Over the past decade, many thoughtful Catholics have wondered if a connection can be established between seminary formation and sexual abuse by clergy. The answer is complicated, but the significant reshaping of seminary programs in recent decades suggests that many church leaders believe there is a relationship. Unraveling the various dimensions of the question requires knowledge of the background research found in the two studies prepared for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. The full titles are “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002” (2004) and “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2010” (2011).
These documents paint a picture of how seminary leaders developed instructions on sexuality and celibacy in recent years. In the future, the focus for seminaries needs to be on ways of maintaining practices that very likely contributed to the remarkable decrease in the number of abuse cases. It is timely, as well, to suggest supplemental approaches for formation and to maintain useful programs that promise to ensure even further reductions in abuse.
Facts and Findings
Research on sexual abuse by Catholic priests is far-reaching, but the John Jay studies are among the few to include information pertinent to seminaries. This research sheds light on the following areas:
Seminaries. Priests with allegations of sexual abuse against minors were enrolled in much higher proportions in some seminaries than in others. Contrary to widespread opinion, those who attended high school seminaries were not more likely to abuse than those who did not.
Timeframes of first abuse. Most priest abusers were in seminary before the 1960s but offended after the 1960s. Priests ordained after 1960 who engaged in abusive behavior did so more quickly after ordination.
The rise and fall of abuse. The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society. Although widely believed to be a significant ongoing problem, most abuse occurred between 1960 and 1985; after that, the numbers dropped substantially and remain low.
The understanding of sexual abuse by church leaders. By 1985 bishops knew that sexual abuse of minors by priests was a problem, but they understood neither the scope of it nor the impact on victims. The vast majority of these cases were reported after 1995, and a third in the year 2002 alone.
Seminary response. Until 1992, church documents generally did not reflect the need to revise seminary formation to deal with reports of sexual abuse by priests, though seminaries began to modify programs by the late 1980s.
Directives on Formation
The church has issued numerous documents pertaining to preparation for priesthood, but two recent ones stand out. After the Second Vatican Council, the most influential message came in Pope John Paul II’s “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (1992) on vocations and seminary formation. In it the pope introduced for the first time a section on human formation, insisting that “the whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation” (No. 43). Commenting on contemporary misunderstandings about love and sex, he said, “In such a context, an education for sexuality becomes more difficult but also more urgent” for those who are called to celibacy (No. 44). These assertions confirmed the direction some seminaries were already taking; now they could implement more fully, with greater support from bishops, the changes required by the pope’s instruction.
The other key document, The Program of Priestly Formation, guided seminaries on every aspect of preparing future priests; five editions were published by the American bishops between 1971 and 2005. Of particular relevance is a gradual change in the presentation of celibacy and sexuality. Most notably, the first three editions gave little space or weight to the topics.
In the first edition (1971), for example, four brief paragraphs on celibacy were subsumed under the broad category of “pastoral ministry.” The focus was on effective ministry rather than on the person who would be embracing the discipline. The second edition (1976) essentially repeated the content of the first but added one new paragraph underlining the personal value of celibacy as a way of sharing in the life of Christ. Missing from these documents was an appreciation of the limited understanding that some seminarians had about the meaning of celibacy and the seriousness and importance of living a moral life. Perhaps it was taken for granted that this knowledge and these values needed no reinforcement for seminarians.
The third edition (1981) kept most of the earlier material and added an explanation of the value of celibacy in a consumer culture and of the importance of understanding the nature of sexuality, including homosexuality. The shift in tone revolved largely around reinforcing the obligatory nature of celibacy. The content was still inadequate for the times, and not until a decade later did formation documents expand on the goals, expectations and behaviors expected of those to be ordained.
By the time the fourth edition of the program was issued (1992), abusive behavior by priests had become a large issue inside the church and in the wider society. The fourth edition reflected the gravity of the situation. The edition was undoubtedly influenced by two major factors: the publication of “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” with its call for an overhaul of formation, and ongoing revelations of sexual abuse by priests. This edition described the negative influences of the social climate on lifelong commitment to celibacy, and it emphasized spiritual goals, behavioral expectations and admission standards. Psychological assessment was acknowledged as integral to the admissions process.
Overall, the document represented a sea-change in that it was more specific and directive. Even this more thorough rendition, oriented toward spiritual practices and evaluation of appropriate celibate lifestyle, however, lacked discussion of sexual abuse and the extraordinary vigilance seminaries would need to exercise to deal with problems that were evident and growing.
Only in the fifth edition (2005), after the bulk of revelations about sexual abuse, was a new, lengthy section on “Human Formation” included. That changed substantially the document’s structure and content, outlined a multifaceted program of instruction and provided a detailed explanation of basic attitudes and behavioral expectations about celibacy. Seminarians were expected to understand the theological rationale for celibacy and to develop a solid moral character and conscience through ascetical practices.
Some directives were mentioned for the first time: disqualification for admission if any criminal sexual activity with a minor or inclination toward such was known, an expectation that all guidelines of the Holy See would be followed regarding same-sex experience and/or inclinations and the requirement to investigate certain conditions prior to orders, such as whether or not the candidate had been sexually abused and whether any remedies would be needed. By 2005 it was clear that the bishops understood how crucial seminary formation was in upholding the commitment to celibacy and helping to prevent abusive sexual behavior.
