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Seminarian Testament #1: Peter Stine
EDITOR'S NOTE: In November, I put out a call for statements from priests, ex-seminarians, and ex-seminary staff. I think we, the laity, need to assess what exactly is going on in Catholic seminaries, both good and bad, and this is a space where I'll allow people who have been there to say whatever they feel needs saying. Here is one such person. Thank you to Peter for sending me this. --JJH
Vere dico vobis
by Peter Stine
I am a faithful, orthodox Catholic, who only wants the best for the Church as she grapples with the latest wave of the sexual abuse crisis. Thanks to the most recent revelations, we now know this crisis spread to the seminaries decades ago and festered there for a generation. I have been in seminary recently, and many people have asked me what my experience in seminary was like. Is there still a culture of homosexuality? Is the culture of secrecy and clericalism still in place? I believe that I may be able to shed some light on these questions.
I am not a victim of the sexual attentions of any priest or prelate. However, I did witness (and experience) the abuse of clerical power. In fact, I was drummed out of the seminary because of it.
You may say that I, therefore, have an axe to grind with the Church and so anything that I say about the current situation is tainted and should be paid no heed. I cannot pretend that I am not angry, but I shall do my best to tell you the truth, uncolored by my feelings. You will have to decide whether or not I succeed. I am going to use the actual names of the people and places involved, not because I am seeking a vendetta, but because I believe we must break the Church's habit of cloaking serious problems in shadow and innuendo. I do not hate the Church; I love her. However, we must distinguish between the Church as infallible Divine Institution and the sinful human beings—myself included—who imperfectly serve her.
Why am I writing this now and not earlier? Part of it has to do with the fact that I believe that the hierarchy is focusing on the consequences of the abuses, rather than the environment that allowed them to flourish. They seek quick fixes when only systemic reform will help. Another reason is that to write some of this requires that I dig up parts of my past that I would rather not face, as they are extremely painful. And, yes, a lot of my hesitancy comes from the simple fear that, if I release this, I will be permanently censured and forbidden from applying to any seminary ever again. I firmly believe that priesthood is what the Lord wants for me, but I have absolutely no faith in the current, human, institutional part of the Church to act justly in this regard.
And yet…. Si Deus quoddam vult, fiet. I have avoided writing this for a very long time, but it has come back to me repeatedly. This time, when my friend James asked to tell him about my experience in seminary, I said yes. I pray that this is what the Lord wishes.
Having both qualified and discredited myself, let us proceed.
When people ask about the seminary in light of the abuse crisis, the main questions they ask are about homosexuality and clericalism. Many say that the abuse crisis was precipitated by one or the other. I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. There is some truth to both claims and both, to varying degrees, are currently present within the Church.
By "homosexuality," I do not mean those who struggle with attraction to the same sex. I mean clerics who engage in homosexual intercourse or who violate Catholic teaching by promoting the homosexual lifestyle as something that is good. I did not encounter this in the seminaries that I went to. I believe others who say they have, but I personally had little exposure to it. However, since it is something so many people ask about, I will say what I have seen.
In my college seminary, St. John Vianney in St. Paul, MN, we had some talks about homosexuality, thanks to the political turmoil surrounding Minnesota's 2012 marriage referendum, and, of course, we encountered it as an academic topic in our classes.
There were also some residual effects from a necessary course correction. A pernicious homosexual sub-culture had grown up there in the '80s and '90s. I wasn't there at the time, but I heard about it and you can read about it. In the '00s, the new regime, under Fr. Bill Baer, decided to make the men of SJV into "real men," not the kinder, gentler, "feminized" men who were idealized when the seminary was more influenced by homosexuality. This culture shift was a very important change, and Fr. Baer and the faculty had to fight very hard for their reforms. With that said, however, there were some unfortunate consequences. There arose an idea that there was the ideal seminarian, the “Vianney man,” who exemplified all the "masculine" virtues. Every seminarian was expected to strive to perfectly emulate this mythical "Vianney man." It got to the point where the ideal man was the “manly” man who dressed classily, smoked pipes or cigars, read and quoted Chesterton and Newman, and always had “intentional” conversations—basically, a classy, Catholic lumberjack-hipster. While I have no issues with setting ideals for everyone to work toward, the problem arises when it becomes idolized to such an extent that there is no room for variation.
