Boston Seminary Report Models Key Post-McCarrick Reforms

EDITORIAL: The response to allegations has been concrete, transparent and authentically Catholic, in its efforts to discern what is wrong at the seminary and how to rectify those shortcomings.

(photo: John Stephen Dwyer/CC 3.0/Wikipedia)
It would hardly be appropriate to characterize the recently released findings of the independent investigation undertaken at the Archdiocese of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary as “good news,” given that it did confirm that isolated instances of sexual misconduct and excessive alcohol consumption have taken place there in recent years.

But the outcome does appear to be a positive indication that key Church leaders are aiming in a better direction, when it comes to addressing sexual misconduct and other problems in seminaries.

And while it’s always deeply troubling whenever any sexual activity takes place at a Catholic seminary, the fact that the St. John’s investigators found no pervasive subculture of sexual activity, or incidents of sexual misconduct involving the seminary’s formators, is also cause for some measured encouragement.

U.S. Catholics can be excused for fearing that the findings were going to be a lot worse, given that the St. John’s allegations arose in the specific context of last year’s revelations that disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick had engaged in sexual misconduct with seminarians with impunity. That disclosure encouraged two former St. John’s seminarians to step forward on social media in August 2018, with credible allegations of sexual and other misconduct.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s prompt action — commissioning an investigation of St. John’s and placing seminary rector Msgr. James Moroney on leave only a few days after the whistleblowers spoke out — and the investigators’ subsequent report 15 months later both model some key principles that can be adopted by all Catholic seminaries in the post-McCarrick era. Boston’s response has been concrete, transparent and authentically Catholic, in its efforts to discern what’s wrong at the seminary and how to rectify those shortcomings.

The cardinal has also modeled another important principle — a willingness to correct course when necessary. He shifted the investigation to the law firm of Yurko, Salvesen & Remz, under the leadership of former U.S. Attorney Donald Stern, after it was pointed out that some members of his initial investigating commission had ties to St. John’s Seminary. He also broadened the investigation to include the other two seminaries in his archdiocese, Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary and Redemptoris Mater Seminary. The findings regarding those seminaries are still to come.

But in the case of St. John’s, the archdiocese has now posted online the investigators’ entire 92-page report, which includes an appendix containing the full text of the Aug. 3 social-media posting that was the primary trigger for the investigation. This provides the faithful, both within the archdiocese and elsewhere, the opportunity to review the substance of the allegations, how they were investigated, and the investigators’ recommendations, and thereby form their own judgment about whether the archdiocese is addressing the situation adequately.

While the final report confirmed the substance of the social-media post regarding some instances of sexual activity and excessive drinking among seminarians, the investigators found no evidence of a pattern of widespread sexual misconduct, or of sexual activity between seminarians and faculty. And the report concluded that except for the case of “lewd and anonymous” texts six seminarians received in 2015, the seminary responded appropriately to the isolated cases of sexual misconduct that have occurred in recent years, with measures that included dismissal of seminarians who were discovered to be engaged in sexual activity and using dating apps.

But the investigators faulted Msgr. Moroney for failures of oversight and leadership, including his response to the texting incident, but more prominently with respect to his handling of financial matters and issues related to alcohol consumption. The seminary’s vice rector, Father Christopher O’Connor, also was directly criticized, for sometimes being “bullying” in his dealings with seminarians and for his participation in the seminary’s culture of drinking.

The report made nine specific recommendations, including the adoption of a confidential reporting mechanism for allegations of misconduct, a review of the seminary’s drinking policies, enforcement of financial controls, and enhanced supervision by the seminary’s board of trustees. And in conjunction with the Nov. 22 release of the report, Cardinal O’Malley announced that he intended to consult with St. John’s board of trustees regarding his intention to appoint a new permanent rector and vice rector.

Some critics will contend that sexual misconduct is likely far more pervasive than the seminary investigators concluded. But a close reading of the report confirms that the investigation was very thorough, interviewing 80 individuals and reviewing all relevant seminary records.

It was also intentionally Catholic in its underlying approach, specifically assessing the seminary’s performance through the lenses of the four pillars of formation — human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral — articulated by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1992 apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. Consequently there’s little reason to believe that the investigators were inclined to underplay the significance of sexual misconduct.

And the investigators’ implicit finding, that St. John’s Seminary is reasonably healthy overall, conforms with what the Register has been told by seminary-formation experts with respect to the reforms undertaken at many U.S. seminaries, both before and after the eruption of the national clergy-abuse scandal in 2002 drew attention to the role that unhealthy seminary environments have played in the epidemic of clergy sexual misconduct.

In these seminaries, there has been substantial progress in terms of eradicating subcultures of sexual activity that were present previously, and more broadly in implementing improvements to assist in the development of healthy and holy priests.

At the same time, the Archdiocese of Boston’s approach stands in stark contrast to the response in some other dioceses, notably including Buffalo. There, Bishop Richard Malone has refused to commission an investigation into the state of Christ the King Seminary, despite deeply disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power involving seminary formators as well as seminarians, as detailed by the Register’s recent three-part investigation that has been published online at

Buffalo is hardly the only current problem spot, though, and even in the healthiest of seminaries there is always room for improvement. So the path forward should build on the lessons learned in Boston and elsewhere. It’s not only in Boston where a lack of attention to alcohol consumption has given rise to problems, and financial-management issues are in no way unique to St. John’s Seminary either.

One of the specific recommendations of the Boston investigators is that St. John’s take steps to improve the human-formation component of its seminary instructions. That certainly sounds like prudent advice, but it’s a safe bet that improvements to the other three formational pillars are also warranted, both there and at other U.S. seminaries.

It should be noted that in the wake of the 2002 clergy-abuse scandal, the Vatican undertook a comprehensive visitation of all U.S. seminaries, a process that yielded a wealth of useful information and guidance.

Given what has already come to light regarding seminary problems over the last 18 months — and what might soon be forthcoming, in light of Cardinal O’Malley’s recent advisory that Pope Francis is about to release the findings of the Vatican investigation into the factors that facilitated McCarrick’s misconduct — now might be a highly appropriate time for another such seminary visitation.