Seminaries and the Sexual Abuse Crisis
By now, even casual readers of newspapers and viewers of television know that in June 2002 the bishops of the United States, meeting in Dallas, Tex., set up a board of distinguished lay Catholic men and women to review the crisis created by the sexual abuse of minors by priests. On Feb. 27, 2004, this National Review Board issued a 145-page report titled A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. The report dedicates about 20 percent of its pages to seminarians and seminary formation. The board presents an overview of what it heard from people it interviewed and from what board members read in a number of church documents.
Given the relatively short timeframe and the limited pool of interviewees, the board’s report is necessarily drawn with broad strokes. Nonetheless, it provides a helpful summary of the role seminaries have played in the selection and formation of seminarians for over half a century, from the 1950’s to the present. In its analysis the board used three time periods, roughly identified as pre-Vatican II (from the 1950’s or before until the early 60’s), the Vatican-II era and its aftermath (mid-1960’s through early 80’s) and post-Vatican II (mid-1980’s to the present).
What did the report say? What concerns might there be about the nature of the report? What are seminaries and schools of theology doing to prepare future priests to live a chaste celibate life?
Seminarians, Seminaries and Formation for Celibacy
The discussion of seminarians, treated largely as a single group, focuses mainly on the adequacy of admission standards. During the pre-Vatican II era, the report says, “seminaries presumed that unworthy candidates would not have heard the call to priesthood and so their admission was not questioned.” Seminaries were so overwhelmed by numbers that little attention was paid to individual strengths and weaknesses. Also, many young men were pressed by their families to enter the seminary. A further concern of the report was the age—as young as 13 or 14—at which many candidates entered. Some of these youths may not have had the opportunity to develop socially and psychologically. From this early period came approximately 70 percent of the priests against whom allegations were made.
The board believes that as vocations declined in the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council, the pressure to ordain a certain number of priests may have led to the admission of some men who, because of psychological problems, were ill-suited for the priesthood. Only recently, the board thinks, has the situation improved, with the admission of considerably older candidates, the closure of most high school seminaries and the introduction of extensive psychological screening and interviewing. I would add that no longer is a vocational call considered the private domain of the individual called; it must be confirmed by the church—that is, by representatives who are most knowledgeable about the candidates.
Special consideration is given in the report to the admission of homosexual candidates, in light of the fact that some 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse were young males. The report notes that some bishops oppose admission of any homosexual seminarians, while others distinguish between homosexual orientation and those who have led a “gay lifestyle.” A concern of the board is that a prohibition against homosexual men might result in their going underground and never having an opportunity to deal with their sexuality during formation. The report is careful not to make absolute statements about the impact of homosexuality on sexual abuse, but it does caution seminaries about the importance of creating a climate and culture conducive to chastity. The board notes that in earlier years “a homoerotic culture took root in some seminaries.” Certainly a few places struggled with this concern, according to some priests who found themselves in such situations in the 1970’s, but it is difficult to say how widespread such problems were and how long they prevailed. Surely it was not an environment conducive to the formation of good priests.
This observation leads to a consideration of seminary contexts. The circumstances of seminary life changed radically, according to the report, during each of the time periods identified above. The early period is described as a time when the emphasis was almost exclusively on intellectual and theological training, to the exclusion of human, spiritual and pastoral formation. Having read many historical accounts of seminaries in this time period, I believe this evaluation is generally accurate. Spirituality was measured largely by attendance at public prayer exercises, and human formation was concerned with external behavior and appearance. Only in the late 1970’s was serious pastoral formation introduced, and it took several decades for this to develop into the quite effective programs of today. The tenor of the seminary at that time was characterized by tight external control, with little emphasis on the seminarians’ interior growth.
The report continues with a number of anecdotal comments by interviewees about how the seminaries moved from this strictly regimented rule of life to an “anything goes” atmosphere, in which “if it feels good, it’s all right.” It suggests that seminaries lost their way, that the sexual revolution was not adequately addressed, and that there was inadequate training in the theology of priesthood. Assertions were made by interviewees on a number of sensitive issues: that obsession with psychology at many seminaries left priests without an adequate understanding of the theology and historical basis for celibacy; that some professors raised expectations that celibacy would be dropped as a requirement for priesthood, while others failed to follow church teaching on issues of sexual morality; and that spiritual direction was a “hodgepodge.” One of the few favorable comments about the era was that psychological and sexual issues were more freely aired and less likely to be buried.
Even though the vast majority of priests who were in formation at the time became effective and morally upright pastors, both of these two earlier periods had problems. The report rightly underlines the problem of poor screening in both eras. Some young men who had major psychological and relational deficiencies became sexual abusers. Most of these men were in formation during that pre-Vatican II, regimented period. The systems then in place did not enforce strict admission policies, and the formation program did not help seminarians deal with their problems. The report is absolutely right about the consequences of these factors.
