Is seminary safe? Scandals have turned scrutiny on seminary culture and formation

| September 11, 2018 | 0 Comments

Seminarian Jake Epstein, second from right, of the Diocese of Des Moines prays during the opening Mass at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity Sept. 4. At right is Kaleb Quast from the Diocese of Duluth. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

“How do I know my son is safe in the seminary?”

A parent of a seminarian recently posed that question to Bishop Andrew Cozzens, the interim rector of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul. It was the first time he’d been asked that in 15 years of involvement in seminary formation, and it was a “very painful” question to hear, he said.

But he understands why it was asked. Nationally, seminary formation has come under scrutiny following allegations that former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually harassed seminarians, and that sexual misconduct has been tolerated in some seminaries. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston canceled a trip to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin last month to address allegations of sexual misconduct in his archdiocesan seminary, and allegations of sexual misconduct have surfaced against a now-deceased former vocations director of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing clergy sexual abuse in that state over 70 years includes accounts that the behavior of some priests later named as abuse perpetrators was red-flagged during seminary preparation, but they were allowed to be ordained. 

In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, seminary leaders are confident that the overall culture and formation process are healthy, and they are shaping future priests in a way that helps them form appropriate and authentic relationships with each other and their some-day parishioners.

Element of trust

As seminarians returned to the archdiocese’s seminaries this fall, their rectors have sought to address concerns head-on with all-staff meetings and informal conversations.

“As soon as the stories around former Cardinal McCarrick were breaking, we realized that we needed to address this very directly with the seminarians, because that story highlighted the fact that seminarians find themselves in a vulnerable position. That is, they need the approval of their superiors in order to move towards ordination,” Bishop Cozzens said. “We wanted to make sure that they knew that we would never tolerate anyone who would abuse that vulnerability in any way.”

To parents and seminarians, Bishop Cozzens has been making it clear that seminarians are indeed safe at the St. Paul Seminary, and that they can trust the seminary’s leaders.

“The key is that the formation we’re trying to do in the seminary requires trust,” he told The Catholic Spirit. “That has to be mutual trust. They have to trust us. We have to trust them. The seminarians have to trust the faculty, and the faculty have to trust the seminarians. That’s the only way that the kind of human growth that is needed in the seminary can happen, … so we needed to establish right away that this is a safe environment.”

Bishop Cozzens said he talked about the Church’s current scandals with seminarians during class meals and said he wanted them to know they could talk about it. He said that seminarians have told him that they do feel safe at SPS and SJV, and that the descriptions they’ve read in the media of untoward behavior, including an active homosexual subculture tolerated or even encouraged by superiors, “were very foreign to them,” he said.

Still, it’s something that’s on their minds. Bishop Cozzens said one seminarian told him that every conversation he’d had over the prior three weeks had touched on the Church’s current scandal, because the other person always brought it up.

Bishop Cozzens said it’s been a priority for seminary faculty to make sure seminarians feel supported right now.

“We know they feel the heaviness of this, and we want them not to be alone in that heaviness but to feel supported in it,” he said.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens delivers the homily during the opening Mass of the Archbishop Harry Flynn Catechetical Institute Sept. 10 at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Both the St. Paul Seminary and St. John Vianney College Seminary held meetings Sept. 5 with seminarians, faculty and staff.

At the St. Paul Seminary meeting, “I made clear the sort of culture of transparency and moral accountability that we expect in the seminary, the fact that we expect everyone in the community to live the Church’s teaching on chastity … [and] if they see a violation of chastity in any way, they should not be afraid to bring that forward.”

Those meetings included outside resources available to the seminarians, including the University of St. Thomas’ Title IX coordinator; the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment, Tim O’Malley; and Tom Johnson, an independent ombudsman for abuse claims in the archdiocese.

“We wanted them to know … if they had a problem, they could bring it to one of the [seminary] faculty or staff, but they should feel free to go to whatever resources they need in order to feel safe,” Bishop Cozzens said.

This year, SPS has enrolled 89 seminarians from 14 dioceses and one religious community.

At St. John Vianney College Seminary, which, like SPS, is located on the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul, rector Father Michael Becker said he’s had similar conversations and meetings with the undergraduate-level seminarians. He’s confident in how it approaches human formation, including chastity and sexuality.

