Does the Notre Dame Survey Demonstrate That Seminaries Are Safe?

COMMENTARY: The report suggests that sexual misconduct at some seminaries is rare, but it does not give an indication how large that group of ‘some’ is.

(photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

When the news came out last summer that Theodore McCarrick had been abusing seminarians for decades and that his conduct was widely known, social media was filled with statements of concern by mothers who had been encouraging their sons to consider priestly vocations: Could they entrust their sons to seminaries?

Likely it was such concerns that led distinguished theologian John Cavadini, along with others at the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame, in conjunction with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown, to do a survey of the incidence of “sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct” in seminaries (hereafter “sexual harassment/abuse”).

Some critics say the results demonstrate that the problem of sexual harassment/abuse at seminaries is now minimal. Indeed, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League proclaimed that “Sexual Misconduct in Seminaries Is Rare.”


More Studies Needed

The report established no such thing and, in fact, raises so many questions that it indicates the need for much more study and vigilance at seminaries. It is noteworthy that the title of the report states that it is the “first” sociological survey of seminarians.

While the report suggests that sexual misconduct at some seminaries is rare, it does not give an indication how large that group of “some” is. Doubtless it was necessary to promise anonymity to get cooperation, but now a study needs to be done of each and every seminary, and the results must be made public.

In addition, every bishop needs to demand an independent study of the seminaries to which he sends his seminarians, as do all boards of seminaries to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility.


Incidents of Sexual Harassment/Abuse

The report established through a high response level by seminarians (65% of seminarians invited to participate completed the survey) that between 6%-10% of seminarians reported that they personally experienced sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct. (Six percent of seminarians reported they were certain they experienced sexual harassment/abuse, and 4% said they may have but were not sure.)

Is that a high or low number? The report attempted to find some basis for judgment by reviewing the rate of sexual harassment/abuse among college students in general. Only one of the studies consulted had a demographic similar enough to seminaries (it wasn’t all that similar — it was only of graduate students at a coed university) and posed similar enough questions to be at all useful; the report determined that the incidence of harassment was not higher or lower at seminaries.

But is that comparison useful? I am not sure a comparison would be valuable even if all the variables lined up exactly. After all, the “quality” of seminarians in respect to sexual conduct should be much higher than students in any other institution. That the level of misconduct might be similar is in itself a condemnation either of the selection of candidates or the atmosphere at seminaries.


Usefulness of Results

It is hard to know. As noted, in order to get the fullest cooperation possible, anonymity was promised to seminarians and seminaries. That “concession” unfortunately greatly limits the value of the report, for we don’t know the incidence of abuse at any particular seminary. After the 2005 instruction from the Vatican that men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies should not be admitted to the seminary, many seminaries were greatly reformed and that reform likely accounts for the fact that 76% of seminarians found “no problem” with sexual harassment/abuse at their seminary. The fact that 11% found a “little problem,” 4% reported “some problem,” 2% reported “a big problem” and 7% “didn’t know” indicates that different seminaries have different levels of abuse. The survey also found that 26% reported some talk of promiscuity at their seminary.

It is suggestive that 2% of respondents found a big problem with sexual harassment/abuse, that 2% found promiscuity to be a big problem, and that 4% found the seminaries did not take the issue very seriously or ignored it completely. I suspect that these were reports from a single seminary or from only a few seminaries. Bishops and seminarians and the laity who support the seminaries need to know which seminarians are those that have problems of sexual harassment/abuse at any level; knowing just the average does not help at all with the particular choices that need to be made.


Behavior Surveyed

It is important to keep in mind that when the survey refers to “sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct,” it means violations of seminary or house of formation policy and teachings. It also is important to keep in mind that, according to the survey, most abuse victims were abused multiple times and suffered the most severe forms of abuse.

Reports of abuse were of someone:

  • asking another to engage in sexual relations with them or someone else;
  • making an attempt at or actually touching, kissing or fondling another;
  • pressuring another with threats or rewards into having sexual contact;
  • posing a troubling physical presence toward another, such as uncomfortably following, watching or spying on them or inappropriately staring at them;
  • persisting in asking someone to meet (e.g., for dinner or drinks), in what seems like a precursor to sexual activity, after that person had already said “No” to previous invitations;
  • talking to or trying to get others to talk about sexually suggestive or indecent matters; or
  • encouraging another to view sexual pictures, videos, stories or jokes.

