In a time when opening the morning paper almost automatically means reading about another revelation of clergy sexual misconduct, when parishioners are protesting outside cathedrals and threatening to withhold contributions, and when late-night comedians are sure to make at least one crack about priests and altar boys, it’s hard to be a Roman Catholic seminarian. It’s also hard to be a seminary administrator.
“People around here can’t help but be affected by this,” says the Reverend Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, a seminary that trains men for ordination in religious orders and men and women for lay ministry.
Although students, professors, staff, and even donors have expressed everything from sadness to anger over the seemingly ever-expanding scandal, Senior says the union has so far remained relatively unscathed, both emotionally and financially.
“The sense is that this is a new moment, a possibility for a healthy purification for the church,” he says. “Now is the time to reach for our best ideals.”
That message has been communicated to members of the school’s “extended faith community” both on campus and off. At a gathering of students, faculty, and staff organized shortly after the explosion of media coverage, the school brought in a psychologist specializing in pedophilia to answer questions. CTU’s Board of the Corporation, which consists of twenty-five superiors of the religious communities that belong to CTU, also discussed the issue and passed a resolution to review the school’s policies and procedures. In addition, a separate forum for major donors is scheduled for early June.
“We need to prepare a whole new generation of priests, lay ministers, and church leaders who are filled with the spirit of the gospel and are people of character and strength.”
Senior also didn’t shy away from the topic in an appeal letter that went out this spring. “This whole crisis goes right to the heart of our mission,” he wrote. “I am convinced more than ever we need to prepare a whole new generation of priests, lay ministers, and church leaders who are filled with the spirit of the gospel and are people of character and strength.”
That will not come from simply “cracking down” on seminaries, Senior believes. He is especially concerned about the impending “apostolic visitations” that the Vatican has proposed for all American seminaries in which a team of church officials will review the schools, focusing especially on the teaching of moral doctrine and selection of priesthood candidates.
“I hope it will be supportive, not investigative,” he says, adding that most abuser-priests were in seminary decades ago, long before the widespread use of psychological screening of candidates. “So they really would have to crack down on the seminaries of thirty years ago.”
So far, CTU’s proactive approach about the whole issue seems to be working. “It’s really way too soon to tell,” says Patricia Shevlin, CTU’s associate director of development. “But, if anything, I think this whole thing will draw people toward us. I don’t see it as real threatening right now.”
CTU’s development office has received no negative comments, nor any threats of withheld contributions, Shevlin says. In fact, one substantial gift this spring was accompanied by a letter saying the money was diverted from the Archdiocese of Boston. The donor’s daughter is a student at CTU.
This openness and willingness to talk about controversial issues, however, is not necessarily the case at all seminaries, including some that train priests for dioceses, where much of the criticism has been focused because of the way known perpetrators were reassigned rather than removed by bishops. Several diocesan seminaries refused to return calls to In Trust, and those that did sometimes sounded curt and defensive.
“None whatever,” Monsignor Peter G. Finn, rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, replied when asked if there had been any financial or other fallout from the scandal at the school. “We’re continuing to operate as we always have.”
Finn said the seminary, which trains seminarians for the Archdiocese of New York, was not planning to contact donors about the crisis, nor has the extensive media attention affected the students, who remain positive about their preparation for service. “We had a very enthusiastic, upbeat ordination last week,” he says.
The atmosphere was gloomier at St. Thomas Aquinas High School Seminary in Hannibal, Missouri, which closed this spring after forty-plus years of preparing young men for Catholic priesthood. Declining enrollment coupled with increasing costs had already prompted discussions about closing the school, but media reports about high profile cases of sexual abuse at the seminary several decades ago sealed the deal.
“It was indirectly a result of all the sexual abuse news,” says Mark Saucier, communications director for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri. “But probably the inevitable was just hurried along.”
Although the diocese was concerned about the annual $350,000 subsidy to the seminary, it was even more focused on the dwindling number of students—down to twenty-seven in its final year. “With all the scandals, the prospects for recruitment certainly aren’t going to get any better,” Saucier says. “I think [the sex abuse crisis] is going to have a much greater impact on recruitment than on funding.”
But recruitment hasn’t been a problem for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which sends its seminarians to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. The school’s rector and president, Monsignor Helmut Hefner, reports thirty-six applicants for next fall—“the largest application pool in a decade.” Hefner’s only explanation: “Maybe the Spirit is at work.”
Of course, potential future students can’t help but be affected by the media spotlight on the church, including a Newsweek article that called St. John’s (erroneously, Hefner says) “one of the country’s gayest facilities for higher education.” Still, the seminarians remain committed to their study and future in ministry. “Their vocation is on a level much deeper than would be affected by a few scandals,” he says.
Although St. John’s receives funding from the Los Angeles archdiocese and other dioceses (in the form of tuition) as well as some income from fund-raising, unlike some Catholic seminaries it has a substantial endowment. “So the downturn in the financial markets has had the major impact on us,” Hefner says.
Otherwise, he is unable to tell if the scandal has affected fundraising, since numbers from this year’s appeal are not yet available. “I know I’m still signing thank-you letters on a regular basis,” he says.
Like most nonprofits, the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, had seen a decrease in its donations since the economic slowdown and especially after September 11. But the Reverend Joseph Daoust, the school’s president, hasn’t seen evidence of any further decreases since the sexual abuse scandal began dominating the news.
“Our donors are very concerned, but not particularly about us,” said Daoust. “They want to know what we think about it, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting what they’re giving to us.”
The Jesuit School, which must raise about one-third of its annual budget through appeals, also is getting ready to launch a capital campaign. Daoust is not concerned about the current crisis affecting the seminary’s fund-raising efforts, since it has a reputation of being open and progressive. In fact, the school invited a victim of clergy sexual abuse this spring to address the student body, which includes both Jesuits studying for priesthood and many lay students.
“They found that very moving and helpful in understanding what someone goes through,” said Daoust, who has also spoken out about the issue in an appeals letter, the seminary’s alumni publication, and in several public forums in the Bay area.
Although it has weighed heavily on many seminarians, particularly this year’s ordination class, “no one has had second thoughts,” Daoust said. “They are all very focused on spending a life in ministry to a church that’s in trouble.
“I think they’re more concerned about how to be part of the solution.”