- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

A report criticizing Roman Catholic seminaries for lax admission policies that failed to screen sex abusers doesn’t reflect more recent changes in the application process, several specialists in priestly training say.

The report, released Feb. 27 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, said the “many sexually dysfunctional and immature men” released from Roman Catholic seminaries in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to record amounts of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The abuse peaked in the 1970s, then tapered off in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, there were changes made to the vetting process of seminary applicants installed about 15 years ago — although the Vatican didn’t approve the streamlining until last year — that weren’t included in the study. The changes asking for tighter controls on who was admitted as a future priest were pushed by a group of influential bishops in the mid-1980s.

Some specialists say it’s not fair to blame the Catholic seminary policies of today for what happened 30 to 50 years ago.

“It’d be a mistake to think seminaries today reflect the problems described in the report,” said scholar George Weigel, author of “The Courage to be Catholic.”

“There’s a more sober mood in the seminary world today and an understanding that it is a very, very difficult task to prepare people to be chaste, celibate religious leaders in an MTV culture.”

More problematic, he said, were “inadequately converted men,” who had no background to be a Christian leader.

The report, the first of its kind commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), blamed men who were ordained in the years after the Second Vatican Council and who were caught up in its reforms. One in 10 priests ordained in 1970 was accused of abuse.

Figures show there was a six-fold increase (from 353 to 2,129) in the number of reported abuses of 11- to 17-year-old boys between the 1950s and 1970s, and a three-fold increase (from 135 to 434) in the number of boys younger than 11.

The number of 11- to 17-year-old girls abused peaked at 305 in the 1960s, but has decreased in every decade since, lending credence to the report’s estimate that 81 percent of all sex-abuse cases in the Church since 1950 were homosexual in nature.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, tighter admission policies, including a battery of psychological tests and questions on an applicant’s sexual history and orientation, were levied on applicants.

“We do criminal background checks and require numerous references from previous employers,” said the Rev. Kevin Rhoades, rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., one of the country’s largest seminaries. “Anyone showing signs of not having the ability to live a chaste, celibate life would not be accepted.”

Applicants must abstain from all sexual activity for at least three years before applying, said the rector, who guesses about half of the men applying are still virgins.

“We want to know if they have enough mastery to control their sexual appetites,” he said.

Homosexual applicants are not automatically turned down at St. Mary’s, he said, but “the bar is higher.”

“We believe someone with homosexual inclinations is objectively disordered, and this is what the church teaches,” Father Rhoades said. “Eighty-one percent of the abuse mentioned in the report was with male teens, and we cannot ignore that. So we have to be extremely cautious for the good of the church.”

He is on a USCCB subcommittee preparing a report on priestly training for the annual bishops’ November conclave in Washington. A long-awaited Vatican review of the American seminary system, which schools 3,271 men, is scheduled to begin soon after.

Mary Gautier, a senior researcher for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said problems pointed out in the report appear to have been solved, as U.S. bishops have done “some pretty dramatic things” in terms of priestly preparation. These include discussions in seminaries on human sexuality and addiction behaviors.

“From the report, it seems to be working,” she said of the drop in abuse statistics in the 1990s. “The sad thing is that the bishops didn’t go public with this 20 years ago.”

But Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist in La Jolla, Calif., who has testified before several grand juries involving abusive priests, says clergy simply have switched to older sexual partners.

“Nothing has changed regarding the bishops who have mistresses or priests who have sex with each other,” said Mr. Sipe, author of “Celibacy in Crisis.”

“The problem is not the seminaries. It’s the clerical system in which sexual activity among priests, with adult males and females, is tolerated.”

No significant change in priestly sexual behavior will come about “until the clerical culture changes,” he said. “They are focusing on illegal behavior. But behind that is all sorts of behavior that, from the point of view of the church, is immoral and [according to] their vows, is sacrilegious.”

Mr. Sipe estimates that one-third of all Catholic priests and bishops are homosexual, a statistic disputed by Catholic sociologist the Rev. Andrew Greeley, who in his recent book, “Priests: A Calling in Crisis,” estimates that most priests are celibate heterosexuals.

“Approximately one in six priests is homosexual, and most homosexual priests are celibate,” Father Greeley wrote.

Nevertheless, some dioceses, such as Philadelphia; Lincoln, Neb.; and Arlington turn down homosexual applicants.

“There is such a lot of baggage that homosexual candidates come with,” said the Rev. James Gould, former vocations director for the Arlington diocese, “anger, rage and all of that. The church should go back to the American Psychological Association and say it is a disorder.”

Seminaries are stricter than they were 20 years ago, he added, and seminarians “are more mature and serious because the times are more serious.”

“We are in a war right now. The bishops are sensitive to this problem because if they do not address it, the lawyers will start shaping Catholic identity,” Father Gould said.

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