Dialogue 13

A new thesis is slowly being formulated and tested: Catholic seminaries and religious training is psychopathogenic. Seminaries are unhealthy places—psychologically and morally. Quite simply, sexual activity by faculty and students (among other factors) in institutions that are explicitly dedicated to celibacy and perfect and perpetual chastity poses contradictions of mammoth proportions. The underground sexual activity and tolerance of it creates an atmosphere of corruptibility, individual and corporate.

Sociologist, Anson Shupe of Indiana/Purdue, has developed the most comprehensive explanation of the dynamics of clergy misconduct of any current scholar. His latest contribution is Rogue Clerics [1]. He convincingly describes the criminogenic capacity of clerical culture. His earlier analysis of the problems of deviant clergy are classic and establish the foundations for understanding clergy misbehavior.[2]

The crisis in the Catholic Church has spotlighted one facet of celibate failure of bishops and priests—sex abuse of minors. But larger questions remain—the extent of the problem, the causes of the aberration, and most importantly, the origins of sexual abuse in Catholic clergy. Are sexual abusers attracted to the priesthood in a special way? Does sexual deprivation lead some men to attack children? Or more to the point—do seminaries and training programs condition and help develop sexual abusers? That is one problem of the psychopathogenesis.

Father Andrew Greeley, a sociologist by training, has written a narrative that exquisitely describes the training and development of a clergyman who embodies the qualities of psychopathogenic schooling: namely, seminarian-father-bishop-cardinal Pat Donohue one of the main characters in The Cardinal Sins.[3] The clerical culture that forms and fosters this man from adolescence through his ascendancy to the highest ranks of the church is a prototype of one kind of product of the clerical culture. Superiority, secrecy, and power are three elements that cement the system together; this synergism makes possible the successful operation of a sexually active man under the mantle of celibacy. It begins in the seminary.

The use of confession (i.e. the sacrament of penance or reconciliation) is one of the main factors that perpetuates the pathology of the system; and this element will be carefully considered in these Dialogues in the future. Suffice it to say here: study Greeley’s cardinal and note his use of confession to ease his conscience, cover his shame, regain his peace of mind, experience relief, but not to change or reform him. The pattern is established in seminary training, but lasts a lifetime in the service of sickness and crime. (The Confession of Crime and the Crime of Confession)

The Vatican ordered an evaluation of seminaries in April 2002. That evaluation of U.S. seminaries is still in process. The problems in Catholic seminaries are not over, but Rome is stuck on blaming gay men for problems in the priesthood rather than the culture that involves the clergy of every stripe, on every level in the church.

According to a series of press reports in 2005, “an eagerly awaited Vatican document will bar homosexuals from the priesthood and seminary training, but the ban will be absolute only for those whose homosexual tendencies are deeply rooted…Passages from the unpublished document, said that the Vatican instruction would bar seminarians who are active homosexuals, participate in the gay subculture, or show deeply rooted homosexual tendencies.[4] The report published by Il Giornale says that men who have transitory homosexual inclinations would not be excluded from the seminary.[5]

Since posting Dialogue #1—Sex in Seminaries 09/05/06 I have been flooded with accounts by priests and former seminarians about their experiences in Catholic seminaries. The training programs they experienced include the School of Theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmetsburg, MD, and in Baltimore, Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, MO, St. Meinrad’s and St. John’s schools of theology in IN and MN. Not one writer said that he had an adequate training in celibacy.

In response to posting Dialogue #12—Sex in RC Seminaries 07/25/07—several more men who only recently experienced seminary life wrote about their experiences. These men were seminarians between 1996 and 2004 at two of the largest seminaries in the country—St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia and St. John’s Camarillo, California. They report on conditions in these training programs:

At St Charles the Dean of Men did talk to us about celibacy every so often.  Basically, his talks were about boundaries that one should never cross. But he tended to assume that all of students were straight. His talks were about how one should conduct himself in the presence of beautiful young women. After that no one ever really discussed celibacy.  Perhaps it was a residue of Irish Jansenism in a very Irish place, but sex was never discussed in the form of a conference.  It was seen as something between one's confessor and spiritual director to work through.  Still, I was never asked about celibacy by any spiritual director I had in the seminary.

My spiritual director, also the academic dean of St. Charles was removed from the seminary because his prior sexual abuse of a minor came to light.  We students knew the truth, but the archdiocese told us, “Father is taking some time off to care for a sick parent.”  One formation advisor was carrying on an affair with a woman. He has since been laicized, along with a spiritual director and academic dean.  I learned that a priest who oversaw pastoral formation recently completed a prison term for child pornography; and another priest who supervised students in pastoral ministry was since removed for sexually abusing a teenage boy over the course of some years.

(Signed, 8,15,07)

Another account about St. Charles Seminary confirms in detail the previous summary.

Cardinal Bevilacqua came to St Charles each year and spoke with us seminarians without any faculty present.  One year a student asked the Cardinal, “How can one know whether he has a vocation to the priesthood?”  The Cardinal said, “Well, I will tell you how to know if you don't have a vocation.  If you are homosexually oriented, you don't have a vocation.  Leave!  We don't want you here!”  In spite of that we knew two things: there were men ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and other dioceses that did have a homosexual orientation (the Camden diocese insisted on ordaining men over the near unanimous objection of the faculty). And some of us were aware of the rumors that the Cardinal had a mistress. 