This is a classic example of the “cookie-cutter” mentality, where all men who enter a program are supposed to exit being exactly the same, with the same goals, the same likes, the same views, and so forth. While there is something to be said for having a unified vision—after all, priests are all conformed to the same Person—there needs to be some flexibility built in for the extremely wide spectrum of human existence and experience. While it is true that a priest should be open to be called to minister to all men at any time, each man is born with certain skills that no other has. Those skills may be needed to reach a certain group at a certain time that others would not reach or not reach very well. To deny that is to limit the priest to skills that we deem necessary and important rather than allowing the Lord to call whomever He decides. This cookie-cutter mentality was on its way out when I was at Vianney; I like to think that I had some influence in that, as I railed against it often, but, regardless, it was starting to even out.
While others have said plenty of things against St. John Vianney, this was really the only major thing that I had issue with and I think St. John Vianney remains one of, perhaps the, best college seminary in the United States.
At my other seminary, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI, there seemed to be something going on involving homosexuality, although I could not pin anything down.
An illustration: one day, there was a surprise general formation meeting, which all the theologians were required to attend, where the vice-rector, Fr. Gerard Battersby (now aux. bishop in Detroit), asked us to wear more clothing on our way to the shower, instead of just a towel, because it was a source of temptation for our brothers who had same-sex attraction. This was brought up as an “act of charity.” Which I suppose it can be, but I’m not sure that was the wisest way to approach the issue. I was entirely unaware of this situation up to this point, and I didn’t hear much more of it after this. This event was covered by some smaller Catholic news outlets, but I don’t think anything came of it.
The other thing people ask me about, clericalism, is a bit harder to pin down. This, I believe, is because "clericalism" has been used as a generically negative label for things people don't like about the Church hierarchy for so long that the meaning of the word has become a little bit muddy. I have seen three distinct species of clericalism, but only one of them seems to be at the heart of the problem.
First, there is the clericalism that assumes the priest is the ultimate authority and needs to be served by the laity. You may think this attitude is not very common outside the medieval church and (arguably) certain traditionalist Catholic communities. But this spirit sometimes manifests itself today in a belief that the priest "must" be around to lead the charge on everything in the life of his parish. In this view, the common parishioner cannot start a program or ministry without a priest being the one who champions it or comes up with the idea. I have seen this expressed by bishops, priests, and the laity, and I find it both demeaning to the laity and unreasonable for the priest—but it is not the central problem.
Second, there is the clericalism that turns all lay people into clerics. This is most common in “liberal” places where the lines between priest and lay are so blurred that you can have lay people doing many things, up to and including the Eucharistic Prayer. I don’t think this one is terribly common, at least in its extreme form.
Third, there is the clericalism that I believe poses the greatest danger: the use of clerical authority to gain some personal benefit, be that a simple lording of authority over others, telling everyone to dance to your tune or get out, or pressuring people to do what you want because you are a cleric and thus, you must have divine authority to which all must listen and obey. I have, unfortunately, experienced this directly. I suspect my experiences are a microcosm of a larger issue that pervades the Church.
I entered major seminary at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, excited and full of hope for the next four years. I had just come off of a great four years at St. John Vianney and, with the full support of Vianney and my diocese, was looking forward to the growth and learning ahead. Shortly afterward, however, things started to change. Basically, I was having difficulty adjusting to the environment at Sacred Heart. The place is built like a prison. There is a wall, security guards, and somebody was actually murdered a block over. The atmosphere among the students was not very open; it was extremely clique-ish and very difficult to break into. It was a very lonely time. That and I wasn’t really learning anything new... St. John Vianney and the University of St. Thomas’ Philosophy department did an excellent job in preparing me for Master of Divinity studies.
