Laxity in Seminaries as a Contributing Cause to the Sex-Abuse Crisis
COMMENTARY: It seems that improvements have been made in many seminaries, but are they genuine or just window dressing?
“Hide the handsome ones.” That was what was “jokingly” said when Theodore McCarrick would visit seminaries. It disgusts me that such “jokes” — which clearly portrayed a reality — did not lead to a thorough investigation of McCarrick decades ago. The likely reason they did not was that, for decades, U.S. seminaries not only tolerated but recruited and favored seminarians who have sex with males.
The McCarrick scandal revealed a fact known by few Catholic laity: Seminarians have been, and still are in some places, preyed upon by faculty, staff, fellow students and even bishops.
The Changing Face of the Priesthood by Father Donald Cozzens (2000) and Goodbye, Good Men by Michael Rose (2002 and reissued in 2015) documented well the extent of the presence of active homosexuals in seminaries among students and faculty and of the accompanying harassment of heterosexuals. A survey done by Dean Hoge at The Catholic University of America in 2002 reported:
“55 percent of priests say such a subculture ‘clearly’ or ‘probably’ exists in their diocese or religious institute. Forty-one percent of priests said a homosexual subculture clearly or probably existed in the seminaries they attended.”
Those comments were made by priests who went through seminaries in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Pope Benedict, in his letter on the sex-abuse crisis, identified the condition of seminaries as one of the sources of the problem.
The condition of the seminaries in the latter half of the 20th seminary goes a long way in explaining the condition of the priesthood today. Richard Sipe’s estimate in Celibacy in Crisis — that 50% of Catholic clergy are unfaithful at any given time — is widely accepted by researchers. Most of the U.S. bishops were educated at that time, as were many of the priests still serving today.
While virtually everyone in the know acknowledges that the situation in the seminaries of the U.S. has improved since 2005, when the Vatican had investigations done, improvement is a relative term.
From reports I have heard, it is not true of all seminaries; and even in the “reformed” seminaries, some may not be as aggressive as they ought to be in making sure that the young men are living chaste lives and acquiring the habits needed to maintain chastity. I heard of one seminary that denied the request of students for a filter against porn. Seminaries that have filters report that they, in fact, are very necessary and catch a lot of immoral activity among students (and faculty).
Corruption in seminaries is not a problem confined to the United States. Last year, there were truly shocking reports of nearly 50 seminarians in Honduras reporting sexual abuse in their seminary, reports that went unaddressed by authorities — one of whom, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, serves in Rome as a close adviser to the Holy Father.
A professional survey of two seminaries in Brazil done in 2017 found that 90% of the seminarians claim to be homosexual and do not object to males having sex with males. Archbishop Carlo Viganò recently spoke of a cover-up of abuse of one seminarian against another at the minor seminary at the Vatican. Moreover, the victim was expelled from the seminary, and the predator was ordained.
Again, it seems that improvements have been made in many seminaries, but are they genuine or just window dressing?
I know of two groups of seminary formators who are working at producing guidelines on how to form men for the priesthood who have had sexual desires directed toward other males. In 2005 the Vatican instructed that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not be admitted to the seminary but that those whose homosexual tendencies were the expression of a transitory problem if chaste for three years before the diaconate could be. The only guidance given by the Vatican instruction concerning what is meant by transitory homosexuality is “that of an adolescence not yet superseded.”
For a short period, I was a part of one such group and asked, “If enough sound heterosexuals were applying to seminaries, would this project be pursued?” The response was an uncomfortable silence. For my part, unless the formation staff is convinced that a candidate now experiences exclusively heterosexual desires and is capable of living chastely, I think it unwise to admit men who may be tempted to engaged in sex with other males, even if they have been chaste for three years.
The seminary itself can be a place of temptation, but so, too, sometimes, is the presbyterate. I fear those bishops who want a “lavender mafia” in their dioceses will detect the presence of these men in their presbyterate and advance them to positions of power.
What means should be taken to ensure that seminaries are “safe” places for young men and that they receive excellent intellectual, human, pastoral and spiritual formation?
This, perhaps, is an instance where laypeople have an avenue of recourse. Most seminaries have a lay board that has a fiduciary responsibility to see that the seminary is beyond reproach. They should not gullibly accept assurances by seminary personnel that all is well. They must require an independent review of the seminary. They should interview as many seminarians, past and present, those who went on to be ordained and those who were dismissed or left, as possible. They should invite experts to review what programs are in place for ensuring that those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies and heterosexuals who cannot maintain chastity do not get ordained.
They must look at the record of the seminary. How many of the graduates and faculty of the seminary have been accused of abuse of minors and other forms of sexual misconduct? How transparent have the bishops been about the past and present state of the seminary in their diocese?
Those who donate to the formation of seminaries must also demand that such reviews be done.
I have seen the results of good formation of masculine men with a strong faith and a commitment to chastity — they are, simply put, good spiritual fathers who preach and live the Gospel with boldness. I hope one is coming soon to a parish near you.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian who speaks and writes on life issues.
Editor's Note: Significant revisions have been made to the original published version of this article,
in respect to the committees working on forming men
who have experienced transitory homosexual attractions.
- clerical crisis
- homosexuality in the priesthood
- janet e. smith
- seminary formation
- reforming seminaries