How a ‘Culture of Predation’ Puts Seminarians at Risk for Abuse

Sexual double lives among the clergy and failures in celibacy formation are among key factors that make priests-to-be vulnerable.

(photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

Catholic seminarians and priests are breaking their silence about their experiences of sexual abuse or harassment after revelations that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick reportedly sexually preyed upon seminarians and young priests for decades without any impediment.

And, in the process, they are helping to cast light on a “culture of predation,” similar to the pattern that has been alleged with respect to Archbishop McCarrick’s own misconduct toward seminarians, that persists in some U.S. seminaries.

Church analysts and seminarians interviewed by the Register describe various factors in seminary or clerical culture that have directly or indirectly provided cover to sexual predators: turning a blind eye to unchastity (heterosexual and homosexual), administrative failure or cover-up regarding sexual misconduct, deficient moral formation for celibacy and chastity, threats of retaliation, and lack of independent bodies to investigate confidential complaints.

Investigations have begun into four seminaries as of publication time as a result of the allegations, and more could emerge in the coming months.

Seton Hall University, which serves the Archdiocese of Newark’s Immaculate Conception Seminary and St. Andrew’s Hall college seminary, ordered an independent investigation of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against seminarians after a Catholic News Agency report on Archbishop McCarrick’s sexually predatory behavior.

The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, has opened an investigation into allegations of a culture of sexual predation under former vocation director Msgr. Leonard Kalin, who died in 2008.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s office of investigations is looking into claims made by John Monaco, a former seminarian, that he was groped by an older seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary during the 2010-2011 academic year when he was 17 years old. Monaco maintains the sexual-harassment complaint was mishandled.

And Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has ordered an investigation into the archdiocese’s seminary, St. John’s in Brighton, Massachusetts, over allegations from 2014 about sexual misconduct, alcohol abuse and failures by the vocations director and vice rector to address sexual harassment brought forward by two former seminarians.

David Fiorito, a former seminarian who attended St. John’s for a year starting in 2014, told the Register a person at the seminary was sexting students through the Grindr app (an online app that facilitates homosexual hookups). Fiorito said he and a small group of seminarians (including Monaco and Andrew Solkshinitz) found the sexter by creating a fake Grindr profile and identified him as a seminarian from the Boston Archdiocese.

Fiorito said the sexter was somehow tipped off to their group. He then deleted his profile and sent them a threatening message, saying he knew who they were and their names. They dropped their amateur investigation, but Fiorito said, as far as he is aware, the sexting seminarian was never punished, but has gone on to another seminary.  


Underplaying Sex With Adults?

In the various responses of bishops to the McCarrick scandal, the bishops have generally used “child sexual abuse” to describe his alleged sexual contact with minors. But regarding his reported behavior with seminarians, most — but not all — bishops and cardinals who have commented have described it as “inappropriate” or called it “sexual misconduct.” Only some have called it “sexual abuse.”

One ex-seminarian who spoke with the Register called attention to the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which showed bishops and chanceries would use various euphemisms to obscure child sex abuse, including calling it “inappropriate conduct” or “boundary violations.” While attending an East Coast seminary in 2009, a fellow seminarian sexually assaulted him. The seminary administration preferred to call attempted rape a “boundary violation.” He was not told to report the assault to the police.

Another seminarian, who is now a priest for a diocese in the Northeast, said he was groped by his own formator at a party. He reported his “boundary violation” and was told to change his formator. Nothing else was done.

Leslie Lothstein, a forensic psychologist with more than four decades of treating clerical sex abusers, who has counseled the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on clergy sex abuse, said the Church’s leadership has not come to grips with the fact that it has to take the sexual abuse of adults just as seriously as the sexual abuse of minor children and vulnerable persons.

“It’s a moral crime against a child; it’s a moral crime against an adult; it’s a moral crime against an adult with a personality disorder or mental illness,” he said.


Abuse of Power

Stephen de Weger, an Australian researcher into adult sexual abuse in the Church, told the Register that the hierarchy is classifying adults as vulnerable based only on some objective condition, such as old age or cognitive impairment. But de Weger said this is a mistake, because sexual abuse involves an abuse of power which can and does occur regardless of the individual adult’s status.

“They continually approach this issue by focusing on the vulnerability of the adult rather than the status and actions of the abusive cleric,” he said. The spiritual power and authority clergy have over adults in the Church means “the power dynamics are crucial to understanding this.”

Seminarians and novices, de Weger said, are often “naïve” and vulnerable simply because of their age or lack of life experience. This makes them susceptible to grooming, especially given their trust in their superiors, the people who have said they will help them achieve their dreams of becoming a holy priest.

Clergy who tolerate sexual activity, he said, have sent the message that it is “sort of okay to do this.” Other seminarians end up taking their cues and become sexually active with or commit sexual abuse themselves against their fellow seminarians. The system favors the abusers, he said, because the victims generally are afraid “they will not be believed.”

