Monday, April 15, 2002

Priests: Sex no longer a taboo topic in seminaries

Scandals have changed the way priests are chosen and trained

By James Pilcher,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Like thousands before them, would-be priests at the Tristate's only Roman Catholic seminary study the Bible, classic philosophy and church theology.

        But unlike many who have gone before them, they also spend hours talking about sex: How to live a celibate life, how to focus mind, body and spirit on a calling greater than fleshly desires.

        “We used to call it the black hole of spiritual direction. Now, a lot of that is all in the open,” says the Rev. James Walsh, former director of the Athenaeum of Ohio-Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Mount Washington.

        Times have changed inside the institutions that train the nation's priests.

        As the Roman Catholic church battles a growing sex abuse scandal and a dire shortage of priests, seminaries have taken dramatic shifts in the way they prepare men for priesthood.

        Instead of assuming that priests will easily settle into sex-free lives, seminaries are meeting issues of sex straight on.

        Before they're admitted to the Athenaeum, applicants have to answer explicit questions about their sexual pasts. Once inside, they attend classes on sexual ethics.

        Second-year seminarians focus on celibacy and potential temptations and loneliness. Throughout their five-year training, they discuss their feelings in conversations that are part of their evaluations. They're instructed on how to avoid compromising situations.

        “We are always discussing celibacy and how to deal with it,” says Tony Brausch, 35, who is scheduled to be ordained as a priest next month.

        Academic schedules include sexual candor unheard of 40 or 50 years ago, when there were nearly seven times more students than the 37 attending the Athenaeum today.

        “People may ask why there are still problems with pedophiles,” says Dr. Dean R. Hoge, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he is an expert on the priesthood and seminary training.

        “Well, no system is perfect, but this one is a lot better than it used to be.”


Decades ago

               Thirty or 40 years ago, seminarians faced a strict regimen that more closely resembled routines found in monasteries or military schools.

        Instructors avoided the topic of sex and celibacy altogether. They urged exercise and prayer. They let would-be priests believe that they would stop thinking about sex and intimacy entirely after ordination.

        If a seminarian encountered sexual problems or troubling feelings, he was supposed to speak confidentially with his spiritual adviser, who was another priest.

        At the time, many boys began their training just as they entered their teen-age years. They went to “seminary high schools,” then seminary college and graduate school.

        There are no seminary high schools left in this country; the local seminary high school, St. Gregory, closed in 1969.

        Looking back, older priests say the old ways ill-prepared young men for the rigors and self-doubts that celibacy can bring.

        “We were given a theology manual and were required to memorize it, and that was about it,” says the Rev. Gerald R. Haemmerle, president and rector of the Athenaeum, which is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. “It was just assumed you would be celibate in my day.”

        The Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk, the leader of the archdiocese, acknowledges profound differences between now and then.

        “If a seminarian were presented to me for ordination who had the exact same academic formation I had, I wouldn't ordain him,” he told the Enquirer in a recent interview.

        “He wouldn't be ready.”

        Training reforms began with Vatican II, the three-year conference that ended in 1965 and loosened many church standards. The conference decreed that priests should be better prepared as fully rounded human beings — which over time has included more training for celibacy.


It's different now

               Today, a priest asks a seminary applicant whether he's ever been attracted to children or teen-agers and whether he's gay or straight.

        Applicants face up to eight hours of psychological screening. They're tested for HIV, the AIDS virus, and starting soon, they'll undergo criminal background checks.

        But if they make it past these hurdles, they find that life at the Athenaeum is like campus life at many secular colleges.

        Seminarians wear casual clothes to class and mix with the 200-plus other non-seminary graduate students.

        They're required to live and eat on the beautifully landscaped campus along Beechmont Avenue, but they're also allowed to leave during the week, unlike in years past.

        They own cars, and they frequent Zip's, a well-known hangout in Mount Lookout, for burgers and beers.

        Inside the school's granite halls, seminarians are taught how to deal with inner conflicts over celibacy. They're told to seek out a support structure that could include family, friends or fellow priests — people who would see them as equals, not as pastoral leaders.

        The hope is that such a network will help fill the need for non-sexual intimacy — without which the priesthood can become intensely lonely.

        “We talk about the need to be able to share yourself,” says Martin Fox, 39, a fourth-year seminarian. “And that's what intimacy is all about. A marriage without intimacy but just sex won't survive, either.”

        The Rev. Ed Smith, who directs some instruction at the seminary, says one student recently presented the scenario of a distraught woman calling the rectory late at night, wanting to meet a priest in person. The student was told that he should meet such a woman in a public place, such as a late-night coffee shop.

        Students are advised not to be alone with a child in any circumstance, and not to invite anyone, male or female, who isn't a close friend or family member to their private living quarters.

        “There are all kinds of implications now that weren't there 30 years ago,” Father Smith says. “That's a big part of what they learn here — that transition from a private person to a public person.”

        Before they're ordained, seminarians also serve a one-year internship at a parish, allowing them to see how their vows of celibacy play out in the real world.

        The Diocese of Covington screens would-be priests in similar ways before sending men on to Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago. Mundelein, the nation's largest Roman Catholic seminary, also uses many of the same approaches as the Athenaeum.


Older but wiser?

               Another profound change is the older age of today's seminarians.

        Newly ordained priests today average age 36, compared to 26 in the 1960s. Many seminarians at the Athenaeum once dated women, held jobs, owned homes and businesses.

        Mr. Brausch, a former construction worker from Clarksville, Ohio, owned a contracting firm that won an award in the 1989 Homearama display of local houses.

        Another seminarian, Dan Schuh, is a 50-year-old widower with two grown children and four grandchildren.

        “The celibacy issue certainly is one that I had to deal with when I entered, and I wondered about it,“ says Mr. Schuh, a fourth-year student who formerly managed a Kroger grocery store in suburban Dayton.

        “After all, I was in a wonderful marriage and have experienced sex. But I feel that I've been called to be a priest, and I feel that my life experience will help me relate to others even better.”

        School officials say the age shift will limit the men's years of service, but that it will make them even better priests.

        Their apparent maturity makes them ideal candidates to review each other's behavior, church officials say. Not only are seminarians under constant scrutiny from their instructors, but a peer review is now part of the evaluation system.

        And students say they would have no qualms about raising concerns with school officials and each other if someone began acting inappropriately.

        “There's a realization that we will all be peers out there, and if you screw up, you tarnish the image for everyone,” says Tom McCarthy, 31, a first-year, pre-theology student. “There is a lot of policing within the classes themselves.”


First and final filter

               Current and former seminary leaders say a few students, over the years, have been asked to leave the Athenaeum because of “sexually inappropriate behavior.”

        Father Walsh says he personally dealt with two such cases, but neither he nor the other church leaders would elaborate.

        Athenaeum officials do say that greater understanding of sexual pitfalls, increased scrutiny of behavior and smaller class sizes all make it harder for potential problem priests to hide.

        “This is probably the worst place for anyone to try and keep a secret,” says Mr. Fox, the fourth-year student.

        “It's important that people who might apply to the seminary know that they shouldn't have any skeletons rattling around in the closet, because they will be found.”


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