The sexual-abuse scandal rocking the Diocese of Buffalo bears close watching, but not because it will likely mean the resignation of the bishop, which, sadly, would no longer be a shocking development. What makes Buffalo of wider significance is not the sexual abuse of minors by priests, but the role of the diocesan seminary, Christ the King, in producing a culture of sexual immorality amongst the clergy — a contributing factor to the sexual abuse of minors.
Many Catholic voices in Buffalo say that reform can only begin when beleaguered Bishop Richard Malone resigns. It may also be the case that reform will only begin when Christ the King Seminary is closed.
As Buffalo Catholics endure a seemingly endless number of revelations from the weird to the lurid, the question repeatedly being asked is: How can the seminary be producing such men? Or more to the point: Given all that was known about Christ the King, why is the seminary still open?
Bishop Malone was secretly recorded discussing Father Jeffrey Nowak, ordained in 2012 and subject to serious allegations, including violating the seal of the confessional.
“How did we get to this point of this person getting through evaluations to be ordained?’” the bishop was asked. Bishop Malone had similar feelings: “How’d he get through?”
Exactly. What was going on in the seminary? Something was rotten at Christ the King — and for a long time.
“It was a hotbed of sexual activity,” Beverly Malona told WKBW television in Buffalo. “I’d walk in, and the hair would stand up on my neck.”
Malona was a lecturer at Christ the King and for 17 years was director of the diocesan natural family planning office. Malona told local reporters that seminarians came to her office downtown at the chancery in the 1980s and 1990s to tell her they were being “targeted” for sex by older priests at the seminary.
This comports with stories that were already widely circulating by the late 1990s. I personally knew a seminarian who left Christ the King after being subject to sexual advances from one of the faculty. That was more than 20 years ago. He did not think that his experience was singular.
In all that time, I have never heard anyone speak of Christ the King as anything other than a troubled place. The degree of sexual immorality and predatory behavior in the seminary was not widely established, of course; much of this activity necessarily takes place in the shadows. But it was not possible that those responsible for the seminary did not know that something was deeply corrupted in the seminary culture. All that is now known publicly, due to investigative reporting and various allegations. How long was it known internally? And why did it continue?
The Buffalo case establishes the link between patterns of sexual corruption in seminaries — which would involve adults — and the subsequent sexual abuse of minors. Priests who use their positions in the seminary for sinful sexual conduct and exploitation of seminarians are guilty of a twofold offense — grave sin in the present and the seeds of further sinful behavior being planted in the priests of the future. In some cases, those grave sins are both canonical and civil crimes.
Buffalo has three bishops who are still living, two retired and the incumbent: Henry Mansell (1995-2003), Edward Kmiec (2004-2012) and now Richard Malone (2012-). They are in a position to explain why the grave problems at Christ the King endured for so long and what was done about it. How, in fact, did men like Father Nowak get ordained, as Bishop Malone now asks?
Surely there were some efforts at reform over the years. What were they, and why did they fail? Christ the King has not been vibrant in terms of numbers for decades. Why was it not thought, “Better to shut the whole thing down”? There may indeed be good answers to those questions; they are the ones that need to be asked. Discussing the complex details of this or that individual case is necessary, but that cannot distract from the larger question: Was it in fact the case that Christ the King, instead of producing future shepherds, was a training ground for wolves?
It’s a present question. In June, Bishop Malone ordained eight new priests for Buffalo, the largest ordination class in 24 years. It was a joyous day for the diocese.
“We celebrate today the ordination of eight fine young men to serve as priests of the new covenant here in the Diocese of Buffalo, in particular during a difficult time in the life of the Church here and globally,” Bishop Malone said.
I am certain the bishop believes that, and certainly the people hope for that. But are they fine young men? Are their ordinations a “flash of brilliant and hopeful light,” as the bishop says?
I don’t know any of them. But certainly Buffalo Catholics might wonder about the formation they received at Christ the King. Father Joseph Gatto, named rector of the seminary in 2013 by Bishop Malone, was placed on leave last September while allegations accusing him of sexual misconduct with adults are being investigated.
The new priests may indeed be the light Buffalo needs, but Buffalo Catholics could not be faulted if they worry about a class of men prepared for ordination at Christ the King. It is unfair the new priests have the cloud of a troubled seminary hanging over their heads, but it is a much greater problem if indeed Christ the King is putting out more troublesome priests into the diocese.
The Theodore McCarrick matter drew attention to the position of seminarians as potential victims of sexual exploitation. Christ the King puts on the agenda the questions of seminaries themselves.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.