This may seem to you like the ordinary struggles of a new student in a new place. But after disclosing my challenges in a tearful formation meeting, I was suddenly "asked" to set up and attend counseling sessions with an outside psychologist. (As is sometimes the case in seminary, the “asking” was in the same sense, and in the same spirit, as when an Army drill sergeant "asks" you to run some laps.) Being an obedient son, I did as they instructed. But I also asked why they thought this necessary. When they declined to answer, I told them it was unreasonable not to give reasons for their requests. I think that kind of honesty is important in a truly formative relationship in part because it respects the rationality and personhood of the seminarian involved.
At the end of the year, every seminarian is given an evaluation by his formator (priest-overseer, basically) and then is interviewed by the head faculty. My formator, Fr. Stephen Burr (now vice-rector for SHMS), went over my evaluation with me a week before the interview. I had some issues with some things that he said and I pointed them out as being inaccurate. He assured me that he would edit it and that I had nothing to worry about. I found out later that not only did he not change those things, he inserted worse accusations.
Then the interview itself came around, and I was grilled with questions that had to do with my personality and whether or not they felt I could minister based on my personality “handicaps.” All the priests involved—Msgr. Todd Lajiness, Fr. Gerard Battersby, Fr. Daniel Jones, Fr. Stephen Burr, and Fr. Timothy Laboe—asked questions such as whether I knew what I didn’t know (that was Fr. Jones’ question) and whether or not I had Asperger’s syndrome (Fr. Battersby). After all of this, one of the priests (I believe, Fr. Battersby) asked if there was anyone whom I trusted. I, of course, listed some of my friends and family, but pointedly didn’t name anyone in that room as their behavior had made me extremely uncomfortable. I only mention this as there has been much talk about how the seminary needs to be a place of trust; this particular one was not. The whole exercise seemed to only be a setup for failure and there was definitely a palpable hostility in the room. I felt that I knew their decision once I left that room.
Sure enough, a few weeks later (Tuesday of Holy Week to be precise), I was called into the vice-rector’s office and informed that I would not be continuing. I asked for a reason and the vice-rector, Fr. Battersby, refused to give me one. Even when I asked what it was that they were looking for, for a description of what I lacked, or what improvement would look like, he simply said that he didn’t know. Added to that, they refused to contact the counselor whom I had been seeing for the past 6 months at their request. When I asked why they hadn’t, Fr. Battersby told me that they didn’t have a release. I told him that they simply could have asked me for it; to which he responded that I was right, they could have… and he left it at that.
So, the staff of Sacred Heart saw themselves as so fully competent in making decisions about my psychological state—a field in which none of them had a degree—that they thought it completely unnecessary to contact the professional that they put me in therapy with.
My bishop, Earl Boyea, had earlier told me that the Church needed to use and believe all the scientific tools that she had at her disposal (he used this as an excuse to postpone my entrance to seminary six years prior to this). It’s interesting how he then went along with this lack of the use of a scientific professional to get the result that he apparently wanted. Fr. Battersby also told me that their judgement was based mostly on a “gut feeling” that some faculty member had apparently had about me on my somewhat confusing arrival day. It seems that “gut feelings” are very important, as the formation priests did not seem to make any concerted effort to get to know the seminarians, unlike the priests at St. John Vianney.
I won’t drag all the sordid details out, mainly because it would take too long, but suffice it to say that no matter how many times I pointed out errors in the evaluation, inconsistencies in the reasoning, or the complete apparent lack of empathy or desire for me to improve as a person by their dogged refusal to tell me what they saw as lacking, I was ignored or told that they had heard that I had said these things to another priest. Even after I—along with my vocations director— had met with the counselor, the diocese dismissed me without any further explanation. A few months later, the vocations director, Fr. John Linden, told me that I could not re-apply because they had let me go in the way that incurred canonical censure for two years. I told him that I would wait and even attempted to show him that I was striving for self-improvement. None of this mattered, as he repeatedly told me that every conversation was the first time I had been truly honest with him. I said that I was angry and hurt that I had not been shown even a little mercy (especially as it was the year of mercy at that time), but the only response I got to that was that I needed to forgive those who had wronged me, that I needed to have mercy on them, and I needed to be a better Christian.