Fiorito told the Register that, before entering St. John’s Seminary, he experienced sexual assault by an older seminarian over Christmas break while in formation for the Diocese of Rochester, New York. Fiorito said his attacker, now a priest serving in the Diocese of Rochester, told him no one would believe him if he reported what happened and pressured him into a sexting correspondence.

Fiorito said he believed the threat, because he had already reported one seminarian for sexual misconduct with an organist in the diocese and saw it dealt with only through confession. Fiorito explained he submitted to the abuse because, in his fractured mental state, he thought his vocation would be ended if he did not.

“I did not want to be dragged down by someone who was not worth being dragged down with,” Fiorito said.

The Diocese of Rochester told the Register that it has begun an independent investigation into Fiorito’s allegations and could not comment at this time.


Cultivating a Different Culture

As for seminary culture itself, Father Thomas Berg, a former Legionary of Christ and vice rector of St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York, said seminaries need to be proactive against sexual abuse by cultivating a culture of “trust and transparency.”

He said seminarians need “an environment in which men honestly own up to and deal with the life wounds they carry with them; in which they can trustingly approach their formation adviser to share a struggle they might be having with pornography or alcohol, for example, so that we can work with him from all angles — psychological counseling, formation adviser, spiritual director, peers — to get at the issue and deal with it,” he said.

That includes, he added, making sure “no use of confidential information obtained in the admissions process or in subsequent psychological counseling can ever be used without the seminarian’s informed and free consent.”

If the formation team is failing to create that kind of culture, he said, “a seminary can expect problems.”

Several men who went to seminary over the past 10 years told the Register that they believed moral formation in how to live as mature, celibate men was underemphasized, and psychology was overemphasized. They variously described a willful blindness toward seminarians cruising gay bars, using Grindr or Tinder apps, viewing pornography or engaging in sexual relationships — heterosexual and homosexual. Seminary administrators, the seminarians said, had no problem kicking men out for lesser issues, such as questioning their authority in certain cases.

“Nothing happens when you try to bring this stuff up,” said one seminarian, who is now a priest in a Northeast diocese. Another young priest said, on one occasion at his seminary, a sex-abuse victim was transferred to study at a different seminary. The priest added that the abuser followed the victim and joined that seminary's faculty at the end of the academic year.

Father Berg agreed that moral formation needs to be well-rounded, not just something taught in moral theology class.

“That will have little impact on their priesthood unless seminarians are simultaneously being mentored and supported in the formation of character and virtue, everything from self-control and fundamental human honesty to an array of other human and moral virtues and, most importantly, the exercise of prudence.”


Investigative Processes

Janet Smith, a professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, doubted homosexual abuse in seminaries generally would be as bad in today’s seminaries as in years past. But she fully expected “a #MeToo movement about homosexual abuse in seminaries in the past and in the priesthood both in the past and currently.”

Smith told the Register the Church needs to create ways for past and present seminarians and priests to report any and all abuse and have those reports independently investigated with transparent results. 

“It won’t be easy for men to come forward — they are likely mortified that they submitted to the vile approaches made to them,” she said. “We will need some mechanism for reporting that does not endanger their privacy and protects them from retaliation.”

Some former seminarians, as well as a current formator at a Southern seminary, said an apostolic visitation will have to also help correct the fact that seminaries are vulnerable to bishops who pressure them to change correct disciplinary decisions by threatening to remove their seminarians.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has formally committed to conducting a “full investigation of questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick” by inviting an apostolic visitation and by empowering a predominantly lay-led investigative commission, selected for their expertise by members of the USCCB’s National Review Board for dealing with sexual abuse.

“These answers are necessary to prevent a recurrence, and so help to protect minors, seminarians and others who are vulnerable in the future,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the USCCB, in an Aug. 16 statement.

The investigation the U.S. bishops have committed to has not yet been commissioned, however, so it is not known by who or how comprehensively it might be conducted or if it might examine the situation regarding sexual misconduct in U.S. seminaries. In an Aug. 27 statement released following the publication of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s allegations regarding knowledge of McCarrick’s misconduct, Cardinal DiNardo said he was “eager for an audience” with Pope Francis, at which the scope of the proposed investigation would be discussed.

Frank Keating, a former head of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, who resigned from that position in 2003 after he alleged the U.S. bishops were resisting the disclosure of some components of clergy sexual abuse, agreed that lay specialists — who are independent of the Church’s institutions — should be empowered to lead any such investigation, with select vetted bishops providing insight and guidance in how chanceries work and what to look for.

“The bishops can’t do it themselves; they have no credibility,” he told the Register.

In order to protect seminarians from clerical predators, Keating said the bishops need to revisit the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and close the gaps on priests and the “Judas Iscariots in prelates’ robes” who prey on adults or cover it up, by applying the same principles of “zero tolerance, criminal referral and transparency” that already apply to instances of clergy abuse of minors.

“The bishops have to refresh what they attempted in 2002,” said Keating. “Because it’s obvious that a huge, leaking, listing, rotting whale got through the net, and that is McCarrick.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.