The McWilliams Sex-Abuse Scandal: Critics Say Cleveland Diocese Must Do More to Address Problems

Despite recent revelations about warning signs the diocese and its seminary allegedly ignored regarding the priest’s misconduct, the diocese told the Register its procedures are adequate.

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is located in downtown Cleveland.
The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist is located in downtown Cleveland. (photo: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock)

CLEVELAND — Ever since one of its priests was convicted of federal pornography and sexual-abuse crimes, the Diocese of Cleveland has stood by its claims about the integrity of its seminary screening and formation program. 

However, recent revelations have cast a shadow over those assertions, calling into question both the effectiveness of St. Mary Seminary’s protocols and the way in which the diocese responds to accusers. 

After the Nov. 9 sentencing of Father Robert McWilliams, who will now spend life in prison, one of his victims and the boy’s parents spoke out, detailing how the priest used his relationship with their family to groom and abuse victims. They pointed to what they see as deficiencies in the monitoring of Father McWilliams during his time in the seminary and as an intern in their parish and question why more wasn’t done to identify him as a potential abuser. 

Also, on Oct. 22, three ex-seminarians made public their complaints about the diocese’s response to their sexual-harassment allegations against Father James Cosgrove, who had been in Father McWilliams’ class at St. Mary’s  Seminary. The diocese since has reopened an investigation into that case to clarify differences between the versions the men gave in a news article and to investigators. 

However, the diocese continues to defend a decision not to disclose the accusations to the rector and others at the seminary, even though some of the activity in question took place on seminary property and Father Cosgrove had access to the campus.  

In a written response to questions from the Register, a representative of the diocese said, “If Cosgrove’s behavior had involved sexual abuse or any other behavior which reasonably could have been cause for concern about the well-being or safety of seminarians or seminary staff, the seminary would have certainly been notified. Unlike the McWilliams matter, which involved the criminal sexual abuse of children, the Cosgrove matter did not involve minors and did not involve any sexual activity or even the suggestion of sexual activity.”

The statement continued, “Despite the characterization of Cosgrove’s behavior as sexual harassment and/or coercive and despite the assumption that Cosgrove had a sexual motive, Cosgrove never engaged in or even suggested engaging in any sexual conduct and never forced anyone to do anything.”

Nonetheless, Father Cosgrove resigned from ministry in October and is no longer listed in the diocese’s online directory. 

Amid this, some in the Catholic press have called for the Cleveland Diocese to acknowledge that something went wrong and conduct a more thorough review, one that results in substantive changes


Staying Its Course

Still, the diocese has continued to stay its course in both the Father McWilliams and Father Cosgrove cases. In its response to the Register, the diocese reiterated that a review was done after Father McWilliams was arrested, saying that the seminary annually conducts an internal review of its screening protocols and formation process and every few years has evaluations done by third parties. 

In 2020, after Father McWilliams’ arrest on sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and pornography charges, a statement from the diocese said an independent psychiatrist reviewed and found the seminary’s screening protocol to be appropriate and did not recommend changes. The same year, the statement continued, the seminary added a full-time psychologist to its staff to help in formation of seminarians and to aid the staff in its evaluation of them.

In its response, the diocesan representative said any suggestion the seminary failed to appropriately screen McWilliams or that it should have been able to identify him as an abuser is false: “Not even the best policies, protocols and efforts can guarantee that a person intent on committing evil will be identified and stopped before committing that evil. McWilliams was able to commit his vile acts because he was a master of deception, not because anyone failed to notice something they should have noticed.” 

Although shocked by Father McWilliams’ involvement in pornography and the way in which he exploited boys he knew from parishes where he served, seminary and diocesan officials have insisted they saw nothing during his formation to indicate he was capable of such behavior. 

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and author of The Truth About Clergy Sexual Abuse: Clarifying the Facts and the Causes, said that it does appear Father McWilliams did a masterful job of hiding his disordered condition, despite what seems to have been very thorough screening. A sociologist who has taught classes in criminal behavior, Donohue said such people are notorious liars and extraordinarily manipulative people who can hide their sicknesses. “They play on people and they can get by some of the finest screening tools.” 

Still, he said, the disclosure of the complaint against another priest from the same ordination class takes things to another dimension. “At that point they’re going to have to have a probe.” 


Other Rectors’ Perspectives

Father Mark Doherty, president-rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, acknowledged that Father McWilliams could have slipped through the cracks of a thorough screening and formation program. But he said if the behavior Father Cosgrove is alleged to have committed occurred at St. Patrick’s, he would have wanted to know about it. 

“Clearly what I would say is that, as the rector, I would expect to be informed of such behavior, and I would take immediate action to address it,” Father Doherty said. For a diocese not to inform the rector in such a case, he said, would be completely unacceptable.

Similarly, Father John Kartje, rector-president of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he would expect to be notified of any accusations tied to the seminary, even if the accuser initially reported them to someone outside the seminary. 

He explained that in the Chicago Archdiocese, several avenues of reporting are open to those with concerns or complaints. Besides formation advisers within the seminary, these include diocesan vocation directors, a third party not affiliated with the archdiocese, and parishes where seminarians serve. 

Father Kartje said he particularly considers parishes to be cooperators in the formation of a priest because they get to know a candidate during his service and can act as another set of eyes. This recognizes, he said, that the seminary is not an insular institution and that all in the Body of Christ have a role in the formation of priests and in recognizing possible problems.

