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Spotlight Report

A wary church tightens screening of new priests

By Michael Paulson and Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 6/2/2002

When the Rev. Kevin M. Russeau recalls the first steps that led to his ordination, his memories do not invoke the sweet smell of incense, soaring voices from an angelic choir, or a regimen of daily prayer.

Instead the 27-year-old priest remembers a battery of psychological tests in which he was asked if he heard voices in his head, if he believed strange people were following him, and when he began to masturbate.

''They were just real, pointed questions about subjects I wouldn't even share with my parents,'' said Russeau, who was ordained last year and now works at a parish in Phoenix. ''It was just unbelievable.''

Paul W. Berube also decided at an early age that he wanted to become a priest. But when he applied to seminary, four decades before Russeau, there was no such screening.

''I went through a physical, coughed, and they wanted to know how much Latin and Greek I knew,'' recalled Berube, who was ordained in Boston in 1960 and is now the parochial vicar at Saint Mary Church in Chelmsford. ''Basically, if your parish priest recommended you, and you had the marks, you were in.''

As the Catholic Church confronts the reality that an estimated 1,500 priests molested thousands of minors in the United States over the last 50 years, church officials are increasingly examining the ways in which they screen and train candidates for the priesthood. In late April, at a meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, US cardinals agreed to undertake an in-depth study of seminary education, particularly ''in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.''

But a review of cases in the Boston area suggests that much already has changed. The vast majority of known incidents of sexual abuse of minors by clergy were committed by priests who graduated from the seminary between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s, with an extraordinary number of cases stemming from the seminary classes of the early 1960s. And most of the incidents of abuse now coming to light occurred at least two decades ago.

''Almost all of the allegations we have involve incidents that predate 1985,'' said the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, which has turned over the names of more than 90 priests to prosecutors.

Most of those priests were trained at a time when seminaries were full, psychological screening and criminal background checks didn't exist, and sex education wasn't offered.

''There was nothing,'' said the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, who finished his training at Saint John's Seminary in Boston in 1956. ''We didn't talk at all. And then we emerged from this highly male, controlled situation into a very different kind of world, and that transition, for a lot of people, was harrowing. Looking back, I would have wished we were better prepared.''

Potential pedophiles are targeted

Today's seminaries aggressively screen candidates for the priesthood, subjecting them to rigorous testing intended to weed out not only potential pedophiles, but also men who would make bad priests. And seminary officials say that despite the shortage of priests, they turn away numerous applicants and throw others out after admission. Seminaries all include classes on ''human formation,'' at which sexuality and celibacy are discussed with varying degrees of candor.

''If we can't talk about it, we then start hiding things and that's how we got into trouble,'' said Russeau, who will soon leave his parish work in Arizona to become a recruiter of seminary candidates among high school and college students. ''We were hiding the way people were feeling and the way people were acting. We've learned that we need to screen differently. I've been told by my vocations director that one of my most important jobs will be to know who to say no to.''

Some religious scholars say the fact that Catholic seminaries appear to have produced few child molesters over the last two decades is proof that the changes in seminary education have paid off. Others are wary, saying it will take years to know how much abuse is now going on because victims often wait years before speaking out.

But as Catholics struggle to understand what went wrong in their church over the second half of the 20th century, even church leaders are coming to the conclusion that, at least for a time, something was seriously amiss at seminaries.

''Everyone harks back to the glory days when the seminaries were packed, but I wonder how many of them were people who never should have been priests,'' said the Rev. James King, director of vocations for the Indiana province of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious order that founded the University of Notre Dame.

Coyne, the archdiocesan spokesman who teaches at Saint John's Seminary, also faults seminary screening and education.

''If you look back at the '50s, for example, the number of men accepted into seminaries without rigorous screening was very high, and as you move all these men along in large classes, some are going to fall through the cracks,'' Coyne said. ''There was not the recognition of the need to deal with issues of intimacy and sexuality. There were all kinds of euphemisms.

''And if you entered a seminary as an adolescent, and never had an opportunity to acknowledge who you were sexually, never got into a position of healthy relationships with others, then when you leave, to whom do you relate? Adolescents. And that caused all kinds of wreckage.''

The Saint John's classes of the early 1960s produced numerous prominent church leaders, including Bishops John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., and William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., but also produced notorious alleged molesters, including John J. Geoghan, Paul R. Shanley, and Joseph E. Birmingham.

