Too True to School: The Sex Abuse Crisis Should Teach Us That It Takes More Than a Seminary to Raise a Priest

By Cones, Bryan | U.S. Catholic, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Too True to School: The Sex Abuse Crisis Should Teach Us That It Takes More Than a Seminary to Raise a Priest


Cones, Bryan, U.S. Catholic


IN THE SPRING OF MY FIRST YEAR OF COLLEGE, I WROTE my bishop and told him I wanted to be a priest in our East Tennessee diocese. Four months later I was in the seminary--at a Benedictine monastery on the far side of Missouri, a good 13-hour drive from the Catholics among whom I had experienced a call to serve.

On the way, I stopped for the night at a small high school seminary just across the Mississippi River, where my bishop had been rector. There I met some nice priests and learned about one of the few remaining seminaries for high school students, once common stops on the way to ordination.

I didn't know it then, but the visit was my first contact with the clergy sex abuse crisis. Within 10 years I learned that two of the priests I had met were perpetrators; one was carrying on an abusive relationship with a student I would meet when I arrived at seminary. The third priest claimed on national television to have been abused by my bishop, who was one of the few in the United States to resign as a result of the scandal.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As the latest chapter of the sex abuse catastrophe is being written across Europe, I remain struck by how early in my clerical training I was "involved." My time in seminary left an indelible mark on me, much of it for good. Yet it occurs to me that it is the way we prepare priests--rather than celibacy, homosexuality, or any other of the "causes" ascribed to the crisis--that is a major part of the problem.

In effect, a Roman Catholic priest is made in a way similar to a U.S. Marine. Candidates are sent away to "basic training" for an extended time, share an intense experience in a strict hierarchical system, and are encouraged to form bonds of brotherhood in that system, in fact, to draw their identity from it. Precious few non-priests are involved in the day-to-day formation of seminarians, and personal contact with parishioners, especially women, is limited and infrequent.

One result of such formation is a certain loyalty to the priestly institution, such that priests identify first with their brothers rather than with those they are ordained to serve.

(I still detect that tendency in myself though I was never ordained.) One product of such group loyalty has been a systemic failure among priests and bishops to report clerical child sexual abuse, some cases of which are so monstrous they should be labeled rape and torture. …

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