Archbishop O’Brien: U.S. Seminaries Mostly on Track

WASHINGTON — Anyone expecting high drama in the wake of the Vatican’s nine-month apostolic visitation of United States seminaries may be disappointed.

So says the Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, archbishop of the U.S. military services.

With only three visitations remaining at the beginning of May, Archbishop O’Brien, who administered the visitation process, said he doubts that visitors found seminaries doubling as “homosexual bathhouses,” as some critics predicted, or institutions exercising callous disregard for Catholic doctrine.

“I’ve received quite a bit of literature and mail regarding the expectations some people had pertaining to this visitation, and much of it borders on the eccentric,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “I’m not defensive of all seminaries, and there are probably faults in some areas of formation. But to condemn them as immoral or to characterize them as closing their eyes to Church teaching or being loose on moral formation — I reject that completely.”

As of May 1, visitors had completed their examinations of 154 of 157 seminaries and houses of formation. Archbishop O’Brien said he has insolated himself from specific knowledge of information gleaned by visitors, asking only whether the process was running smoothly and on schedule.

Each visit has resulted in a confidential report by the visitors for the Vatican’s Congregation for Education. The reports will be analyzed by the congregation, which will in turn generate reports to send out to the bishop responsible for each institution that was reviewed.

Fifty-nine of the seminaries and houses of formation are diocesan; the remainder are religious. After all individual reports have been sent, the congregation will prepare a comprehensive report on the state of U.S. seminaries for the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Archbishop O’Brien predicted most individual reports may be completed within the next six months, and the comprehensive report could take one or two years to complete.

“If the seminaries were really in the condition some of these harsh critics said they were in, then there should be sweeping changes throughout the system,” Archbishop O’Brien said. “Whereas there might be some institutions that need some sweeping changes, I don’t expect at all for the Vatican’s report to say that the seminary system in the U.S. has deteriorated or is not serving the Church well.”

Each visitation lasted about a week, with visitors interviewing rectors, seminarians, former seminarians and faculty. Most were asked nearly 100 questions derived from the 13-page Instrumentum Laboris, a document published by the Vatican’s Congregation for Education to guide the visitations.


The visitations were sparked by by the sexual abuse scandal that hit the Church in America in 2002. In a 2002 speech, Pope John Paul II linked the abuse scandals with seminary instruction and called for the exclusion of seminary candidates with observable “deviations in their affections.”

The visitation was the requested by the U.S. bishops’ conference during a 2002 meeting in Dallas, where the bishops adopted policies to address the sexual abuse crisis.

The subsequent John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, found that more than 80% of allegations abuse reported between 1950 and 2002 involved homosexual molestations.

Board member Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, described that finding as “remarkable.”

“I’m amazed that this fundamental bombshell has not been the subject of greater interest and discussion,” he told the Register last year. “I’m astonished that people throughout America are not talking about it, thinking about it, and wondering about what the mechanisms were that set this alight. If you collect all of the seminary graduates between 1970 and 1973, 10-11% of them abused children,” said McHugh. “That’s an amazing fact. This behavior was homosexual predation on American Catholic youth, yet it’s not being discussed.”

In late November, the Congregation for Catholic Education released a document that specified that “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture.”
Different, however, would be the case in which one were dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem — for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded. Nevertheless, such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.”

But seminary rectors stress that while the issue is part of the review — “Is there evidence of homosexuality in the seminary?” is one of the mandatory questions posed by the Instrumentum Laboris — it is only one component.

Homosexuality really was not a big issue in the visitation of our seminary,” said Father Darrin Connall, rector of the Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga University. “It was one question out of 96, and there are a number of issues that are more difficult for us to deal with.”

Father Connall said he has had no difficulty in keeping men with deep-seated homosexual tendencies from enrolling in his seminary, but he has had problems with the Internet and videogames. The visitation, he said, helped the seminary better define and strengthen its policy regarding Internet and computer use.

Like other rectors interviewed by the Register, Father Connall said the visitations were helpful because administrators and faculty were given the time and resources needed to prepare for the visitation. In preparing, they solved problems and improved policies.

“We had a good Internet policy in place, but in preparing for this visit we put it in writing and clarified it,” Father Connall said. “One of my biggest challenges involves misuse and abuse of the Internet — too much time wasted on surfing the Web, gaming, gambling, purchasing  and the availability of pornography. We now have a strong, written policy that anyone can understand. It’s working and I’m very pleased.”

Like Archbishop O’Brien, Father Connall has heard rumors of rampant homosexuality in seminaries and other forms of disobedience to Catholic morality.

“I think the final report from Rome will reveal that the talk of lousy seminaries belongs to another era — perhaps the era when I was in the seminary [1988-92],” Father Connall said. “Seminaries have done a lot of self-correcting in recent years. We have worked through a lot of issues and have become more aware of the Holy See’s expectations.”

Father Connall said rectors are fortunate today because the quality of seminarians and prospective seminarians seems at an all-time high.

“Today’s seminarians are relational, intelligent, zealous and they love the Church,” Father Connall said. “I think it has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit and Pope John Paul II.”

Father Gregory Schleffelmann, rector of the Cardinal Muench Seminary in the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., said the visitation was a great opportunity for fine-tuning his seminary.

“The biggest effort we made preparing for this was in clarifying our documents that outline our various policies, including our standards of admissions and the content of our formation,” Father Schleffelmann said. “We always knew what our policies were, but now if someone comes in here from outside they will know exactly how things are supposed to be done here.”

Los Angeles

Mark Fischer, director of admissions for St. John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he was pleased with the visitation.

“The visitors aren’t allowed to give direct feedback, but I could tell from their comments, their facial expressions and their body language that they were pleased with us,” Fischer said.

Fischer said he told visitors that applicants are admitted to St. John’s only if they can lead “chaste lives of celibacy.” But, he also stressed, nobody at the archdiocesan seminary would seek to screen out homosexuals.

“The question of sexual orientation is very complicated,” said Fischer, who served as a visitor to Theological College in Washington, D.C. “It’s fair to say that it’s just very complicated, involving a whole spectrum of personality styles and there is no one litmus test.”

Other seminaries take a different approach. Father John Folda, rector of St. John the Great Seminary in Seward, Neb., said visitors learned that his seminary makes every effort to avoid admission of homosexuals, and did so before the Vatican’s statement in December.

“Homosexuality is a disqualifying factor and it’s really not all that complicated,” Father Folda said. “The Holy See’s instructions were pretty straightforward, and the norms on this issue were clear before that statement was written.”

Bishop Nienstedt

Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., said as a visitor he found no complaints of homosexual activity in seminaries.

“The bigger concern is relativism,” Bishop Nienstedt said. “Can seminaries convince seminarians of the truth of what they preach and teach? Can seminaries get young men to the point that they will stake their lives on the truth of Catholic teaching? That’s the biggest challenge for seminaries in this country, where all aspects of the culture promote relativism.”

Like Archbishop O’Brien, Bishop Nienstedt believes anyone looking for dramatic changes as a result of the visitation will be let down. He believes most seminaries are in excellent shape, but he also knows that critics will likely view the visitations as a whitewash if they don’t result in admonitions and sweeping reforms.

Bishop Nienstedt said, “The bishops have taken this very seriously, and they have been very eager to use this visitation as a positive opportunity to make seminaries even better.”

Wayne Laugesen is based

in Boulder, Colorado.