With the arrests of two priests, a former priest and a former parochial school teacher in Philadelphia on charges of sexually abusing youths, or complicity in such abuse, brings once more to center stage the horror that Catholics in this country have endured now for over a decade.
It seems that just as these reports begin to subside, another is brought forward. Catholics understandably have been outraged, wondering what Church leaders are doing to stop this abuse.
Several weeks ago, I wrote about an experience while attending the March for Life in Washington, on Jan. 24. To repeat the highlights of that column, I went into a coffee shop and by chance met two seminarians and a recently ordained priest. Among other things, we spoke about celibacy and how modern seminaries approach celibacy.
Here it would be good to cite this fact: No data even suggests a link between celibacy and pedophilia. Actually, most pedophiles are married, and most sexual abuse of youths happens within family settings.
Still, celibacy is inseparable from priestly life, and cases of sexual abuse of the young by priests have tragically injured victims.
If anything should encourage Catholics who look with such dismay and disgust upon these crimes, it is what is happening in seminaries.
To continue the story of my visit to Washington in January, in that coffee shop we spoke about more than celibacy.
This much is clear. Seminary formation radically has changed in this country since my day, and it has changed for the better.
Seminarians in formation 40 years ago, or even less, usually were told simply to study and to pray. Faculty oversight was not extensive. They were more interested in whether or not students kept silence or appeared in the chapel for daily Mass or passed a course.
In my day, a few dioceses required psychological evaluations of seminarians. Throughout the Church, psychiatry was suspect, going back to the days of Sigmund Freud himself. Many prominent Church figures, the influential Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen among them, believed that if psychology was pushed to its limit, it in effect negated the ancient Christian doctrine of free will. Why? People acted because they were impelled, or compelled, to act, and therefore they were not responsible in the sense of willful sin.
Now, it is completely different. Every diocese requires psychological evaluations for candidates. It must be noted that, so far, no psychologists have invented any test that can foresee pedophilia someday as a problem. But existing tests certainly can detect psychopathology.
Once, seminarians with serious emotional problems slipped through the cracks, if the problem was latent or concealed.
Now, psychological testing and counseling are seen as supports for the students and ways to guarantee that priests in the future will be mentally healthy. Facing celibacy, and all its demands squarely, is part of this process. Seminarians also are guided to ask themselves not only if they will be comfortable as celibates, but can they be chaste altogether.
Seminary authorities now are more involved in the progress of students, in every respect, than before. Reports to bishops are vastly more thorough. One seminary rector told me that a report to a bishop years ago might consist of one sentence: “He [a given seminarian] had a good year.” Such a superficial, haphazard evaluation today would be considered a joke.
I cannot help but believe that this newer, much more intense way of forming future priests will benefit the Church in years to come.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.