of stuff not related to academics.”
But Thomas Reese, S.J., who has covered sexual abuse in the church for decades, said church leaders need to be more proactive in assisting young adults to deal with harassment and abuse in the church. (Father Reese was the editor in chief of America from 1998 to 2005.)
“Every religious provincial and bishop should ask seminarians every year if they have been sexually harassed,” Father Reese told America. “A lot of people don’t come forward unless you ask them. There’s an obligation to do it.”
He said that harassers are often repeat offenders, but those they target sometimes feel isolated and do not report the harassment. Seminarians can find themselves “in a powerless position,” he said, when there is no clear structure for reporting abuse.
When it comes to seminaries outside the United States and Western Europe, more work needs to be done to have clear guidelines and protocols for adults in the church who feel they have been victims of sexual harassment or abuse.
“I know from my experience worldwide that this is not the case in many places now, where talk about sexuality in public makes you feel ashamed,” Hans Zollner, S.J., who leads the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, told America in a recent interview.
Sister Schuth agreed, adding that if a priest is trained and ordained in another country and moves to the United States for ministry, it is possible that “they need to be oriented” about cultural expectations here, especially “in relation to women, let alone with children.”
As for Bartholomew, who left the monastery, he said that while he had the support of his novice master, it was unclear to him as a young monk how he was supposed to handle the situation and that he was upset that, when he reported it, he faced such resistance.
“Who do you talk to?” he asked. “That’s one question religious communities have got to address.”