Examining the Connection Between Seminary Formation and Clergy Sex Abuse

“A Change in Formation

How the sexual abuse crisis has reshaped priestly training”

By Katarina Schuth, America – The National Catholic Weekly, January 2, 2011

“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.” Click here to continue reading...

39 thoughts on “Examining the Connection Between Seminary Formation and Clergy Sex Abuse

  1. About 40 years ago, I was sitting in our Chancery Office with the Chancellor of our diocese, a licensed clinical social worker, who left the room at least three times to answer media phone calls relating to a molestation case that was exploding.

    My boss and I knew the Chancellor well, he had been our boss, and we said “what the …..is going on? He said, ‘we didn’t use to screen seminarians psychologically, we are now. ‘

    I thought of this when I read the posting because the author told of a seminary in the late 50s that used a lot of psychological methods, had a positive faculty and apparently made decisions on retention of candidates, based on even more screening. AND had a very low rate of subsequent abuse problems.

    The other piece of this article that got my attention was the learning that seminarians needed to cultivate integrity, grow in self knowledge and self discipline, “and ..forgo a sense of entitlement.”…..ie not the clerical culture that we have been talking about.

  2. According to the author:

    “…….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…..”

    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.

    1. catholics4change are pretty courageous in bringing this up as a discussion point. Seminarians need to cultivate….. is all very well, but many clergy entered religious life at junior seminary level.
      Their mothers would have cultivated most of the life long virtues mentioned at the knee, it wasn’t there fault it was hashe/bashed out of them, and the “will of God” took over under the ever pervading Vow of Obedience which in later life was catastrophic in more ways than one.

  3. I had often heard that celibacy came about because married cardinals and popes at tmes had to let their fortunes go to wives and families and not the to church. That was at a time when popes and the Vatican had ammassed large wealth. I Googled priests and celibacy and the ratinale is astounding and complicated and contradictatory. I know that believess take this celibacy seriously – for me it was hard to stifle a giggle.

    Denial of sexuality, denial of loving another human beong emotionally and physically intimately doesn’t make much sense. It is how we are constituted and nurtured. Not that allowing marriage by priests would prevent sexual assault on children – that doesn’t hold true for the population at large.


  4. In my opinion, “a balanced approach to sexuality and celibacy” is an oxymoron.

    The article warns against approaching sexuality and celibacy in terms of purely pious understandings and practices. Then, a huge red flag appears! “Some church leaders are voicing concern that this very attitude is gaining prominence.” Yikes.

    It’s another example of faith superseding reason. The clergy members who are responsible for promulgating the dangerous attitude need to be reminded that Catholicism synthesized faith and reason centuries ago. Faith and reason: each is to inform the other.

  5. The article is about how new and different content and methods in seminary formation are intended to diminish sexual abuse. Formation is the key.

    However, not too long ago, an article in the National Catholic Reporter reported that, at any given time, fewer than half of all clergymen were practicing celibacy. While their sexual behaviors may not be of an abusive nature, they are sexual behaviors in a celibate world. The behaviors enjoy a longstanding “culture” of clergymen “looking the other way” (prevalent at all levels of the hierarchy).

    As long as the “culture” continues, formation will fall short.

    1. Not just looking away haditC. it went further than that in Australia. Melbourne Archbishop Manninix had in place a facility for “women in situations created by clergy”, for years, leaning on a young religious to expand the maternity section of the hospital she had founded, not with money from the church, but wealthy non Catholics. The facility still utilized into the early 1980’s.
      One member of the establishment in the timeline, now bishop of the notorious diocese of Ballarat, Peter Connors where dozens of sex-abuse related suicides are now being investigated.

    2. I recently discovered a great book on diocescan clerical culture.

      Michael Papesh (diocescan priest)
      Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation

      Highly recommend this to anyone interested in understaning this culure.

      As a teacher and organizational consultant, I work with corporate culture often. Would love to formulate a research project: clerical culture of diocesean priests in Philadelphia? I’d want my research to contribute toward changing this cultue. Topic likely more fitting for the new “Everything Else” blog

      1. Joan,

        Here are some thoughts…

        The origins of celibacy have been very influential on beliefs we Catholics have about priesthood, sex, and the clerical culture that emerged.

