While all Catholics have been affected by the sexual abuse crisis, there is one group that has had to face its implications in a particular way — seminarians. Their decision to follow their vocation under the current cloud of criticism and negativity is marked both by a strengthening of faith as well as feelings of sadness, mistrust and even embarrassment.
Targets of ridicule
Brian Warchola, who is studying at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is a typical example.
“My commitment to the vocation to the priesthood grows stronger every day,” he said. “As much as these problems pain me, I always strive to focus on Jesus Christ and his Church by putting my complete trust in him. The men the Church is producing are men of God who know what we are up against and who are committed to being faithful and protecting God’s people.”
But it isn’t easy. Patrick Brosamer, a student at Oregon’s Mount Angel Seminary for the Archdiocese of Anchorage, acknowledges: “The sex abuse crisis has made me somewhat embarrassed about my vocation. It makes it hard for me to let people know that I am studying to be a priest. No one has ever personally attacked me for being a seminarian, but lots of people will make joking references to the sex abuse scandal upon learning that I am studying to be a priest. The sister of a good friend of mine said to me, ‘I didn’t know you liked little boys!’ when she learned I was entering seminary. She was joking, but I didn’t think it was funny at all.”
He added: “Due to the constant attention and condemnation the Church receives from the media and the public, I expect the collar to be a great burden to me when I wear it in public. It used to get priests respect, but now it is a target for scorn. When I wear clerics in public, I often get dirty looks from strangers. Many people hate the Church. But I must endure. Public witness of my priestly vocation and identity will be my own small form of martyrdom.”
Dominican Brother Gabriel Thomas Mosher, from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Oakland, Calif., agrees that the crisis carries a price for those studying for ordination.
“The sex abuse crisis has primarily affected me in two areas,” he said. “The first of these areas has to do with my ability to trust. I find that it is difficult to not question the judgments of any priest or religious who has been ordained or professed longer than 10 years. I’m always wondering if they have done something bad and have not been caught, or if they knew about something bad and didn’t report. But the problem is not simply with priests. But because it has involved priests it affects everyone else. If you can’t trust your priest, then who can you trust?
“The second has to do with my ability to interact with others. As a religious I find that when I am interacting with the public I am constantly concerned about how my interactions with youths will be interpreted. I know that the loss of trust that is in my own heart is also a disposition that others have when they look at me. It is as if there is a perpetual Sword of Damocles over my head.”
Defending the Church
Fortunately for these men, their families and friends have largely been encouraging about their vocations. But Brother Peter Hannah, at the Dominican House of Studies in Oakland, Calif., points out that the sexual abuse crisis “is often one of the first things friends who don’t know much about the Church, or even family, will bring up.”
It has been particularly challenging for Jonathan Hill, a Maryknoll seminarian in Chicago, who says his family and majority of his close friends and associates are not Catholic.
“I come from a heavily evangelical Protestant area, so my experience with fellow Catholics has been limited to my other areas of living and travel,” he said. “But when I was in the process of becoming Catholic, the sex abuse crisis was a major stumbling block in sharing my newfound faith. No matter how convincing the doctrine was, the example of Catholics that they had seen caused a major problem for them. However, when that occurred, I reminded them of the poor example of people and clergy within their own Protestant traditions that have and are continuing to occur.
“The main point is that man is sinful and in need of salvation from God. Some sins are more public than others, but we all continually struggle with temptation to sin. Once reminded of that, they are less willing to point the finger at others. This is not intended to downplay the severity of what has happened, but will hopefully encourage everyone to pray for those who have committed these wrongs,” Hill said.
Despite it all, most of the seminarians feel supported. “My family and friends have always remained very supportive of my vocation as a future priest,” said Warchola.
“They know who I am, and they know the commitment I have for the Church. I would say, however, that on several occasions I faced situations with certain individuals, mostly strangers, who learn that I am studying for the priesthood, and who become hateful and, of course, the vulgar jokes come out, and it becomes very disheartening.
“What also pains me is to see television shows, movies, etc., use the abuse scandal as a way to get cheap laughs. There is nothing remotely funny about what happened to these victims, and no one should ever use this as a way to entertain; it is just purely evil to do so.”
Brosamer added: “My own family and friends have been very supportive of my decision to enter seminary, and none were even surprised by my decision. On the rare occasions when I discuss the scandal with family, they share my frustrations, yet we remain optimistic about the future of the Church in the West.
“Yet we all agree that things will get worse before they get better in terms of the Church’s relationship with the culture and the government, and especially in terms of the vocations crisis.”
Healing old wounds
While they remain positive about those who are currently entering the priesthood, these seminarians have somewhat mixed feelings about the older generations of priests. For some, the primary emotion is pain.
“The crisis, of course, exposes deep wounds, which will take much time, healing and restructuring of methods of accountability and proper treatment to address,” said Brother Hannah.
For others, like Dominican Brother Simon Andrew Kim, who is in his fourth year of studies with the Order of Preachers, the crisis has made them more aware of the pitfalls of the vocation.
“I have become more sensitive to clericalism. I have seen how even the most well-meaning and well-respected priests can be inclined to clericalism without even being aware of it,” he said.
Finally, for many, like Brosamer, frustration is paramount.
“Since the abuse scandal mostly involves instances from the 1960s and 1970s, it has made me and many others, too, very frustrated with the older generation of priests and bishops who were responsible for the scandal and cover-up,” he said.
“We in seminary now are innocent, but our generation will have to work hard over the course of our lifetimes to rebuild the Church’s reputation. The scandal has causes that are complex, and there is not one cause, yet there is indisputably a great deal of negligence and even criminal behavior on the part of many pastors and bishops, even those not directly involved in sexual abuse. The whole scandal has been profoundly demoralizing.”
Hope for restoration
To handle the negative, these seminarians focus on the positive of their call to be “fishers of men.”
“I’m as excited about becoming a priest as I’ve ever been,” says Brother Hannah, who has four more years before ordination.
“The strength that is available in the sacraments, in a life of faith, in Catholic family life, in the liturgy — these things are the heart of what our world needs and, if anything, the recent crisis has sharpened me more to the need for clear teaching on things like Catholic sexual morality,” he said.
Warchola, who will be ordained next spring, said, “I highly look forward to my future ordination as a priest, and the fire that burns within me is one that will grow stronger every day.
“Also, I will always be mindful to be a little priest, one who is completely dependent on Almighty God for everything and one who emulates Jesus Christ.”
The crisis “has steeled and inspired me to be more faithful, more committed, more energized to be the spiritual father which Christ is calling me to be,” said Brother Hannah.
“To be that zealous and joyful man of God whom God’s people can look to for leadership, compassion and a Christlike spirit of sacrifice,” he said.
“God’s Church has borne many crises through the ages, and in every one the cross has been the source of the Church’s renewal,” he said. “I am confident this crisis can find healing, redemption and renewal in the same blood which promises and delivers God’s own healing power and life into the souls and bodies of all believers.”
Perhaps Hill, who is in the ordination class of 2017, puts it best: “One thing that we can always rest in is that Christ is in control of his Church. Although problems exist and will continue to exist as long as human beings comprise the Church, Christ always has and always will restore her.
“It is now time for that restoration to begin.”
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.