Because in the Father McWilliams case, the parish where he served as an intern turned out to be one of the places where he found and groomed victims, the mother of one of those victims has asked why no one questioned the seemingly excessive amount of time he spent with families and young people in that parish, both during and after his internship. 

But the diocese, in its response to the Register, said it is not unusual for seminarians and priests to form friendships with those they serve. “At no time prior to McWilliams being caught was it thought or reported that [his] time with people he had befriended was excessive or suspicious.” 

According to the diocesan statement, each seminarian is monitored during the parish internship by a team, including the pastor and laypeople, who provide regular feedback to the seminary about the candidate. Additionally, the statement said it encourages anyone suspicious of the behavior of a priest or seminarian to contact the diocese’s victims assistant coordinator and civil authorities. 


Privacy Considerations

The victim’s mother who referenced Father McWilliams’ time with families also thought the seminary could have better monitored his cellphone use and social-media presence and that someone should have known about his collection of pornography. Upon his arrest, he was found to have 1,700 images and videos of child pornography. 

Although the seminary does monitor the internet activity of its seminarians, the diocese said this is restricted to the seminary’s network, which has a strict firewall that blocks inappropriate sites and notifies seminary staff if a seminarian has attempted to access such sites. 

“However, monitoring seminarian activity on networks other than the seminary’s network is, practically speaking, much more challenging, particularly if the person to be monitored is actively attempting to be deceptive and secretive,” the diocesan statement noted. 

Indeed, the availability of technological means to monitor seminarians’ activity online does not necessarily free seminaries to implement it. 

Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told the Register that canon law has put into legislative form the natural-law right that all people have to protect their own privacy. 

“This basic right does not go away during seminary,” she said. “There is general agreement that some measure of privacy is voluntarily given up when a man enters seminary formation, because that formation process requires an assessment of the human person.” 

However, she continued, “At the level of conscience, which Gaudium et Spes calls the ‘most secret core and sanctuary of a man,’ that privacy must be respected even in a seminary setting.” 

Mulheron said even though monitoring of personal electronic devices and other surveillance measures might have made a difference in a case like that of Father McWilliams, she said this likely would have been a violation of Canon 220 in the Code of Canon Law and the man’s fundamental right to privacy. “Seminarians are not prisoners,” she added.

As for Father McWilliams’ social-media presence, the diocesan statement to the Register noted it is unaware of any posts that would have raised suspicion he was engaged in or threatening to engage in anything inappropriate. Before McWilliams’ arrest, the diocesan statement added, there were no reports to the diocese of any suspicious or improper conduct on his part. 

The victim’s mother also said Father McWilliams had told her he was able to help people with pornography issues. He even boasted that the seminary faculty would send other seminarians to him for such help. However, the diocese said, “This claim is absolutely false.” 


Seminary Culture Problems

Nick Grismer, one of the ex-seminarians who has accused Father Cosgrove of sexual harassment, has said his experience at the seminary reflected a culture that was too tolerant of dysfunction and that it needs to be reexamined, along with the screening process.

Janet Smith, who in 2019 retired from teaching at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit a year earlier than planned so that she could turn her attention to the Church’s sexual-abuse crisis, said she believes that even more than screening and formation, the atmosphere of seminaries needs to change. 

Smith said she has both observed and been told by seminarians from several seminaries that a sense of secrecy often hangs in the air. 

“It’s like everybody has secrets and they’re all tiptoeing around, as if there are electric fences they might touch that might ruin their vocations,” she said. “There is the sense that seminarians should keep their heads down, stay in their lane and not rock the boat. If they accuse someone, they’re risking their vocations.” 

Smith said this often extends even to complaining about a policy or practice. “They are discouraged from standing up for themselves or the truth. They are to just go along. Since they want to be ordained, they don’t challenge anything.” 

She and three other female professors — Susan Selner-Wright, Deborah Savage and Theresa Farnan — who have taught at seminaries around the country wrote a letter offering recommendations on seminary policies and formation practices that was submitted by the Catholic Women’s Forum to Pope Francis, archbishops and bishops and other participants in a 2019 summit in Rome to address clerical sex abuse.

In the letter, the women suggest specific ways to protect seminarians from sexual abuse or harassment and look at the seminary culture at large. 

“Our recommendations,” the letter states, “are informed not only by our theological and philosophical training, but also by many years of exposure to seminary life and our own experience as members of the Body of Christ.” 

The writers ask that the sexual-abuse crisis not be dismissed as politically motivated or as a problem that can be dealt with by a few policy changes. Among their recommendations were an immediate internal review of all seminaries covering sexual misconduct, including pornography use, and immediate implementation of reporting mechanisms. 

Bishops, the letter said, should explicitly instruct seminarians in formation to report any suspected or observed sexual impropriety by using the National Review Board’s regional hotline and a mechanism established at their own seminary.  


Speaking Up

Although the reporting recommendations in the letter are reflected in benchmarks developed by the McGrath Institute for Church Life and adopted by many seminaries, including Cleveland’s, they depend on seminarians’ willingness to speak up if they see something amiss. 

And, as Father Patrick Klekas, a recently ordained priest of the Diocese of Reno, Nevada, wrote in an article in Crisis Magazine, there is an unwritten rule in some seminaries that unless there is marked evidence of deviant homosexual behavior, it is better not to report it. “Most seminarians,” he wrote, “think it’s better to say nothing, for fear of being thrown out of seminary by the ideological police.”