        Notions of the need for a celibate priesthood go way back. Granted, fear of inheritance fights, was a major factor in ultimately mandating celibacy. However, concerns about ritual purity raised questions in the early Christian centuries about whether presbyters should remain “clean” and not be defiled by sexual intercourse. Priests were forbidden to have intercourse with their wives before saying Mass. Ritual purity laws, going back to the Torah, specified what was required to become clean before entering the temple. Saint Paul preached about the superiority of his celibate life. Saints like Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose wrote about how sex was disgusting and should be avoided by priests. Saint Augustine: “Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downwards as the caresses of a woman.”

        So, we then get this culture where priests are seen as pure, better than those who succumb to the needs of the flesh. At the same time, we have prayers and statements that extol the beauty of marriage that seem to be in conflict with the superiority of celibacy. Those words always seemed over the top to me – the woman doth protest too much? So, we had a set of espoused beliefs about the sanctity of marriage but our actual beliefs-in-use or beliefs-in-practice held the celibate state to be a higher calling. Celibates modeled the life that would be led in heaven where no one is married. For those of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, I ask: did we ever really believe the Church’s statements about how marriage and celibate priesthood were equal choices? Sex was justified because it resulted in children. What were (ARE) they thinking if they believed (believe) that a case needed to made for sexual intercourse as acceptable human practice?
        So, then we get a story, after the fact and ignoring history, that talks about celibacy as a special gift.
        Lest we think all of this is in the ancient past, remember Pope Karol Wojtyla/JP II said that it was laudable for married couples to abstain from intercourse. Even today, birth control is forbidden; sex can only be
        tolerated if it is open to producing children.
        So, we get a clerical culture of the pure, the special, a boys’ club of the exceptional.

      2. Martin, thanks for the celibacy ‘overview’. I knew a good deal of it but missed the contributions of Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine. ( didn’t Augustine want to reform his life, AFTER a period of licentiousness?). And the timeline for this history was not a period of womens or human rights ascendency, which I think explains a good deal of the implicit and explicit anti feminine bias, that you detail. Women in the US didn’t get the vote till the 1920s…And we may have come ‘a long way baby’ but there’s definitely unfinished business!

        I must admit as one who grew up in the 50s and 60s and a product of Vatican2, that I really did, and do believe that both the priesthood and marriage are of equal value. In fact, after 53 years of one, I might put more marbles on marriage.

        What happened, and I am hoping you know…to that ‘servant of the servant’ stuff….to help the people of God? Also, I really like that ‘primacy of personal conscience’ stuff, which our good Pope, at the Council both defined and defended!

        AND Vatican 2 treated laity, women included, respectfully, operationally trusted the Holy Spirit and modernized the Church, marvelously.

        Of course, the Curia, who in my view apparently can’t trust the Holy Spirit, are deeply engaged in reforming the reform and elevating clericalism to new heights.

        When I reflect on all these matters, I think about a diaspora of kids, raised by Vatican 2 parents, who may or may not still be Catholics, but are doing a huge amount of good in the larger culture. These guys don’t care about clerical celibacy or clericalism, but rather the poor or any number of other social justice causes. They are taking their fine educations and using them for the common good….Did the Holy Spirit just slip through parochial boundaries? I think so!

    3. hadit ,interesting news out of California where a Bishop has resigned after admitting to fathering two children.http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1200022.htm
      As some others (Reid) referenced in their post concerning celibacy for priests coming about because of issues of land and inheritance when priests were allowed to marry in earlier days. I myself just found this out a few months ago. Also interesting is that celibacy is a “promise” a priests makes, not a “vow”.
      I don’t think that celibacy plays a large part in the abuse of children,many child predators are married men in society.

      1. Yes, interesting news out of California, Kathy. Thanks for the link.

        I completely agree with you that there is little to no correlation between celibacy and pedophilia.

        Presumably, the new content and methods being used in seminaries pertaining to formation in the area of sexuality and celibacy intends to not only affect incidences of sexual abuse, but to also provide a more informed, grounded, relevant, and integrated approach to living a celibate life in general. My point was: If the “permissive” culture continues in the priesthood, as it has for centuries, it will always act to sabotage sexuality and celibacy formation.

        I am delighted that you just learned the Church’s practical reason for implementing celibacy. Now you are ready to get into the more complex reasons. Beware.

        Are you aware that celibacy doesn’t mean no sex, it means no marriage… having the implication that sex occurs in marriage, alone?

