Although the recent sex-abuse scandals in the Church have shaken the faithful and have caused many to question its authority and teachings on celibacy in the priesthood, there are men who see the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen their commitments to their faith and future vocations.
Several seminarians who spoke with the Register said they grew in their love for the priesthood, thanks to the support and example they received within their seminaries.
The scandal, which hasn’t left seminaries unscathed, also allowed these seminarians to better appreciate the prudential and compassionate safeguards that their seminaries had already put in place before the scandals.
As members in such strong communities of faith, these seminarians are not simply making the best out of a horrible situation — but they see in the scandal an opportunity to unite themselves more closely with Christ and with the Church he may be asking them to serve.
Like other Catholics in the United States, seminarians were outraged over the 2018 news of credible allegations of sex abuse of seminarians and priests by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick while he was a bishop in New Jersey.
“I was very angry — irate, even,” said transitional Deacon Connor Penn, who is studying at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. “I had thought that we had already ‘passed through’ this fire when I was young. I had many questions — particularly of Church leadership, which seemed to have allowed this man to continue to climb the ranks despite red flags. In fact, I would say that I was primarily angry at Church leadership for allowing this very sick man to do what he did.”
Seminarians at St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, where McCarrick was cardinal-archbishop, were particularly affected.
“Obviously, it hit kind of close to home,” said Benedict Radich, a college senior, from Washington, D.C., at the seminary.
Until the scandal broke, McCarrick had lived at the Jeanne Jugan Residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, minutes away from the seminary. The seminary was founded in 2011 under McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was criticized for his handling of allegations against his predecessor and had his 2015 resignation accepted by Pope Francis in the fall of 2018, months after the scandal broke.
Ben Bralove, a Washington, D.C., native who is in his second year of pre-theology at the seminary, described the scandal as discouraging, given that leaders of the Church are expected to be examples of the faith.
“When we see [such] powerful figures [in the Church] so grossly abusing their power and really committing truly evil acts, it can be a very disheartening experience,” he said. “But also it can be an opportunity to … rededicate yourself to the type of priest you want to become and the type of priesthood that you want to be a part of.”
Faith in Fatherhood
In fact, while Bralove and his fellow seminarians may have experienced the aftershocks of the scandal more directly than many of the laity, they also have an advantage that many Catholics don’t, because they can see the “bright future” of the Church in the faith and character of their fellow seminarians and the staff and faculty at the seminary, he said.
“I think it’s easier to be in seminary and be surrounded by these guys when this was happening, as opposed to being on the outside,” Bralove said. He said he can look within his own community for instances of Catholics who set an example and shared his commitment to becoming a good priest.
Radich likewise found strength from within the seminary in Washington.
“The hope and the joy that I kept coming back to was just, again, the witness of the good men that have care of the formation in this house and the good men who have care of my soul,” Radich said.
Radich credited the seminary faculty and staff with a commitment to journeying with seminarians through a difficult year, praising them for encouraging seminarians to discuss their reactions to the scandal openly and without fear of judgment or repercussions.
As a result, Radich says he saw firsthand what good priests are like. “Just having someone walk with us through all that was a tremendous witness of just good fatherhood,” he said.
Radich, in turn, says he has deepened his commitment to becoming a priest. He said the scandal laid bare the absence of good fatherhood among some in the priesthood.
“There is a strong desire for a renewal of that fatherhood,” Radich said. “That’s been a huge grace, I think, coming out of the scandals.”
Deacon Penn told the Register the scandals had a similar effect on him — motivating him, rather than discouraging him, in his journey to the priesthood.
“Certainly, I would not describe it as a primary motivating factor,” he said, “yet the appalling manner in which some men … lived out priestly ministry provoked me to desire living as a counterwitness to their sickening actions. God’s people deserve priests who are gentle and loving shepherds, not ravenous wolves who will prey upon the flock.”
“The terrible example of certain priests actually motivated me to become this loving shepherd who cares for the people entrusted to him,” added the deacon, who is a Tampa native within the Diocese of St. Petersburg in Florida.
For Deacon Penn, the McCarrick scandal broke close to a vital junction in his vocational journey — less than a year before his ordination as a transitional deacon, when he had to promise obedience to his bishop and service to a Church that he says “appeared particularly flawed, broken and fallible.” He said he found the strength to continue by focusing on the example of Christ’s surrender of his own freedom on the cross.
“I was drawn in a particular way to Jesus on the cross — and the fact that he was nailed to the cross. Here is Jesus, the freest man that has ever lived, and yet in freedom he was willingly bound to the cross so as to bring about the salvation of the world,” Deacon Penn said. “In some small way, I felt an invitation from the Lord to something similar: to freely subject myself to the cross of ordained ministry, knowing that it would entail trials, difficulties and moments of profound struggle. From this invitation to the cross, I renewed my desire to serve God as a priest in the Catholic Church.”
For these seminarians, the McCarrick scandal hits close to home in another way: A number of those McCarrick is accused of abusing were young seminary students. The scandal, and the subsequent scandalous revelations at Christ the King Seminary in Buffalo, New York, has led to renewed calls for reform of seminarians.
At St. John Paul II Seminary, Radich noticed one significant change after the McCarrick news broke: Seminarians were given the personal cellphone of the seminary’s psychologist, who is not an employee of the archdiocese, according to Radich. That gives them another outlet for reporting any concerns without fear of reprisal or inaction.
But many of the other reforms that were needed had already been implemented.
“Everything else that people have been calling for … was already in place. There weren’t other changes to make,” Radich said, adding that other changes also came about. “That was just kind of going above and beyond.”
Bralove agreed: Most of what should change in seminaries already has at St. John Paul II. The only difference he noticed was an added emphasis on making sure that everyone knew how to report any inappropriate behavior or other issues.
The Register has previously reported on the numerous reforms seminaries across the country have undertaken to revitalize their cultures. Those changes include having a far more rigorous screening process for applicants, placing a greater focus on chastity and celibacy for those who are admitted to the seminary, and instituting more robust reporting requirements for allegations of abuse and misconduct.
Deacon Penn said the commitment to formation and discipline was in place from the beginning of his studies, which began at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.
“From my very first year in the seminary, struggles and challenges related to celibate living have been repeatedly addressed in conferences and lectures,” the deacon said. “In addition, I have seen a number of seminarians dismissed because of a lack of sexual maturity; this brings me confidence that our seminary staff does not simply ‘push men through’ the system, as in the past, but is willing to cut ties with individuals who present risks to fulfilling the proper sexuality asked of celibate priests.”
He says the seminary has also “instituted an extra layer of accountability with reporting.” Now any seminarian who has experienced sexual abuse in any form can report it to a third-party detective, Deacon Penn said. “This has brought me added peace of mind,” he added.
Ultimately, Radich says his experience as a seminarian during the scandals has deepened his belief in God’s providence.
He said, “The Lord has allowed this in the Church, and he has allowed it for a reason.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
This story was updated after posting.