SEATTLE — Celibacy is an especially demanding aspect of the priestly vocation. By taking it lightly, many dioceses “set the stage” for the sex abuse scandal.

That was the conclusion of a report submitted by the lay case review board, appointed in June by the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Chaired by retired Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll, the 10-member board was asked by Archbishop Alexander Brunett to review 13 allegations of abuse against the diocese to assess whether there was probable basis for the accusation. The board was also asked to make recommendations on the future of ministries of the accused priests.

But it went further than its mandate. In reflections on the causes of the abuse, the board members said the Church “set the stage for the deviant and illegal behavior of a few” by failing to take extraordinary efforts to insure that candidates for the priesthood were mentally and emotionally prepared for the special demands of a celibate life.

“It is of concern that so little attention appears to have been paid to the enormity of the decision to become a priest and the attendant responsibilities and sacrifices,” the report said. While acknowledging that there have been sweeping changes in priestly formation in the last two decades, the board said scandal was the result of “insufficient attention… paid to screening or psychological assessment at the seminary entrance level or as a young man progressed through college and seminary.”

The case review board was especially critical of the former custom of recruiting for the seminary from younger teen-age boys.

The Church teaches that this criticism is unwarranted. In his 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (on the formation of priests) Pope John Paul II said that the needs of seminary life “demand that candidates for the priesthood have a certain prior preparation before entering it. Such preparation, at least until a few decades ago, did not create particular problems. In those days most candidates to the priesthood came from minor seminaries” (No. 62).

He added that, “As long experience shows, a priestly vocation tends to show itself in the preadolescent years or in the earliest years of youth.…The Church looks after these seeds of vocations sown in the hearts of children by means of the institution of minor seminaries, providing a careful though preliminary discernment and accompaniment” (No. 63).

Archbishop Brunett said in an interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that many of the priests involved in clerical abuse were ordained during the 1960s — at the time he was protesting homosexual behavior among seminarians. The young priest served as academic dean at a seminary in his native Michigan and told his bishop that the school had a “large colony of homosexual people.” He tried to keep some from being ordained, but he was branded as “counterproductive” and moved to parish work, he told the Post-Intelligencer.

Improvements in System

Many of those seminarians, who he attempted to expel, were later accused of sexual abuse of minors. “I was right on the mark with these people,” Archbishop Brunett said.

The remarks caused an uproar in Seattle. But a national study into the nature and scope of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy from 1950–2002, released early this year found that 81% of clerical sex abuse victims were males. Those findings of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York suggested that a large part of the problem stemmed from homosexuals in the priesthood.

While agreeing with the case review board's position, Archbishop Brunett was critical of the reflections themselves, since they were made based on only 13 cases. “It is recommended that those interested in these subjects read the full report of the National Review Board,” he wrote. “These findings are somewhat at variance with the case review board's findings, particularly in regard to the root causes of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the role of celibacy.”

The National Review Board report, issued Feb. 27, around the same time of the John Jay study, is to serve as a framework for an academic study probing more deeply into the issues raised by the board.

“Steps have already been taken to screen candidates and do a better job of formation,” said Magnoni. “We've learned that we don't have the luxury of (complacency). We have to be absolutely sure that every candidate for the priesthood is properly formed and prepared to be a priest.”

Most students for the diocesan priesthood in Seattle study at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. Benedictine Father Nathan Zodrow, chancellor of the seminary, said the difference between the 1960s and now is a better knowledge of the psychology of the priesthood itself. “What has emerged over the years is a deeper understanding of who we should be admitting and who we should be excluding. At the same time, we've developed more depth in the formation process than we had before.”

Careful screening at the diocese and again at Mount Angel “increases the chances that we have the right man, to begin with,” he said, “but it's not 100%.”

What follows is careful scrutiny by faculty, individual spiritual and formation directors, detailed reporting to their home diocese, “and work with the students to progressively give them the depth of self-knowledge necessary to assess themselves and recognize warning signs,” he said.

“As many as a half-dozen students each year (out of a total enrollment of 180-190) are either asked to leave or leave on their own,” Father Zodrow said. “It's a good year when that's happening because it means they weren't right for the priesthood.”

Meanwhile, Judge Carroll said he is puzzled by the criticism, since celibacy itself wasn't an issue. “We welcome comparison to the National Review Board's report. It's remarkable how they parallel each other.”

He said the board's greatest concern is that there is an assumption that the system is fixed, which could lead to a repeat of the scandal. “The archdiocese has taken some strong and serious steps, but the failure that caused the problems was a failure in vigilance.”

“We want to make sure there is sufficient oversight,” Carroll said. “These last several years have been troubling to the Church. It only emphasizes the need to redouble the effort to make sure that the Church is getting those who would be up to the challenges of the priesthood.”

Philip S. Moore writes from Vail, Arizona.