Publicity is nothing if not a two-edged sword. It offers benefits as well as liabilities. Those who seek to wield it are often more the wiser only after the experience.

Consider the case of the Roman Catholic Church, currently roiled by accusations of sexual abuse by priests and either inappropriate tolerance or irresponsible denial by diocesan leaders. The charges have led to investigations, resignations, criminal charges, civil suits and huge financial settlements that have imperiled diocesan programs. Throughout the unfolding process, a steady drumbeat of new allegations against a handful of priests has resounded through the media, casting a shadow over the tens of thousands in the ordained ministry.

For many a theological school leader the question might be framed in terms of damage control. Do you close the doors, shutter the windows and wait for the storm to abate? Or do you throw open wide all the portals and invite the media to see for themselves what manner of men choose the path of celibate ministry?

For the Very Reverend John F. Canary, rector/president of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary, the theological seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the question of exposing his students, faculty and school to public scrutiny in the midst of one of the worst scandals ever to hit the church was not one to be considered lightly. It took courage and faith. 

It yielded front-page coverage on March 25 in the New York Times, the third largest daily newspaper in the United States. The Times’s circulation of 1 million is topped only by the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

The Times story, which focused on Mundelein Seminary, described how Mundelein and other schools educating men for the Catholic priesthood are seeking to prepare them better for a life of celibacy and to screen out those who might pose a risk for sexually abusing minors. The article offered details of how seminary education and priestly formation has changed over the past decade. 

Response was both positive and encouraging, said the school’s rector/president. “The potential liability always is that someone will come in with their story already written and then they take what you say and fit it into another kind of context,” Canary said. “We have had experience like that here at Mundelein on different occasions where people have come in—either the print media or television—and then they clip together things around another story and it does not serve the seminary very well at all because they’ve already written the story.”

You might think it was naiveté or perhaps the substance of things hoped for, but Canary heard something different in the reporter’s request for access to students and faculty. “What she said caught my ear,” he said. “She said, ‘We really want to do something on what seminary is like today and how these issues are being faced.’ I felt if she really came to do those things we had something to say, and that’s why I took the chance. Because we have looked at our screening processes and then we look systematically, year-by-year at the education processes. And not just around sexuality and celibacy but also the professional issues of boundaries and professional behavior. 

“Those questions were never even part of our consciousness when I was ordained thirty-two years ago,” said Canary, “but they are very much part of young men’s consciousness today and you have to give them some response. You know: what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate. I thought we have something to say, if she really comes to do what she said she was going to do. I’m just pleased with her as much as the article—that she really did what she said she was going to do.”

Canary said he was pleased not just for the front-page placement of the story but for what he considered the fairness of the presentation. “It was kind of a summary of what she had heard here and what she had seen and there was no particular angle that she was working out of when she came. She simply sat with various groups and she had her own questions. Some of them were in light of all that’s happened but they were fair questions. As we engaged the media this time around I felt it was an honest and fair exchange. I also felt that she reported it that way. She came and actually interacted with our students. She said her experience with these people really was both surprising but very encouraging to her.”

Positive response came in the form of letters and phone calls, many from people Canary did not know. 

"It meant something to them personally to have something positive being said about training for priesthood."

It also brought a prompt letter to the editor of the New York Times from Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, which appeared two days after the story was published. Aleshire pointed out that there are two responses to the incidents, the first “has often been too little and too late. The other is in the education of the next generation of priests, which has been major, timely and informed.” He also noted that Roman Catholics “routinely spend more in the education of priests than Protestants do in the education of ministers and much of this additional cost is for psychological assessment, spiritual guidance, and moral formation.”

The responses most appreciated by Canary were comments from fellow priests, he said.

“This past Tuesday we had the chrism mass with the cardinal and there were probably 250 priests there. Overwhelmingly they were not only pleased with the article, which they were, but it meant something to them personally to have something positive being said about the training for priesthood and the young men who are going to be priests today. I think everybody—every priest feels the weight of this and, in a certain sense, the burden, the shame. To see something like this was a source of encouragement for them. So they were glad for the seminary but I think they were also just glad for the priesthood. 

“One of the priests said to me, afterwards at the luncheon, it was so heartening for him to read the comments of the men who are going to be priests because what he heard in their comments was, again, a voice of commitment and dedication. I think that’s one of the major questions: Are priests really living their commitment? At least that’s what I heard him saying. It was so good to hear young people today—the seminarians—and their commitment and their dedication.”

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