That is a considerable list for the kind of behavior to which seminarians should not be exposed nor about which they need to be concerned while training for the priesthood. The word “misconduct,” though, is perhaps a bit misleading, since it does not include heterosexual sex, use of pornography and masturbation. The incidence of all these also should be surveyed and reported.

Very concerning was the kind of response made by seminaries to reports of sexual harassment/abuse:

“About four in 10 combined (42%) believe that their reports of sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct to the responsible authorities were taken seriously and acted upon ‘completely’ (24%) or ‘for the most part’ (18%). Twelve percent say that their reports were taken seriously ‘somewhat, but not adequately.’ Fifteen percent believe their reports were ‘not taken seriously or properly acted upon.’ Finally, 31% are not sure how seriously their report was taken or whether it was acted upon.”

So at least 27% believed their reports were not taken adequately seriously, and 31% did not know how seriously their reports were taken, if at all. There is much room for improvement there.


Most Significant

The most significant “finding” of the study is not really a “finding,” but the fact that only 48% of seminaries cooperated. The fact that 52% did not cooperate suggests that a lot of seminaries might have much to hide. (Moreover, we don’t know the size of the seminaries that responded; if the smaller seminaries participated and the larger ones did not, the findings are even less reliable.)

Why didn’t those 52% cooperate? After all, the conditions at their seminaries would not be revealed. Were they afraid that, should the conditions of their seminaries be included in the study, the incidence of sexual harassment/abuse and promiscuity would be so high that there would be a widespread cry for a nonanonymous study of the incidence of sexual abuse at seminaries? What could be their reason?

Consider this: If 100 men were surveyed on whether or not they beat their wives, and only 48 answered, what would we think of those who wouldn’t answer? And if we found 6%-10% abused their wives, we certainly wouldn’t call the incidence “rare.”

That so many seminaries failed to cooperate should be of major concern to bishops. Because not all seminaries cooperated and since the results were anonymous, the bishops should demand that all seminaries undergo an independent investigation. Transparency, an honest accounting and reform are what is necessary — not anonymity.


More Questions

Many more questions should be asked than those posed by the McGrath/CARA study. The following are some of the concerns that remain:


  • Seminarians and formators should be asked what percentage of seminarians they believe have a problem with:
    • being unchaste with women;
    • being unchaste with men;
    • viewing heterosexual pornography;
    • viewing homosexual pornography;
    • masturbation.
  • Seminarians should be asked if they personally have difficulties with the above.
  • Seminaries should be asked to submit a full report to bishops on the measures in place to help seminarians achieve and/or maintain chastity.
  • Do seminary computers have porn filters? How are reports of porn usage handled?
  • Furthermore, when reporting abuse that involves seminary staff or Church authorities, seminarians should be encouraged to report the names of the individuals involved to an independent review board. (Thirty-six percent of abuse victims were abused by seminary authorities or Church authorities not directly connected to the seminary.)


Recommendations by Seminarians

The most useful part of the survey is the collection of suggestions by seminarians for increasing safety at seminaries. The fact that such a large number of seminarians responded shows that the issue is of considerable interest to them. They do not advocate for leniency. They do want better formation in chastity, better screening of candidates, better mechanisms for reporting abuse and zero tolerance for offenders — whether students, staff or faculty.

Education, vigilance and an effective response — these are things we all want at our seminaries. I am confident that most seminaries are much better than they were in the late decades of the 20th century, and that should be a great source of hope for the future of the Church.

Yet it remains a matter of pressing concern that there is still predation of various kinds in seminaries. Certainly seminarians deserve to be formed in an atmosphere where chastity is highly valued. Moreover, the ordination of any unchaste man to the priesthood is a disaster waiting to happen for the whole Church — especially in the present day, when there may still be those in the episcopacy who do everything they can to get malleable unchaste men to join their ranks.

The McGrath report, despite its limitations, has performed a valuable service for the Church. It is now up to bishops, seminary board members and laity to insist that all seminaries submit to a full investigation into the conditions at their seminaries and — for the love of God and his Church — provide an atmosphere in which chastity can be learned and lived.

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian, recently retired from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.