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

“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.

Seminarians walk in the hall at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis as they prepare for Mass in this 2010 file photo. (CNS photo/Jerry Naunheim Jr., St. Louis Review)

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 said.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Encouraged about future Church

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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