A Change in Formation: How the sexual abuse crisis has reshaped priestly training
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.
With the widespread use of Pastores Dabo Vobis in seminaries, (a document ghost- written by a Sulpician theologian) the hierarchy is returning to an exalted Post-Tridentine identity formation, first successfully promulgated by the French School and lasting until the Vatican II era. This identity creed can only guarantee situational group narcissism and its concomitant sexual deviancies, as it did for the 400 years it was in the ascendancy, having replaced the more grounded identity found in Gregory the Great's Pastoral Rule, now all but forgotten.
Simply superadding psychological, moral and spiritual “fail-safes” on top of this indoctrination may weed out some men but it will not yield a healthy priesthood. A few men may first be attracted to and then actually survive a training by which they are hyper-invested in a rococo ideology that tries to tell them they are both special and kenotic members of Christ. This, however, is a recipe for both ego inflation and deprivation neurosis, which, when combined, will continue to breed psychologically and spiritually brittle men and a greatly weakened Church.
As a layman I would have to ask the question as to whether the imposition of celibacy has played a critical role for some offenders.
The Movement for Married Clergy (MMaC) here in the UK does not seek the position that all priests should be married; rather that the choice should exist and that the compulsory imposition of the celibate state that is currently part of priestly formation should be removed.
I would hope that a copy of Katarina Schuth's article reaches every seminary on both sides of the Atlantic.
The article on the new or revised seminary formation process missed a very important detail. The cover up alleged to have happened within the hierarchy of the Church is now imitated by the psychological profession. I have never read a psychologist admitting how the advice of psychologists "back in the day" would sometimes, maybe even often, diagnose the sexual abuser of minors as only going through a phase of delayed adolescence. What excuse do psychologists have today for not owning their part, however unwitting, in the clergy abuse scandal? No one blames the psychological profession today for what psychologists did not know then. They are indeed now called to admit some accountability for the advice once given, received and misleading bishops and seminary rectors. Silence over this issue is as telling as ever the silence of the clergy. It bespeaks the effort to protect the reputation of the profession of therapeutic psychology from the same shame, guilt and remorse as any one of our involved and sorry clergy types knows so very well. A pretension of innocence does not work anymore. Hypocrisy is an awful burden. Then again, the hypocrite is someone who has absolutely no idea whata hypocrite is.
I have no doubt and perfect hope that Jesus' church will survive led by the Father's Holy Spirit (for the Spirit moves very slowly and it is only a blip in time that the "windows were opened up for a breath of fresh air)."
Jerome,St. Vincent agreed with you:
"The order of the Council of Trent is to be respected as coming from the Holy Spirit. Experience shows, however, that the way it has been executed in relation to the age of seminarians does not work, neither in Italy nor in France - some leaving before finishing, others not having the inclination for the priesthood, other leaving for (religious) communities and others fleeing the places to which they are tied by obligation, loving better to hurry fortune elsewhere."
Quote by St. Vincent de Paul. See M. Venard, Le catholicisme a` l'e´preuve dans la France du XVIe sie`cle, Paris, Cerf, 2000, p. 117-134.
Thank you for this article as well as many of the responses. While there is much more to be said about priestly formation today, from what I've heard anecdotally, the more recently ordained clergy may have been better briefed on some aspects of this problem, but have developed a near scared of "touch" approach that is a sad by-product in this era. With hugs of all sorts now suspect, this too often fits into a clerical mind set that continues to see the priest as a "man apart" rather than the more approachable human that the best of this previous era exemplified.As interesting though, is what I have heard about "confession/penance" and the lack of instruction given around disclosures and semi-confessions by those who may admit "acting inappropriately", but there is little or no instruction to the confessor how to deal with that, let alone the more overt - if rare - disclosures or admissions by a perpetrator of an inappropriate sexual act that may have involved a minor. I would appreciate the revisions in formation more if seminary faculty were forthright about how they teach seminarians to deal with these disclosures by others - lay and clergy - given the secrecy of the "seal."
One is reminded of the disastrous handling of AIDS in the public and church literature, wherein no one would utter the expression anal intercourse. Thousands died and millions of dollars were wasted as a result. But let's be nice.