''Some of us have been reflecting upon this, and we are as puzzled as anybody else,'' said the Rev. E. Paul Sullivan, a member of the Saint John's class of 1963 who is now pastor of Saint Rose of Lima Church in Topsfield.

Sullivan points out that the classes of the early 1960s were large - there were about 60 men in his class, compared with just five men ordained in Boston this year - so the odds of a problem were higher. And like Berube, Sullivan recalls essentially no screening of candidates for the priesthood.

''They pretty much let in everybody who was of average intelligence or better and male,'' Sullivan said.

Priests weren't schooled in challenge of celibacy

Both priests say there was essentially no discussion of human sexuality at seminary - a few offhand warnings about staying away from women, but no real discussion about the challenges of celibacy. ''They told us to have good outlets like sports, and to stay out of temptation's way, but it was mostly considered that women would be the temptation,'' Sullivan said. ''I don't think anyone ever thought of young men being the temptation.''

Some critics have suggested that after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and in the midst of the sexual revolution, seminaries were excessively permissive.

''It would not be surprising if a pattern of infidelity to the church's teachings and to vows of celibacy had not also involved some bishops who were trained and ordained at a time when there was a widespread wink-and-nudge atmosphere with respect to the church's teachings on human sexuality,'' said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the religious journal First Things.

But Notre Dame theologian Rev. Richard P. McBrien, who graduated from Saint John's Seminary in Boston in 1962, disputes any notion that seminaries of the early '60s turned a blind eye to sexual activity. He compares Saint John's to a minimum-security prison, and says there was a clear ban on students hanging out in one another's rooms. Seminary officials, he says, were particularly alert to what they called ''particular friendships'' between men that might suggest homosexual activity.

''If there's a reason why so many of that era had these problems and were not discovered, it's because there was in effect no screening at all for admission, and there were no courses at all on sexuality or celibacy,'' McBrien said. ''We weren't even conscious of the fact that celibacy was hard to observe until after we were ordained.''

Today, directors of vocation and seminary instructors say the road to the Catholic priesthood is much more carefully patrolled by psychologists, theologians, and clinical specialists. And they hope their work to weed out men spiritually and psychologically unfit for the celibate and sometimes lonely life of a Catholic priest may help prevent another wave of abuse cases.

''People who are not in touch with real life - that's an alarm bell,'' said Russeau. ''If people can't interact well with people whether it's in college life or in their life as a banker, that's a warning sign that says they're not going go get along well in the seminary.''

In Boston, a young man today must begin conversations with the vocations director a year before applying for admission, and then the application process takes at least four months. Some seminaries require that applicants be celibate for as long as five years before starting the program, just to test out the practice. And students are expected to remain celibate throughout seminary as they continue to discern whether they are cut out to lead the sexless life of an ordained priest.

''The message pretty much is that celibacy is an absolute requirement,'' said King at the Congregation of Holy Cross. ''Everyone has urges. Married people have the same struggles fundamentally. They get to have sex, but they don't get to have sex with everybody else and still be faithful to their commitment. There isn't a person alive who isn't a sexual human being. But we have to manage it in healthy ways. In many ways, married people struggle with this as much as we do. Celibacy is a gift, but it's not something that most people are cut out for.''

No sure flag for abusers; disturbing signs are noted

Some seminaries screen out applicants who say they are homosexual, but most do not, arguing that there is no evidence linking sexual orientation to one's ability to lead a celibate life. The seminaries do attempt to detect potential child abusers, but there is currently no psychological test that can accurately predict whether a man who has never sexually abused a child is likely to do so in the future.

''We do the Minnesota Multiphasic [personality inventory], the Rorschach, interviews, go through their family history, their church history, their sexual history, what they believe about God, what they think about obedience and celibacy,'' said the Rev. Gerard Francik, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. ''We do a physical, a local criminal background check, plus an FBI check.''

But Francik and others say that because they can't test for the likelihood to abuse children, they also rely on numerous casual and formal encounters with applicants at which they are alert to signs of social problems.

''The best test I know is getting to know a person as well as you can,'' Francik said. ''But that's not foolproof.''

