Analysts Urge Bishops to Address Seminary Problems on National Level

Suggestions include database of seminarians dismissed for misconduct and a national audit.


WASHINGTON — The bishops of the United States are gathered this week in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting, with addressing clergy sexual abuse in the context of the Archbishop Theodore McCarrick scandal topping their agenda.

And along with a range of other measures under discussion in Baltimore, including standards of conduct for bishops and a third-party reporting mechanism for allegations of episcopal sexual misconduct, some analysts are urging the bishops to consider another pressing issue: a nationwide approach to fixing the problems at U.S. seminaries that have come to light since the McCarrick scandal erupted in June.

Such an approach could include developing a national database to keep track of seminarians dismissed from formation programs and a national audit of seminaries to determine the moral health of each U.S. seminary.

One of the most disturbing elements of the McCarrick scandal was the disclosure that, as a bishop, he had allegedly preyed sexually on seminarians for years with few apparent consequences. And after the scandal broke, allegations surfaced of more recent sexual misconduct at seminaries, unrelated to Archbishop McCarrick.

Several diocesan seminaries are currently under investigation, including those at Seton Hall University, the three seminaries in the Archdiocese of Boston, and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In addition, the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, is addressing allegations of misconduct with seminarians by a previous vocations director, and the August 2018 Pennsylvania attorney general’s report included accounts of abuse involving seminarians.

In addition, according to documentation obtained by the Register, an earlier 2012 investigation of Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut, revealed a cluster of homosexual activity that resulted in the dismissal of 13 seminarians — seven from the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey; five from the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut; and one from a Vietnamese religious order — “for one or more reasons which included: being in violation of the Holy Apostles College & Seminary handbook, viewing and/or downloading internet pornography, having contraband items in bedrooms, engaging in sexual activity with other seminarians as well as with priests not affiliated with the seminary, and academic plagiarism.”

During the investigation, the priestly ordinations of three transitional deacons in the Archdiocese of Hartford, scheduled for May 2012, were postponed. One man was not ordained, but the other two were ordained by Archbishop Henry Mansell in December 2012.

The Register has learned that some of the dismissed seminarians subsequently sought admission to other U.S. seminaries, and that at least two men who were involved in some of the incidents of sexual misconduct that were the subject of the 2012 investigation were later ordained priests for the Diocese of Paterson.

In an email statement provided Nov. 8 to the Register, the Diocese of Paterson denied that any men dismissed from Holy Apostles as result of the 2012 investigation have been ordained for the diocese. The Register has sought additional clarification from the diocese regarding the two men who were ordained, but no reply had been provided by the time of the online publication of this article.


Problematic ‘Network’

The Holy Apostles Seminary investigation was led by Father John Lavers, a native of Newfoundland, Canada, who is now serving as a priest in the Diocese of Portsmouth, England. A late vocation who was a transitional deacon at the time he conducted his investigation, Father Lavers had earlier served as a security and intelligence officer for the government of Canada, helping to draft counterterrorist and national security documents. He drew on this expertise in the 2012 seminary investigation.

“The evidence at Holy Apostles led us to a very systemic homosexual network of individuals, not only covering for each other, but actively sanitizing files, moving people around, engaging in all sorts of negative activity,” Father Lavers told the Register. “That effort represented a large network involving several dioceses, including Paterson, Newark and Buffalo — this last of which is coming out in the news now.”

The U.S. bishops are aware that the safety of seminarians remains a concern for the faithful.

In a Sept. 19 statement regarding new measures being implemented to address clergy sexual abuse, the USCCB’s administrative committee said it had instructed the USCCB Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance “to develop proposals for policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with adults, including seminarians and priests.”

But while the Sept. 19 statement addresses the personal accountability of bishops, others believe much more is required to protect seminarians. In conjunction with his 2012 report on Holy Apostles, Father Lavers drafted a proposal for national actions that he submitted to several U.S. bishops, including the USCCB’s president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

“Currently,” Father Lavers stated in his proposal, “within the [USCCB] there exists a lack of coordination and inability to effectively exchange information between dioceses, religious organizations and seminaries regarding those individuals who present themselves as potential vocations to the clerical state and/or religious life.”


National Register

To address these problems, Father Lavers proposed the USCCB establish a “National Office of Standards” and a “National Register” that “would be populated by information gathered from dioceses, religious communities and seminaries that would be accessible to select individuals in positions of trust, leadership and authority within the Catholic Church of the United States.”

The proposed register would serve as a tool for due diligence, “designed to prevent unsuitable individuals who wish to circumvent, misrepresent and or fraudulently enter Catholic organizations by moving from one diocese, religious community or seminary to another.”

Father Lavers said that it would also provide financial peace of mind to dioceses.

“The database also puts each diocese on notice,” he told the Register, “because if a diocese is not doing due diligence, the insurance company will not support that diocese if things all of a sudden start going south.”

The Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, Father Lavers said, has established a database similar to the program he proposes.

“If a man tries to come into the Diocese of Portsmouth as a seminarian, and he doesn’t get any luck there, and then this man goes knocking on the door of the Liverpool or Birmingham dioceses, these dioceses will know that man has a running history and the dioceses will not be fooled.”