“When I got here [in 2010], we were already on top of helping the guys be chaste and trying to guide the men into healing and be honest with those we think may not be best suited for the priesthood,” he said. “The experience of [Archbishop] McCarrick and Pennsylvania and all that has been heavy in the Church at large. But my seminarians in a large majority say, ‘Father, it just makes me want to show the people all the more what a holy priest can be like.’”

Emphasis on human formation

The sex abuse scandals that broke in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 2013 caused the seminary then “to take another good look at the formation process,” said Bishop Cozzens, who was an instructor at SPS at the time. That included contracting auditors in 2014 to review their formation process from admission to ordination, on the recommendation of the archdiocese’s Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force. The assessment was positive, he said, but the seminary continues to evaluate how it can improve.

The archdiocese’s Tim O’Malley is among those assisting seminary leadership in that goal. He and Janell Rasmussen, the archdiocese’s deputy director of ministerial standards and safe environment, teach at St. Paul Seminary several times a year, and they’ve also met with staff twice in the past six months.

When speaking with seminarians Sept. 5, O’Malley said he specifically addressed the kinds of allegations against Archbishop McCarrick. “In a nutshell, we emphasized that every single person there, from the rector to the seminarian who just arrived a week ago, a brand-new student, they all have to be held accountable for their actions, and they are all responsible for a safe environment,” he said.

From his direct involvement and review of prior seminary assessments, O’Malley said he thinks “it’s in very good shape.”

“Because of the policies in place, it is safe,” he said, “but to all of them [the seminarians] out there, I told them … if it is a very safe environment, then we have a responsibility to affirm that we keep it that way. And if there are any individual problems, we have a responsibility to deal with those. … I don’t have any reason to doubt that it’s a very good place right now.”

However, O’Malley and Rasmussen are currently examining the seminary’s processes from a potential seminarian’s first contact with the seminary to ordination. 

“We are in the process now of deciding what else our office can do, and what other roles lay leadership could play in making sure that this is as thorough and effective a process as can be in place,” he said.

Formation across the country has been reshaped in the past 25 years by “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”), a 1992 apostolic exhortation from St. John Paul II that articulated the four “dimensions” of priestly formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. While “human formation” has long been an aspect of seminary foundation, it only recently has been identified as a distinct category, said Sister Katarina Schuth, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Rochester and St. Paul Seminary professor emerita of its Endowed Chair for Social Scientific Study of Religion. She has studied seminary formation since 1984 and joined the St. Paul Seminary faculty in 1993.

In “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” St. John Paul II described human formation as the cultivation “of a series of human qualities” for the “proper and due growth and realization of self … with a view to ministry.” He called it “the basis of all priestly formation.”

In the U.S., the document prompted seminaries to begin to put greater focus on human formation, Sister Schuth said, but that need was especially underscored a decade later, with the sexual abuse crisis following the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical sexual abuse in that archdiocese and an outpouring of allegations that followed elsewhere. 

Prior to the mid-1980s, many people thought clergy sexual abuse was an extremely rare occurrence, Sister Schuth said. Few crimes were reported. By the late 1980s, some seminaries had begun to respond to an increase in the number of allegations. After 2002, seminaries took significant steps to improve the formation process, including the screening for admittance and emphasis on human formation. 

Statistics indicate that the improvements in seminary formation have made an impact. Nearly 18,400 claims of clerical sexual abuse in the U.S. had been made through 2017, most of them occurring between 1960 and 1984. A total of 138 instances in the U.S. occurred after 2004, accounting for 1.5 percent of abuse cases overall.

Quality ‘never been better’

Bishop Cozzens has been serving as the seminary’s interim rector since June, when rector emeritus Msgr. Aloysius Callaghan transitioned to a new role. The seminary’s new rector, Omaha priest Father Joseph Taphorn, will take the helm in January. 

“In my opinion, the quality of formation overall has never been better than what it is right now,” Bishop Cozzens said, and he expects it only to improve with every generation.

He said the credit is due to the quality of the seminary’s formators — faculty members who mentor men in the formation process — and the presence of a full-time staff psychologist, Paul Ruff.

When Ruff joined the SPS staff in 2014 as its first in-house psychologist, he had already been working with the seminary as a therapist on a referral basis and as an administrator of applicants’ extensive psychological evaluations. His own personal wrestling with the local sexual abuse crisis compelled him to want to do what he could to ensure strong seminary formation, he said.

