A different perspective in forming priests

I cannot forget my first Sunday as a priest. I learned a lot in one hour. Following Sunday Masses in my first parish, my new pastor invited me to lunch, where we talked about some of the routines of the parish and about what would be my duties. It was pleasant.

Then, we returned to the rectory. “Come into my study,” the pastor said, “you need to know what you have walked into.” In his study, he removed a file from the desk drawer, handed it to me, and began to detail its contents. My predecessor had sexually abused boys. I was shocked. No seminary lecture had ever discussed sexual abuse. I never knew an abusive priest. No one had ever talked to me about it.

As my time in the parish moved along, I met victims and their families and learned the toll taken by this priest’s abuse of them. Also in the file was a photocopy of a letter that the psychiatrist treating the priest sent to the bishop. I knew the doctor. He held a doctor of medicine degree from a highly respected medical school, had completed psychiatric residency in a world-renowned mental health facility and was board certified in psychiatry.

His letter assured the bishop that the priest should be fine — if he followed advice, guarded against tempting situations, got his rest, organized his life and saw the psychiatrist as directed. The doctor urged the bishop to reappoint the priest. The bishop, now long dead, followed this recommendation. When bad things happened again, the bishop withdrew the priest from active ministry. (Only the Vatican could remove him from the priesthood, and such action under such circumstances then was very rare.)

Fast-forward 20 years. Another priest, whom I knew, admitted sexually abusing boys. The then bishop sent this priest to a distinguished psychiatric hospital. After some months of treatment, the priest’s attending doctor advised that he be reinstated. This bishop was skeptical. He assigned the priest to a desk job in the chancery and ordered he have nothing to do with boys. The priest, however, found boys. The bishop learned of a suspicious situation. No accusations had been made, and apparently no physical contact had happened. Nevertheless, the bishop himself told me that he did not care what any psychiatrist or psychologist said, he was forbidding the priest to act in priestly ministry.

Fast-forward again. A psychiatrist and his wife invited me to dinner. The doctor, by then in practice for about 30 years, told me that when he was in training, and for years later, no mental health professional looked upon sexual abuse of youths with the same alarm that later came to be associated with the problem.

It will be charged that here I make excuses and try to relieve Church authorities of responsibility in managing sex abuse cases in the past, but at some time mention should be made of how the attitude about such matters has changed in professional mental health circles. For example, science once assumed pedophilia could be treated or managed, and no incident, if treated, necessarily meant that more trouble would occur in the future. Understanding pedophilia has scientifically evolved. The injury of being sexually assaulted as a youth simply was not always realized.

Today, seminary students are brought bluntly face to face with sexuality in all respects, healthy or unhealthy. The abuse issue awakened Church leaders, but so did departures from the priesthood because of celibacy. Seminarians undergo psychiatric evaluations, but no mental health professional presently can predict pedophilia in a given case. Science still has things to learn.

This rigid seminary practice consoles me. I am convinced that rare will be problems in years to come. Thank God.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.