      2. Good on you Kathy Kane, there are quite a few priest’s around the “traps” of Australia who have offspring, apart from those mentioned earlier.
        Many mothers coerced into to surrendering their newborns by a bishop, as the “loving thing to do”.
        To add to that, there are one or maybe two not that I can verify clergy who maintain contact with their sons and daughters, in particular one franciscan friar who, at 64 yeats of age, “broke” his vows, seeing his beautiful child requested a rescript according to Canon 1139 [of ligitimation] for his “family”, but was refused to prevent scandal and inheritance rights. The contradiction is, the mother was offered a brother/sister arrange, to preserve priesthood.
        This friar was a junior seminarian, showing signs he was one of the many whereby celibacy [Not chastity] should have been
        optional. He was a decent man exploited by the Vow of Obedience.
        He never recinded on his deathbed and was looking to have his request granted experditialy with the support of a caring [now past] Minister Provincal, when it became known he had a life
        threatening brain tumour.
        His last will and testament, not as a human being, but father
        Who would dare.
        to inheritance rights and “prevent scandal issues.

  6. I should probably qualify my rather flip remark.

    In no way am I supporting sexual abusive behavior. Period

    But Haddit’s NCR remarks are, I believe true, and relevant, and NOT just applied to the US!

    Around 98 % of Catholics utilize some form of birth control….the prohibition is clearly NOT ‘received wisdom’ and relative to opoosition to ‘optional celibacy’ also a no no about 50% more or less of the clergy may well not be receiving THAT message.

    In both cases I think the behaviors may well be advancing human development well ahead of Vatican fiats.

      1. Joan, a wonderful testament to fatherhood has been submitted by Jim Jenkins on National Catholoc Reporter.
        The lead article is written by Dennis Coday headed: Thinking about Bishop Zavala’s resignation.
        I was at a loss for words, irrespective of which side of politics one is situated.

      2. I. Newington, you are right, it was great…I loved the part about learning as a father about ranking a bad 4th or 5th….Jenkins is one of my favorite commenters on the NCR, I think he is a psychologist, headed up the SF diocesan Review Bd, under Lavada…( I recently sent Kathy a comment he made on Review

        But the other part of that Coday piece was a reference to a Sipe/Nouwen article, also relating to celibacy, that stopped me cold. Richard Sipe wrote it as a friend of Nouwens and it dealt with a depression Nouwen experienced relative to love and celibacy, and drew a parallel to Mertons late life experience, relating to the same experience.

        The link, I hope…is http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/thinking-about-bishop-zavalas-resignation

      3. Jim Jenkins’ comment is a must read! Thanks L. Newington and Joan.

        I have always believed that once the task of protecting children and securing justice for victims is accomplished, THE task to follow must be reform in the priesthood. Priesthood, priesthood, priesthood. All of our focus must go there.

  7. Two astonishing assumptions from the John Jay study that the sister author constructs as “facts and findings:”

    “The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society.”

    The 60’s and, by logical extension to Church society, Vatican II are to blame!

    “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.”

    So, the bishops did not understand that sexual assault on a 7 year old would have negative consequences for the child?

  8. In the VOTF article that I cited above, written by a priest who had run counseling services for hundreds of religious with celibacy related concerns, he writes a mock letter, at the end of the article, to the Pope from a bishop….in it he cites the common law marriages of clergy in South America and Africa, and the priest shortage:

    “Your Holiness, I am writing this open letter so that you and my diocese will understand what I am about to do.  I am about to ordain ten exemplary married men, [or call back ten married priests, who are just longing to serve].  I’m doing this in order to staff the ten parishes in my diocese that no longer have a resident priest.

                 I’m sure that you will understand, Your Holiness, because you yourself have not interfered with those bishops in Africa and South America who have priests serving in their dioceses who are living in a common law marriage.  It is clear that you understand that the salvation of souls is the supreme law, much higher than the Church’s discipline of mandatory celibacy.  May God continue to bless you in your difficult tasks!”

    I know religious who work in Africa and who would totally agree with the African reference, and the situation in Austraila has been noted as well, on this blog.

    1. I know Joan, what about the Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, an ex-bishop who in his line of duty populated his diocese with more than one child. Once he became president the paternity suites came to light. Actually it was a “dreaded” Opus Dei religious who reported his philandering.
      He was permitted to hold the public office by Rome for political expediency.
      I’m sorry about the end of my comment that I couldnt see when submitted.

      1. I missed Paraguay…but have certainly had a ‘heads up’ from you on Austrailia.

        You know, it’s interesting that SNAP on it’s website lists 53 languages that folks can use contacting them for help, in abuse matters. And a SNAP person recently told me that they are hearing a lot from South America.