Today's seminarians are generally older than they once were, and seminary directors hope they are more mature. There are only nine high school seminaries left in the country, and many men enter seminary only after they have completed college. Many have dated; some have been married. And dioceses now offer continuing education for priests, to help newly ordained priests adjust to the challenges of living in a parish.

Many potential applicants are turned away from seminaries, and every year some students are forced out. For example, Coyne, who is on the admissions board at Saint John's Seminary, said the school accepts only about 20 percent of its applicants.

''Just because there's a shortage doesn't mean we should lessen our standards,'' said the Rev. Edward J. Burns, executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Seminary instruction of priests has evolved gradually since the Second Vatican Council, which directed the bishops of each nation to develop a better training program. In the early 1980s, at the insistence of Pope John Paul II, there were Vatican-supervised evaluations of all US seminaries; during the same period, US seminary rectors met twice to discuss issues facing their institutions, including a desire to develop screening procedures to prevent men with psychological problems from becoming priests.

Pope ordered discussion of celibacy and sexuality

Then, in 1992, after a synod of bishops met to discuss training of priests, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, ordering an overhaul of seminary education to include franker discussion of sexuality and celibacy. He declared that in an era when sexuality ''is reduced to nothing more than a consumer good,'' seminaries must be particularly attentive, and he required seminaries to include ''human formation,'' which refers to the character development of priests, as a key part of their curriculum.

''An education for sexuality becomes more difficult but also more urgent,'' the pope wrote. ''It should be truly and fully personal and therefore should present chastity in a manner that shows appreciation and love for it.''

Even as seminaries were putting the pope's orders into action, the sexual abuse cases against former priest James R. Porter in Fall River began to focus broad attention on the issue of clergy sexual abuse, especially in Massachusetts. Seminaries began tightening their admissions requirements and watching seminarians more closely.

''In '92, when the Porter case hit the seminary, the seminary didn't know how to proceed, but they knew whatever they were going to do, they had to address these issues,'' recalled Edward Cardoza, a former seminarian at St. John's in Boston throughout much of the 1990s, who decided not to pursue ordination. ''I remember one conference where the spiritual director got up and actually said, `As terrible as this is for the church, it may well prove to be a sanctifying moment.'''

Church officials repeatedly point to the relatively few cases that have emerged involving priests ordained during the 1990s. The Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., is among those who believe the church is now paying a price for past mistakes but that things have improved. ''The good news is that these [abuse] cases that we're dealing with now come from a time when the seminary system was not where it is now,'' he said. ''A lot of effort has been made and that effort will bear fruit.''

Some predict that abusers will try to avoid detection

Still, some are skeptical, arguing that abusive priests will simply be more careful in the future not to attract attention. ''I don't see this [church] leadership having the ability from a moral or a human standpoint to be able to address this crisis,'' said Sylvia M. Demarest, a Texas lawyer who won a $119 million jury award for former altar boys abused in Dallas in the mid-1990s. ''They want us to believe that the problem has been solved and I don't believe that. I think the pattern of abuse has changed.''

And there have been some recent cases.

In January, Haverhill police arrested the Rev. Kelvin E. Iguabita, 33, who had been ordained in 1999, and charged him with twice raping a 15-year-old girl in his parish rectory. The Rev. Frederick Guthrie of Saint Ann's Church in Gloucester was arrested in November at a Nashua ice cream stand after allegedly attempting to set up a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old boy over the Internet. And, last month, the Rev. Francis X. Nelson of Saint Charles Borromeo Church in New York City was charged with sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl in her home three years ago.

The Rev. Terry Ehrman, a 33-year-old priest who was ordained two years ago, said the battery of psychological examinations that he and his seminary classmates were subjected to may not be able to fully avert future abuse by the clergy.

He said he wonders whether those prone to molestation have a pre-existing pathology that can't be detected by such testing.

''It's really hard to tell,'' said Ehrman, who this summer will enter a doctorate program in biological studies at the University of Minnesota. ''I wonder what will happen 20 years from now. Will it still be going on with my generation? It would be interesting to figure out who the people are who don't get into seminaries these days and whether they are apt to catch people prone to this behavior.

''The people I went through the seminary with I couldn't imagine being that way [capable of sexually abusing children]. But who knows? A lot of people say these guys [implicated] today were great priests and they're surprised that this has happened.''

Thomas Farragher can be reached at

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/2/2002.
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