The board notes that in the past decade or so, improvements in the operation of seminaries are noticeable, but that much room for improvement remains. The board attaches great significance to the issuance of Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II’s letter on seminary formation (1992). Indeed, that document has been widely acclaimed by bishops, leaders of religious orders and seminary personnel as comprehensive and inspiring. In fact, the major directions highlighted in the document had been set in motion at least several years earlier, after the visitation of U.S. seminaries, mandated by the Vatican, that took place in the mid-1980’s. The board is on target in its recommendations insisting that seminaries deal with issues of sexual abuse more openly and more forthrightly and that seminarians be made mindful of the criminal nature of sexual abuse of minors.
Problems With the Report
While the report’s description of the central tendencies of the various timeframes seems accurate—for example, the regimented, intellectually oriented early years, followed by a period of relative turmoil and then by the present settled period more open to human formation—this portrayal lacks nuance. In interviews I have conducted from 1984 to the present with more than 600 seminary faculty members, one-fourth of whom taught in the middle, so-called chaotic period and another fourth of whom were seminary students at that time, I found that recollections were diverse. Certainly some of the tendencies noted in the report were present, but not in all places at all times. The somewhat blanket charge of sexual permissiveness and moral relativism in the 1970’s may be overstated, to judge by many who were in seminaries during these years.
Another shortcoming of the report is in its sweeping generalizations about seminaries and seminarians, made through the use of quotations from a very small sample of interviewees, many of whom would not have had exposure to more than a few seminaries. Broader research would have been more convincing, but understandably could not be done in a short time with limited resources. No distinction is made, for example, regarding religious order seminarians and their houses of formation, where quite different patterns prevailed. Even today, seminaries are uneven in tone, approach and competence in dealing with formation for celibacy. Seminarians, too, vary in their commitment, intellectual ability and human qualities, as well as in many other ways.
Also of concern is the failure to mention the difficulties involved in properly screening the large number (more than a fourth) of seminarians who now come from other countries, to say nothing of priests who have attended seminaries in their homelands and then moved, without much preparation or scrutiny, into active parish ministry in the United States. The board stresses the importance of bishops’ being involved in assessing men before they are admitted into seminaries and in keeping up contact with them afterwards. This task, difficult enough with American-born seminarians, is even more challenging with those who are foreign-born. In any case, seminarians will be on their best behavior under such circumstances, and a true portrait of their daily life is not likely to emerge.
Preparation for a Chaste, Celibate Life
In the summer of 2002, shortly after the situation in Boston came to national attention, I surveyed all the seminaries and schools of theology in the United States. I asked rectors/presidents and formation directors to send me the materials they used in their celibacy formation programs. The results were heartening. Almost all responded, and many furnished copies of carefully planned, comprehensive programs that laid out admission requirements relating to celibacy, goals, formats and desired outcomes. The content of celibacy formation programs covered every imaginable topic, and the programs were presented in a variety of settings by experienced priests, clinicians and formation advisers.
The desired outcomes of formation for celibate chastity were clearly enunciated. They included, for example: self-knowledge about celibacy and sexuality that leads to self-discipline and a life of celibate chastity; evidence of knowledge about and ability to live within appropriate relational boundaries; and the capacity to keep promises and live an intense life of personal prayer, detachment and sacrifice.
But while many seminaries have enhanced their programs of celibate formation, some unresolved issues remain. It is important to note that not all seminaries are alike in how they deal with sexuality and celibacy. While I received material about celibacy formation from almost every major seminary and school of theology, several reports were only one or two pages long, mentioning that their programs consisted mainly of several conferences by the rector and a few weekend workshops, plus individual work with a spiritual director or formation director. A number of these schools have since enlarged their programs on the basis of what they read in my comprehensive report.
Some problems still persist, however, even in places with rather complete programs. One can find, for example, the following elements: failure to be forthright in presenting information about sexuality to seminarians due to timidity, embarrassment or uncertainty about the topic; concern about or unwillingness to work with sexual identity issues of seminarians; inability to discuss sensitively and effectively concerns about implications of effeminate, macho and misogynistic behaviors; and misunderstanding or ignorance of cross-cultural dynamics relative to sexuality. An added concern is that problems of a sexual nature raised at admission interviews are not always communicated to the formation advisers who should be addressing them with the seminarian.
Given the circumstances under which the National Review Board was working, I believe it has identified some essential ways in which seminaries must respond to the sexual abuse crisis. Most seminaries and schools of theology have already implemented many of the suggestions made in the report, but some have not done as well as others. Almost nowhere is ongoing formation adequate, but usually this area of responsibility does not belong to seminaries. Was a similarly uneven pattern of formation responsible for higher levels of sexual abuse in some parts of the country? It is impossible to say to what extent inadequate seminary formation contributed to the problem, but surely weak admission standards and failure to dismiss unsuitable candidates were critical, and inadequate formation cannot have helped. Every seminary and theologate should study this report and see to it that its programs of priestly formation reach the high standards recommended by the board.