Sexuality and Celibacy
Paralleling changes in church directives, but at a somewhat faster pace, seminary formation changed considerably over the same time period. In the mid-1980s and before, programs emphasized spiritual and academic formation, with some attention paid to pastoral formation in parishes. Spiritual direction, the focal point for development, was expected to deal with growth in emotional maturity, vocational commitment and acceptance of celibacy. Seminaries used terms like “complete confidentiality and strict secrecy” to emphasize that the exchange between seminarians and spiritual directors was entirely in what is called the internal forum and not to be revealed except in a few rare circumstances. This confidentiality was one of the main problems with this approach. Seminarians who might have identified their struggles with sexuality and celibacy did so in an environment that was handled with a spiritual director and not with other formation personnel who could have acted on the information.
To overcome this, by the mid-1990s most seminaries provided each student with a formation advisor to balance the strictly confidential nature of spiritual direction. These conversations were to be in the “external forum” so as to alleviate the complaint that important information about a seminarian’s suitability for priesthood seldom saw the light of day.
By the mid-2000s, other striking changes were introduced, including a separate “human formation” program, which incorporated extensive instruction on celibacy and the moral behavior of priests. The fifth edition stated, “As we have recently seen so dramatically in the church, when such foundations are lacking in priests, the consequent suffering and scandals are devastating” (No. 41). Furthermore, admissions processes were to pay careful attention to matters that might affect a lifelong commitment to celibacy. The effects of the revelations about the extent of sexual abuse from 2002 onward and the Vatican-initiated visitation of seminaries in 2005-06 undoubtedly influenced many changes.
Prevention of Abuse
Implied in the concern about formation of seminarians is the belief that a well-designed program can decrease abusive sexual behavior by priests. Yet it is difficult to prove definitively that better programs produce fewer priests who are likely to abuse minors. Complete histories of seminaries are relatively few, so until recently conclusive evidence has been unavailable to demonstrate that a given seminary with low abuse rates among its graduates had an excellent program. Did seminaries fulfill their responsibilities in the way they educated seminarians? Perhaps. But given the complex set of causes and contexts discussed in the John Jay report and understood to be operational when abuse occurs, any one cause or means of prevention should not be expected to carry all the weight.
Nonetheless, several anecdotes are telling. One concerns a seminary with a long history of very low rates of sexual abuse of minors among its graduates. In the late 1950s, the history of the school records the positive attitude the faculty had toward psychological testing of its candidates as well as the provision of psychiatric services for seminarians. Through the years the seminary viewed this testing and evaluation more and more in a positive light; it gave great weight to psychological assessment as an admissions criterion, unlike most other seminaries at the time. Some students were rejected and others were dismissed, in part because of the attention given to the psychological health of the seminarian and to the impact this could have on his ability to serve in ministry.
In another instance, a moderate number of a seminary’s graduates were accused of abusive sexual behavior during the earliest time of recorded numbers. The data show that the incidences dropped off significantly before most other schools experienced the same decline. That school in the late 1960s adopted a comprehensive formation program and paid substantial attention to thorough instruction on celibacy and sexuality by professionals in the field, both priests and others. It could be argued that the policies of both seminaries experienced a different trajectory when compared with others where abuse cases were more numerous or the abuse continued over a longer period of time.
Over the past 25 years, a remarkable intensification of human formation and deeper understanding of the importance of its role are evident in almost every seminary. Over the same period, the number of accusations of abuse of a minor by a priest has fallen from 975 for the period 1985 through 1989 to 253 for 1995 through 1999, and then to 73 for 2004 through 2008. Awareness of the problem surely informed the development of the curriculum, but ongoing benefits provided by adequate formation may be seen in the continuing low levels of abuse.
Looking to the Future
How are these results to be maintained? Those to be ordained must be thoroughly informed not only about the spiritual aspects of celibacy and sexuality, but also in straightforward, clear language about biological and psychological, social and pastoral dimensions. This balanced approach to sexuality and celibacy must be inculcated in future priests by both clerical and lay professionals who are specifically trained in the appropriate disciplines. To focus purely on pious understandings and practices has not been and will not be a sufficient means of prevention, though some church leaders are voicing concern that this very attitude is gaining prominence. Bishops, vocation directors and seminary personnel must recognize and change the pattern before it takes hold.
Seminarians need to cultivate moral virtues like integrity, justice and prudence, to grow in self-knowledge and self-discipline and to forgo a sense of entitlement. These virtues are integral to their spiritual life. Further, many older priests and other observers find dangerous an attitude prevalent among more than a few recently ordained priests: a tendency to see themselves as entirely different from the laity and therefore socially distant. The potential for separation and isolation in certain circumstances is detrimental and can lead to loneliness and psychologically unhealthy conditions. Priests will benefit from ongoing education about the dangers and pitfalls of a lifestyle that increases vulnerability to abusive behavior. Those who understand that their lives are to be modeled after Jesus Christ and oriented toward humble service in ministry are much less likely to engage in sexual abuse of any kind.