Ruff’s work is threefold: to counsel seminarians, teach on human formation, and foster a cohesive approach to formation among seminary faculty, including reflection on what “formation” means.

“Formation is not information, and it’s not just conformity,” he said. “It’s really about engaging the man in the process that God is calling him into, and growth. And he’s going to be blind to some aspects of that” — which, he said, is what a seminarian’s formators help him to “see.”

However, seminaries can err in the direction of “mostly monitoring men,” Ruff said, but that’s not what he promotes at SPS.

“If you’re mainly looking for what’s problematic in a man and focusing on that, then bringing that to the man’s attention when you see problematic things, the dilemma you create is that you’re going to start to train a sort of culture where you keep your head down,” he said.

Instead, St. Paul Seminary formators focus on identifying and supporting a seminarian’s “positive growth” in the human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral dimensions, Ruff said, “helping the man hear his own internal voice about his call to growth and invite more and more transparency.”

Father Allen Kuss is SPS’ director of pastoral formation, but he also serves as a formator for individual seminarians. (Seminarians are also assigned an academic advisor and spiritual director.) He said that the formators truly have a sense of who a man is, and his bar is, “Would I want him serving my family members?”

“From my part, it is about making sure that the man is well-rounded, that he has the basic skills needed for leadership, the capacity for it, the tools [he needs] so he can continue to develop,” Father Kuss said. “In ministry, as in medicine and many other professions, it’s a lifelong development. It’s not just four years and you’re done, and that’s it.”

St. Paul Seminary has made the importance of lifelong formation explicit with the Institute for Ongoing Clergy Formation, which it launched for priests and deacons. Among the IOCF’s upcoming events are a five-day workshop on pastoral management, a three-day silent retreat on “the interior life of the priest,” and a clergy study day on “fruitful chastity.” It also has special programs for new priests and priests becoming pastors. Like seminary formation, the IOCF revolves around the pastoral, spiritual, human and intellectual dimensions of formation.

The program is also unique to the archdiocese. Its director, Deacon Dan Gannon, doesn’t know of anything like it elsewhere.

“It’s really a response to the direction of the Church, in a positive way,” said Deacon Gannon, a deacon of the Diocese of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. “It’s a positive movement to provide this kind of ongoing formation across these different dimensions in a way that helps the men continue to become more well rounded.”

Father Chad VanHoose, associate pastor of All Saints in Lakeville, was among recently ordained priests who attended an IOCF retreat at Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo in late August. Ordained in 2017, he said he “felt very well prepared” by the St. Paul Seminary for ministry and life as a priest.

“I thought it was a very well thought-out and improving process,” he said. “A good thing happening at the seminary is that they’re not locked-in to one particular thing. They’re willing to continue to evolve for the needs of our current situation and times, and to get healthier and healthier. … It’s no surprise that if you have a healthy seminary, your priests are going to be healthier.”

Encouraged about future Church

While he’s temporarily leading the St. Paul Seminary, Bishop Cozzens is also helping to shape seminaries nationwide. He’s joined with other seminary leaders to create a national program for training seminary formators. The program was inspired both by necessity — nothing of its kind existed — and a document published in 2016 by the Congregation for the Clergy under Pope Francis, which emphasized “personal accompaniment as the main means of formation” for seminarians, Bishop Cozzens said. The first cohort will complete its two-year program in February.

Ultimately, he said, formation for the priesthood is a lengthy and intense process. For most men, it’s six to eight years of rigorous, personal formation.

“It’s hard to think about any other group of professionals who are getting more intense formation than what we’re giving the young men who are becoming priests. I think that’s a very positive thing,” he said. “You can see how seriously the Church takes formation, because we dedicate so many resources to it.”

Bishop Cozzens said that he wants all Catholics to know that the St. Paul Seminary is “a joyful place,” and that its seminarians “come with hearts deeply in love with Jesus Christ and a deep desire to share that love by making a gift of themselves.”

“If you could spend time with them every day like I get to right now, you would be deeply encouraged about the future of the Church,” he added, “because there are many good men here who could do a lot of things with their lives, and they’re choosing to dedicate their lives to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.”


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