Prevarication is a sin.
Your comments could be made by employing less pretentious language. (c.f., Daniel Oppenheimer, "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."
I must stand by my use of long words, because they are not mine alone - you will find the same if not more striking long words in the critics of this same ideology of priestly identity, namely Jacques Maritain in his 1972 Revue Thomiste article, Gustave Martelet's scathing critique in his multi-volume work on the history of the priesthood, Erik Erikson's work on identity formulations gone awry, as well as Richard Sipe's erudite articles on the crisis of seminary identity formation. The formation of seminarians is in serious disrepair and now promises to be in more serious shape because of PDV. For those of us who have been around long enough to read the 40 years of glowing short-word articles continuously proclaiming how seminary training has been revised for the better have the responsibility to discuss what major scholars on the topic have also been saying for decades. Their ideas are complicated, multi-valenced, and by and large inaccessible. It is time to get complicated. This is necessity not pretentiousness.
Hi Katarina, you have done a good job updating us with your interesting research. As you said some seminaries have a low rates of incidents. Also, you tell us the reasons why others don't. If the urgency for new priests may reduce the quality of priesthood what can we do? How can we help? How many of us would be willing to accept our good children become priests or nuns? Then it's our own society, isn't it?
Back in the Middle Age celibacy was not fully dictated. So what happened? Some priests had more than 1 wife... The church in that time decided to make the celibacy as a universal rule. Apparently this change would have been the origin for the actual sex scandals. Since the first century, the priest relationship with Jesus was beyond the church rules. That's why we have saints. Sex abuse is found within nuns and lay people too. Just reading at Padre Pio's biography we find him accused for a sex abuse that other priest did. Priest and nuns like the rest of us, are subject to fail but, do we fail when we are in communion with God? Unless we do have a serious mental disorder, then we not only need a psychologist but psychiatrist. Obviously it’s the human relationship with God what really counts beyond any training or formation effort. So what can we do from our little corner? 1. Pray for them, and ask Jesus to help them. 2. Encourage them to imitate our Saints. Sometime we see good thing they have done but we don’t tell them. 3. Be good laypeople to inspire them.
Better screening and open discussion regarding sexuality at the seminary level is a good beginning. But I have to wonder if the real effort needs to be post ordination support and training. As a former major seminarian in the late 60's I can attest that there was little discussion about sexuality. I recall one spiritual director who made an off handed comment that he could make us all uncomfortable by merely mentioning "masturbation". There just was an expectation that we, men, knew that we were signing on for celibacy and we did strive to lead chaste lives. The enthusiam of what we were training for and spirituality kept sexual feelings in check. When the balance grew harder for me, I left and got married.
I wonder at times how other men who did advance to ordination manage their sexual drive since God knows that they are real and there. I'm convinced that there are true celibates for the Kingdom. Deep prayer and commitment to their vow sustains them. It is as doable as fidelity to one's spouse.
However I did see that among others, alcohol serving as an acceptable crutch to ease the tensions of priestly life. More recently, some priests grow comfortable with themselves and do share with others that their sexual orientation is homosexual but remain true to their celibate vow. We should applaud them for their honesty. Then there are those who fail and are the cause of scandal for the Church.
The Priesthood is a lonely life since they no longer live in community with other priests to sustain and support eachother. We indeed must weed out those who don't belong in the ministry but we certainly need to promote open and honest discussion and assistance to priests in order to sustain them. We have to first aknowledge that sexuality is a gift from God and a force that effects all of us. It naturally begs the question should its exercise be optional in priestly ministry? The scandal is at least bringing to the forefront that priests are not eunuches but sexual beings like the rest of us.
More importantly, CHURCH LEADERSHIP, BISHOPS, CARDINALS AND ARCHBISHOPS 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.
Everyone who was involved should have been thrown in jail and thrown out of the church, since they were willfully doing Satan's work.
God will be surrounded by those 100,000+ victims on your judgment day, and He will ask what you did or didn't do to clean up His church.
How often do you intend to print articles such as Kartarina Schuth’s “A Change in Formation” (Jan. 2-9) that defend the practices of US Bishops in dealing with the clergy sex abuse? Of course, as a participant in the John Jay reports, Schuth is eager to rehash those findings as influencing US bishops’ policies for the better.