Several bishops, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston and Cardinal DiNardo, received a copy of the proposal. In an Oct. 18 letter, Cardinal DiNardo stated that he had received Father Lavers’ report.

“I am grateful to have read your report based on the investigation you conducted and your recommendation for a national database,” the cardinal wrote. “We have received many recommendations from experienced professionals, lay and clerical, over the last few weeks and months. I am sharing those recommendations with relevant staff and bishops as they apply to given areas of responsibility.”

In the letter, Cardinal DiNardo also indicated that the recommendations received “are informing the preparations for our November meeting in Baltimore.”


National Audit

Janet Smith, a moral theology professor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Seminary in Detroit, also hopes the bishops will examine the seminaries at a national level.

According to Smith, while the idea of a national database is a reasonable safeguard, it doesn’t immediately address a possible homosexual subculture in U.S. seminaries.

“I don’t know how much more a national registry or policy of that sort is going to help,” she said, “because bishops who want to follow what is a clearly sensible policy are already doing that. On the other hand, anything that helps is a good thing.”

Along with establishing a national database, Smith said, the bishops should also be considering a review of their seminaries.

“It would be a very good thing if the bishops undertook some sort of audit of seminaries in the country,” she said. “It would involve confidentially interviewing the seminarians now attending and those who have graduated in the last five to 10 years, to look specifically at the presence of same-sex activity in the seminaries, to find out if there were any incidents of homosexual predation or homosexual relationships within the seminaries.”

According to Rosemary Sullivan, the executive director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors (NCDVD), a national network of sorts is already in place to ensure seminarian safety. The diocesan vocations directors of the country, she said, maintain a vigilant network and constant open lines of communication that help them exchange information on current seminarians, including those coming from outside the diocese.

“Our organization mimics the regions of the USCCB,” she said, noting that the NCDVD is independent from and serves in a consultative role for the USCCB. “The USCCB has 15 regions in the country, and we have the same regions as the USCCB. So we encourage vocations directors in our regions to meet at least twice a year. One of those two times might be at the annual national convention and then again at a spring regional meeting.”

Sullivan said that about five years ago the NCDVD had considered a national database to account for dismissed seminarians, for “an additional layer of protection,” but the organization put the idea aside because of legal obstacles to applying the database uniformly.

“One of the issues is that privacy laws in the United States differ from state to state,” she said.


Help for Rectors

The rector of St. Patrick Seminary of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Jesuit Father George Schultze, welcomes the idea of a national database.

“This idea of having a database of men who have been in other seminaries or houses of formation would be appropriate,” he said. “It seems rectors and religious superiors would be able to check whether men have been in other programs in the United States — or perhaps the database should be global in scope. It sounds like common sense to me.”

Whether the bishops discuss a national database, Father George hopes that they come out of the November meeting with a well-defined vision for U.S. seminaries.

“We need clear guidance and standards for our seminaries in how to improve and move forward and in the safeguarding of the environment for our seminarians,” he said, in light of the McCarrick scandal. “The bishops have to provide something, give us direction in this way, and be in agreement so that you don’t have one seminary filling up with seminarians because the standards in that seminary are not being maintained.”


Bishop Olson

Soon after news broke of the McCarrick scandal, Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, issued a letter to the diocese reiterating his commitment to zero tolerance and transparency in sexual-abuse cases.

In particular, the July 28 letter reminded the faithful, “Our seminarians, priests, deacons, and religious and lay staff are taught to recognize and to report boundary violations without fear of retribution, no matter the status of the perpetrator.”

Bishop Olson will carry this concern for transparent and unintimidating reporting procedures into the November meeting of bishops.

“Reporting procedures need to be clearly delineated,” Bishop Olson told the Register, “and that’s what we’re going to be looking at as a conference as a way forward in working in union with Rome.” The major concern, Bishop Olson said, is that those who wish to report cases of sexual abuse be able to do so unencumbered by fear of reprisal.

“One of the key things for any kind of reporting system,” he said, “is that it is transparent and that it prevents retribution to those who will report.”

It’s too early to tell, Bishop Olson said, whether the bishops will be addressing seminary safety at a national level — or whether any reporting procedures the bishops may develop will be incorporated into a national database or national audit.

“Before we go to a patterned behavior of visitations of seminaries, for the safety of the seminarians, we have to develop reporting mechanisms and procedures for sexual harassment,” he said.


Positive Perspective

While Bishop Olson acknowledged that the current seminary investigations taking place around the country are troubling, he said the McCarrick scandal and other recent sexual misconduct in seminaries should not detract from the good that seminaries are doing.

“It would be wrong to present seminaries as a complete failure,” he said. “It’s inaccurate and I don’t think fair to those who work hard in this ministry. The seminaries are strong, and seminarian formation is stronger than it’s been before. There is a good caliber of young men in our seminaries, and, frankly, administrators and faculty members are working hard in an accountable fashion.”

This article has been updated from the initial version that was published in the Register’s Nov. 11 print issue.

Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

Register staff contributed to this report.

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