        I know that SNAP is very concerned (and I am too) about sexual abuse of minors in parts of the world that do not have (with all it’s limitations and complexities) our rule of law, or media coverage.
        Or are Church controlled in terms of wealth and power.

        My family kids me about being an unrelenting optimist (which has NOT been my style on these blogs).

        But I am trusting in both the Holy Spirit AND the media, and truly hope that children may be protected EVERYWHERE!

  9. Nigeria is a hot spot too. When you see the faces of those beautiful young faces in junior seminaries, you just pray there is no underlying pain which they would never speak about due to the stigma.
    In a country where the instance of poverty is so high, who would believe them, anyway. These young men, when fully trained are being sent around the world due to the shortage of priests.
    I’m sure SNAP will have them covered.

  10. Three priests in charge of formation of religious at the summer camp. One was Jack McDevitt the other two, one had a civil suit for abuse the other had charges dropped from a sweep of underage boys and men at a bridge in Wilmington, DE – he was the only priest arrested in that sweep. My principal and vice-principal were named in the Wilmington suit – the camp was named it wasn’t in Delaware, it was in Maryland. They were not obligated to report that abuse.

    Someone did report the abuse from outside the congregation – we discussed a plan of action – the religious congregation reacted by banning most scholastics from the camp and witch hunt against gay scholastics. Don’t know the victim or abusers as in many cases the person telling me of the abuse at several places would not reveal that information. Still reported it to my superior and the director of personnel would only express what happen as an incident when I brought up the subject.

    Could describe the situation when I was in DC in the late 70’s and early 80’s The camp inciident happened in 1981. Was assign to watch one of the above from the school, according to bishop-accountability – he died of complications due to AIDS, Knew Father John Harvey who worked with the gay community – I know what he was exposed to in DC – probably influenced his work and what he wrote.Seems child abuse was second to the “gay problem”. RCC plays to people’s fears about gays – gays I worked with had no interest in kids. I worked in a hospital that performed abortions – the only way I could minister to rape/incest victims. Catholic Hospital couldn’t provide morning after pills or counseling to those who were considering abortion so where would a rape victim go?. I am against abortion, but some of these girls were under a lot of pressure and were expressing fear of certain relatives – the ones I worked with already had the abortion.As my last position before entering religious life was in cancer research(70’s) I had a medical background and was a biologist.

    A few weeks ago a retired prof from a PA university was arrested on child porn charges. He worked in the early childhood department.Students gave him a 4.8 out of 5 stars. Nothing surprises me Just makes me want to vomit .

    1. ed, as mother’s we well know the feeling, without even knowing the children. I have mentioned before, Brokenrites have a mound of cases on public record onsite and with updates. The time will come when they will ultimately be removed and no-one will ever believe they were facts, just hearsay. What’s New is a good starting point, then just click the mouse anywhere.
      The ones that didn’t make the headlines signed confidentialities clauses.

      1. L. Thanks for the site,. One person did sign an agreement but found the priest was still dealing with kids( her son was 7 when the abuse started) The agreement was that he would not be involved with kids.They reopened the case so it became public. Had problems in 4 states, but only 1 could proceed because of SOL. On the day he was to be deposed, he was in South Africa – still dealing with kids.

        Could deal with people not believing in the 70’s, but with so much credible info, that is not an option.

  11. Joan, Richard Sipe is one who has opened the eyes of many. I have directed many to his article, Clergy in Crisis. Never another Pat.
    Jim Jenkins, well, he almost brought me to tears, I can’t recall seeing his name before, I’m not surprised he’s a psychologist, I forwarded his comment to Australian Cardinal George Pell,, Apostolic Nuncio Guiseppe Lazarrotto and present Franscian Minister Provincial Paul Smith.

    1. L.Newington, I love the Jenkins piece, but I went back and reread the Sipe/Nouwen article again and I can’t help but think on a blog dealing with clerical training and celibacy, that the Sipe piece is a stunner.

      I am an unabashed Merton fan, knew of his relationship with ‘M’ but had no idea that Nouwen went through the same experience.

      My understanding of the challenges of clerical celibacy was sharply updated by the article …http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/thinking-about-bishop-zavalas-resignation

  12. Enjoy your moment haditC, it’s a mans world, and there’s no room for wilting violets.
    Maybe it’s my non-Catholic upbringing.
    Have you ever heard the hymn, The Old Rugged Cross?. My youngest son sang it with the voice of an angel at a National Eisteddfod when he was ten years old. Beautiful in every way, see if you can find it somewhere and listen to it.
    Hope I haven’t disappointed you.

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