I would ask Schuth several questions: First, if some seminaries produced abusers “in higher proportions” than others, what seminaries were those, and has there been any change in the administrators to suggest these seminaries are no longer leaders in producing abusers?
Second, Schuth repeats the canard that the rise in abuse cases “was influenced by social factors in American society.” Unfortunately, the US is not the only country to experience clerical abuse of minors; Ireland, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, France, U.K., Mexico, Poland, Australia have dealt with this behavior too. In time it seems likely we will see abuse reports from the churches in Africa, South America, and the Philippines as those societies develop mechanisms for victims to report abuse.
Related to this, Schuth seems to believe that because there was a dropoff in reported cases of abuse after1985 that the problem has been resolved; it may be true, but most cases of abuse were reported decades after the incident occurred. We may not hear about the 2000’s for twenty years.
Third, Schuth writes that in 1985 the US bishops “understood neither the scope nor the impact on victims”. That is true, because they ignored the Doyle-Peterson-Mouton report of that same year warning of the scope of abuse and its probable impact on the US church—borne out to be largely true, if not understated. The bishops were warned, they did know, but they rejected facts and covered up. They had nothing to fear from the Vatican, since John Paul had dismissed the sexual abuse reports early on as an American problem.
I don’t know how Schuth believes she serves the church by providing copy points for bishops who still have not been held accountable for maintaining an environment where such horrible things occurred, and may still be occurring. About ten years ago, America was in the vanguard of reform. Times, it seems, have changed for my Jesuit friends and their little magazine.
I have no idea why the John Jay report is seemingly so praiseworthy. Is it because the bishops both commissioned the study and controlled the sort of information sought?
The question of formation remains an important one despite the presence of commissioner controlled 'studies.' I find it particularly problematic that there appears to be a perception that men cannot be celibate absent pathology. To the same effect is the proffer of a 'cure' for pederasty through procurement of wives for the clergy. Really, the level of thought - or not - is distressing, particularly in light of the thousands of children who have suffered because the priesthood became (one hopes it does not remain) a safe harbor for child abusers.
Seminaries can tweak their formation programs until the cows come home; sexual predators and pedophiles will find a way through the system to have access to children. These sick people are here to stay, in society and in the church. We cannot screen all of them out. Therefore we must not protect them, but that is exactly what happened and why we have this crisis in the first place.
Cover-up is the crux of the sexual abuse scandal, not inadequate formation. It was and is diocesan officials, especially bishops, who cover up the abuse, then cover up their cover-up of the abuse. And when survivors of abuse and their families finally found the courage to speak up, these same officials, or their successors, ignored them, patronized them, lied to them, attacked their integrity, and fought them “tooth and nail” in the courts.
My nephew is about two years from priestly ordination. Let’s suppose at his first assignment he suspects the pastor is sexually involved with a high school youth. He calls the bishop who tells him, “Father, I have the situation under control. Trust me.” What’s my nephew to do? The formation he is receiving at seminary (or lack there of) teaches him to “trust the bishop.”
We have to prepare the next generation of priests and pastoral leaders to deal with cover-up of sexual abuse by church officials. Here is what is needed:
1. Seminarians must meet the victims of abuse and their families, and listen to the awful details of their trauma. This is the only way to open their eyes to a system that protected abusers, as well as encourage them to reach out to the victims and their families.
2. Seminarians must study the investigative reports of diocesan cover-up such as the BostonGlobe’s story of the protection of pedophiles under Cardinal Law, or the grand jury investigation in Philadelphia. They need to know what cover-up looks like so they can recognize it when they are in the middle of it.
3. Seminarians must role play situations in which they suspect cover-up so that they can get a sense of the tensions and dilemmas with which they will be confronted. They need to understand that neither civil law nor church law will protect them from retaliation should they challenge their leaders whom they suspect of hiding something.
In the wake of the horrors of sexual abuse in our church, it is imperative to prepare young men to make decisions of conscience to protect minors and vulnerable adults against the cover-up of sexual abuse by church leaders. To focus energy on celibacy issues without addressing the above is a waste of time.