In the wake of recent reports concerning widespread sexual harassment and sexual abuse at seminaries, a seminary professor has suggestions for how the seminary process could improve.
Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, suggested in an Oct. 18 Washington Post column six ways the formation process of seminarians could be changed to ensure that they would be properly formed both spiritually and emotionally.
Father Berg criticized the current seminary system for an “overemphasis on academics” that leaves seminarians lesser formed emotionally and personally. He warned that those kinds of deficits do not form priests who are ready to effectively serve their parishes and could result in additional misbehavior.
“Where focus on personal psychological integration is lacking, space opens for disordered living of precisely the type that has made headlines in recent months,” he said. Seminaries in several U.S. cities announced investigations into misconduct this summer.
Next, Father Berg said that there needs to be increased trust and transparency between seminarians and formation teams. He said it “pained [him] to hear” that some seminarians had felt as though they could not discuss recent abuse stories. This censorship was “utterly wrongheaded.”
He said that seminarians should be able to “freely, frankly and confidently express to the formation team their concerns about the seminary community, their opinions about the formation process and any other honest apprehension or contribution they want to make in the spirit of honest dialogue.”
Additionally, he called for seminaries to have clear sexual-harassment policies and protocols and said that a person associated with the seminary, lay or otherwise, should be appointed to contact the diocese regarding sexual harassment or abuse.
Father Berg additionally called for a possible minimum age for seminarians and said that “bishops need to slow down the rush to ordination.” He suggested that an age of 22 may be an appropriate time to begin seminary studies, which would allow the seminarian to acquire a college degree and work experience before entering.
While the current seminary process takes about seven years, Father Berg suggested that the process be extended by another year. An initial year of formation would consist of “detoxing from the culture and social media” and would result in “growth in self-knowledge, prayer and a secure masculine identity.” The final year before ordination could consist of “intensive fieldwork” in pastoral ministry.
Bishops may not appreciate this idea, he said, but he believes it is necessary, as the Church cannot be well served by priests who are ordained before they are actually ready for the position. This spiritual immaturity could result in mental-health crises or other issues among clergy.
“When years later some of them falter, with addictions or other personal struggles, we all pay a heavy price,” he explained.
Father Berg also expressed concern at what he described as “priests who lack the skill set and drive to become mentors, role models and moral guides” being assigned to seminaries as formators.
“A doctorate in theology does not render a priest automatically suitable for such ministry,” he said. Bishops need to require that the formators themselves undergo ongoing professional formation to better serve seminarians.
For his final points, Father Berg addressed the number and quality of seminaries in the United States. He said that steps should be taken to identify which seminaries are successful in the formation of priests and those that are failing at this task. He suggested that bishops should form a panel of “seasoned seminary formators” who will visit each seminary to review their processes.
Seminaries that are “failing in their mission” should be reformed or closed.
Finally, Father Berg said that the current number of seminaries in the United States — 70 — is far too high and that number needs to be consolidated. A third of those seminaries, according to a recent report, have fewer than 50 seminarians, whereas 11 of them have more than 100 men in formation.
Instead of this glut of seminaries that are clearly not needed, Father Berg suggested making “15 or 20” regional seminaries, staffed by the best-of-the-best formators from seminaries around the country who would work in teams.
The current times, he said, require a “radical rethinking” of seminaries, one that must be started by the bishops.