Some of the priest faculty had serious problems. Much of what we lived through has come out in the Grand Jury Report in 2003, the men have been named, but it was traumatic to be there on the scene.

One morning, at Mass, Monsignor William Lynn, Vicar for Clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia got up in the pulpit and announced that Father Delli Carpini, one of seminary’s (my confessor) spiritual directors, “was taking time off to care for a sick father.”  Well, that was a lie. Carpini was undergoing evaluation at St John Vianney Hospital in Paoli where he was diagnosed with a psychosexual disorder.  My formation advisor, Father Curtis Clark, had been carrying on affairs with adult women.  Both he and my former spiritual director are now laicized.  

The assistant director for apostolic formation, Father Matthew Kornacki, recently finished a prison term for possessing child pornography.  My supervisor during one of my years of apostolic formation placement was removed from active ministry for having sexually abused a teenage boy. But Fr Wisniewski (my apostolic formation supervisor on placement) and Fr Delli Carpini both had abused male children. Fr Delli Carpini was a genuine homosexual pedophile; Fr Wisniewski went after teen-aged boys. 

(Signed, 9,3,07)

 A first hand report about St. John’s in Camarillo, the major seminary for the Los Angeles archdiocese, during the same time frame as the above contains echoes of the atmosphere in Philadelphia. Cardinal Mahony has said in deposition that he does “not receive homosexual priests” into his diocese and that he has “never known of any priest who violated his celibacy.” The view from the seminary looks different.

At St. John’s celibacy was not a major part of my training. We did have a two-day workshop on celibacy and there were some very useful things said. Every new student participated in this celibacy workshop with some members of the faculty.  Fr. Richard Benson, C.M., the moral theologian on the faculty gave an excellent presentation on the morality of celibacy.  A married couple discussed the pitfalls of married life; that marriage isn't a bed of roses, either.  But we also endured a lot of interspersed psychobabble. That was the extent of direction we received about celibacy. It was a one-time deal. It disturbed me that celibacy never came up from my spiritual director. It became clear to me that he had severe emotional problems; he could not serve in any parish.  He was a good man, but he was so emotionally fragile that parish life was too much for him. The issue of spiritual direction was a major problem at St. John’s. Priests who served on the Human Formation Board also served as spiritual directors.  It is a serious situation.  Technically, spiritual directors are forbidden from revealing what they find out in direction.  However, those same priests served on the board that evaluated us and sent reports to our bishops.  We were told that they did not vote on us if they were our spiritual directors. Many students were very uncomfortable about this, and suspected that confidences were not always kept.

The seminary should be a place where the bishop sends his best priests.  But it served as a dumping ground for problem priests. 

One professor was pretty effeminate; he was into bodybuilding and often strolled around the campus shirtless; some of the seminarians imitated him. I never heard that he had sex with the seminarians, but one would call him flamboyant. Another professor was funny and entertaining, but he clearly had problems with alcohol and seemed to suffer from depression. The director of spiritual formation was on his way out of the priesthood. We all knew that the former Rector, Fr. Charles Miller, C.M., who had been on the staff since 1958, presided over St. John’s as vise-rector and rector during the 1970s and 80s. Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann, well known as an active homosexual, was trained under Miller’s tutelage.  During his tenure as rector many priests who abused the young were ordained. 

The seminary did have problems with students downloading pornography and at least one of them was expelled during the 2001-2002 academic year. And certainly some of the students, like the faculty, were homosexual. It was hard to trust the formation priests. Many students learned to keep their heads down and not to make waves. Seminaries are very political places and do not lend themselves to being places where the seminarian can authentically be himself.  You are living in a fishbowl where every action is observed and every action can pose potential pitfalls. A priest who was trained in Baltimore told me that his director told him he “was not in touch with his feelings.” The guy was being pressed for friendship by one of the faculty; the director encouraged him to respond. Finally he “loosened” up to the satisfaction of the faculty, but it meant that he was sexually involved with that faculty member for the rest of his seminary years.  

Personally, I do not have problems with homosexuals in the seminary, and I know that many are there. But I think that the seminary and the seminarian should be honest with each other.  Homosexuals face different challenges than heterosexuals in seminary life and the seminary needs to be able to help sort problems out.  But the seminary seems to inculcate a culture of secrecy. From my experience, the seminary system is fundamentally corrupt and in need of massive reform.  But I very much doubt that much will change in my lifetime.  I have very little hope for it.


It makes great sense that the Vatican would examine seminary training, but the conclusion of the priest trained at Camarillo seems to be the opinion of a good number of priests: the system is inadequate or corrupt, but there is little hope for substantial change or reform.

[1] Anson Shupe. Rogue Clerics. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2007.

[2] - In the Name of All That’s Holy: A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance.  Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995.  - Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy misconduct and Religious Community.  Chicago: University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 2007.

[3] Andrew M. Greeley, The Cardinal Sins. New York: A Bernard Geis Associates Book, 1981.

[4] Catholic News Service.com, Rome: November 12, 2005. The document has not been published as of this writing.

[5] Cf. this site: US Bishops & Sexual Orientation: the Vatican has a right to be wrong.

Posted: 15 October 2007

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