After McCarrick scandal, will Catholic seminaries better protect young adults?

Seminarians at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis prepare for Mass in this 2010 file photo. (CNS photo/Jerry Naunheim Jr., St. Louis Review)

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.

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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.”

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.]

“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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Jean Davis
9 months 3 weeks ago

I am devastated by all of this. So disheartened as a priest in my diocese plead guilty to abuse. I am a graduate of Penn State and ashamed to admit it after the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal. I am beginning to feel like this about my church. God help us!

Henry George
9 months 3 weeks ago

Can someone answer this question.

I knew a Seminarian who less than five years ago was told by his Formation Director
that he, the Formation Director, could also serve as his Spiritual Director and Confessor.
I thought that was strictly forbidden. The Seminarian eventually grew quite uncomfortable
with the situation and asked to be assigned a new Formation Director. That request was
denied and the young man was told he could not come back to the Seminary at the end
of the Spring Term and was later dropped by his Diocese.

Anna Mathew
9 months 3 weeks ago

Most of our seminaries have room for people like you to attend, and the seminaries generally are glad to have you Online Essay Help tuition rates vary among the seminaries. I recommend that you contact the seminary closest to you to ask about this.

rush minion
9 months 3 weeks ago

This is awesome. I love that it looks so nice but is utilitarian also. Wish we had space for it. It would solve all my clutter issues by the me.
- minion rush

Rhett Segall
9 months 3 weeks ago

I posted this before but it bears repetition here. First, just as the clergy is deeply involved in Christian marriage preparation, so too the laity should be significantly involved in oversight of houses of formation for priests and aspirants to religious orders, oversight specifically as regards preparation for a life of evangelical chastity. Second, just as there are now anonymous hot lines for the laity regarding sexual abuse, there should be something similar in houses of formation. Finally, Paul's letter to Timothy should be the watchword: "Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid." 1 Tim 5:19

Frank Gibbons
9 months 3 weeks ago

“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.”

That's a very cynical piece of advice when you consider that some of the provincials and bishops are part of the network of abuse and immorality. Look at Cardinal Madriaga's reaction to the 48 seminarians who claimed there was widespread sexual activity at the major seminary in Tegucigalpa. And he is a close advisor of Pope Francis. These stories about candidates for the priesthood getting hit upon in the seminaries have been around for decades. But those who blew the whistle were dismissed as right-wing cranks or "self-appointed watchdogs". Priests who tried to report abuse at the diocesan level were routinely castigated and sometimes had their faculties removed. The hedge is down big time and these revelations will have a decisive impact on the future of the Church.

Mark Silverbird
9 months 2 weeks ago

To expound further on your wise assessment of what is taking place in the Catholic church, I say, "the seminary is the perfect breeding ground to feed and culminate the desires of homosexual priests who are teachers at the seminary. No one really looks at the seminary as the problem, but the sons who are sent to such places are indoctrinated and even turned into homosexuals in their hearts by the thought, "who am I to judge".

Well judge this, Romans Chapter 1 vs 31-32 "Foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy. Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them."

Isa Kavana
9 months 3 weeks ago

Good piece. There is a need to be more careful about the selection of formation teams in seminaries. See for example who works in Cupich's seminary: https://regainnetwork.org/2015/08/19/curiouser-and-curiouser-an-underqualified-regnum-christi-woman-at-mundelin/

Carlos Orozco
9 months 3 weeks ago

Active steps must be taken by the Pope to clean Catholic seminaries from gay culture. Spreading an innately disordered sexuality can only bring further disasters to the Church. In the past, the priesthood has been seen as an "option" for many men lacking a natural attraction towards women.

Michael Barberi
9 months 3 weeks ago

A significant percentage of the priesthood are men who are homosexual. Most of them are faithful to their vows, just like most of heterosexual priests. Some priests have sex with another person of the same sex and some priests have sex with a person of the opposite sex. However, these things are the exception and not the rule.

The John Jay Report a number of years ago found no correlation between homosexual priests and the clerical abuse of minors. Those who commit such crimes have an immature and psychological-emotional problem.

There are good priests, both homosexual and heterosexual. What is appalling is that a bishop who have committed immoral sexual acts on minors and adults could rise to Cardinal. It was widely known by the hierarchy that Cardinal McCarrick sexual abused seminarians and others for a long time but did nothing. This is the tip of the iceberg and the hierarchy, the ones in authority in such cases, react by ignoring the true problem, minimize or cover it up and facilitate a culture that is responsible for this type of sexual abuse and immorality, not to mention criminal acts.

The answer to problems of sexual abuse is not to ban well-adjusted, emotionally stable homosexual men from entering the priesthood for the right reasons...to serve and love God and neighbor, spread the good news and provide moral and spiritual guidance to the sheep.

The Vatican and hierarchy, and institutions such as seminaries, should enforce a culture of transparency, honesty, maturity and justice....not secrecy, coverup, injustice and moral bankruptcy. I am not certain if any kind of 'test' will screen out the immature and unadjusted. However, a mandatory policy should be implemented for all seminarians and priests to speak up about sexual abuse and harassment (including Nuns), without fear of consequences (as Fr. Reese has recommended). It should also be a mandatory requirement that the hierarchy thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by priests and seminarians, issue a report of findings that is widely available to victims and accusers, including an appropriate punishment for such crimes, inclusive of removal from the priesthood and/or referral to civil authorities if necessary. This would be a good first step.

Mark Silverbird
9 months 2 weeks ago

You said, "good priests, both homosexual and heterosexual". There can never be a homosexual good priest! If a priest admits that he is homosexual, then there is nothing good about him! To be homosexual is an abomination not fit for the priesthood, in that the mind condemns the heart. Remember that Jesus said, Matthew 5: 27-28 "You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart." This is the norm, but homosexuality is not the norm, and worse, it is an abomination. The verses of "adultery" hold true for a priest who looks upon a man lusting after a man, committing an abomination in his heart. That priest is good for nothing, because of his homosexual struggles in his mind. He is not worthy to receive our Lord in the Holy Eucharist if he commits this sin in his mind. Read Romans Chap 1 to see how same sex attraction only causes death and damnation to ones' self, and to the world.

Mark Silverbird
9 months 2 weeks ago

The answer is "NO". I know that Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe, NM is protecting gay seminarians/teachers that are 70% at the San Antonio TX Seminary. It is a fact that the priest who was in charge of interviewing new seminarians of Santa Fe "quit" because he called out the evil of these gay seminarians/teachers in the San Antonio TX seminary bringing it to the attention of Archbishop Wester. The Archbishop told the priest that San Antonio will remain the same, meaning that nothing is going to be done about it, so he quit the position. Archbishop Wester's complicity matches his endorsement of Farther James Martin! There is your answer!

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