Later, after the two-year period had passed, I broached the subject of re-application and was told that I was “trying to jump through hoops” and was still not honest with myself or the vocations director. I was also informed that parishioners of the parish where I was currently serving had told him that I was not improving and was now a terrible candidate for the priesthood. He would not tell me who his sources were and told me that all I should do is listen. Then, he proceeded to tell me that the diocese would not have me back, insinuating a very strong “never” because I remained the problem. I did attempt to corroborate his claim of parishioners speaking ill of me; with the help of the pastor and some other trusted parishioners, I was unable to find any evidence of that occurring. In fact, the only things I uncovered were the exact opposite.
Lest you believe that I am a unique case, there are two other incidents—involving the same seminary faculty and diocesan personnel— that I will address briefly. The very next year, another young man who had moved from St. John Vianney to Sacred Heart was accused of lying about some internet usage. He showed them exactly what he had done – immediately passing by a lewd picture that had appeared as an ad – but they insisted (based on a very finicky monitoring software) that he was lying to them, so they kicked him out. He had no recourse and, despite the fact that he had never lied before (and was not lying then), they decided that he was now morally deficient and could no longer remain in the seminary.
Another man was dismissed over something that had happened in his first year of theology (he was in his third year, having done two years of philosophy before this) that he had been told wasn’t a big deal. He was even told after his second-year evaluation by Fr. Jones that he “couldn’t imagine a better evaluation.” However, after his third year, right before diaconate ordination, they brought up that one incident of anger and sent him away for a "pastoral year" at a parish. Then the pastor there (now a bishop) took a disliking to this seminarian and found a way to get this man dismissed in a way that insinuated to the entire diocese that something had been brought up that prevented him from licitly receiving orders. This meant that his dismissal followed the publishing of the diaconate ordination banns in the diocese-wide publications. After that happened, Fr. Linden again insisted (quite angrily, I might add) that the problem was not the seminary or the pastor, but the problem was the seminarian and that he should do some deep introspection to see how he had failed in the situation rather than point out the injustice of the situation. Interestingly enough, this seminarian was also asked to go for counseling and the formators, bishop, and vocations’ director once again refused to consult the counselor or ask for a release from the seminarian.
These may seem to you like mere personal disputes—trivialities in the grand scheme of the Church. And perhaps they are. Yet, as we struggle to come to grips with the abuse of clerical power for the purposes of sexual improprieties, I believe that we need to be aware that the entire institutional Church is systematically configured in a way that gives clerics absolute power and prevents them from facing any accountability for abusing it. That has consequences everywhere, both in small matters, like my struggle to live the life I believe Christ is calling me to, and in much larger ones, like the systematic abuse of thousands of children and seminarians covered up for decades by complicit priests, bishops, and cardinals. As the cliché goes: absolute power corrupts absolutely. The men who run Sacred Heart Seminary, no matter their good intentions, saw themselves as divinely appointed arbiters of God’s wisdom. They believed that anything that didn’t conform to their understanding of the Lord—even in mere matters of taste—was not only mistaken, but actually contrary to God’s Will. Because they “hear from the Holy Spirit,” they believe they have the final say on anything, even to the point where they think they can tell you what movies you should like and what kind of car you should drive. They see themselves as the good guys, so they believe it is next to impossible for there to be anything wrong with anything that they are doing. Unless they come to the realization on their own that they are human and can err, no amount of outside influence will change that view.
Ironically, these same individuals and others like them in power are those that will reference and quote people like St. Augustine, St. Ignatius of Loyola, or St. Francis of Assisi. “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, He can work through anyone.” Yet, when it comes to trusting in the Lord that He calls whom He desires, they fall back on their own understanding of what the priesthood should be, rather than allowing for some variation. I find this terribly confusing as some of our greatest saints were those who were seen to be “outside the box” for their time. I am convinced that we have lost some very good men whom God called but who had "personality conflicts" with those in charge, and so were not just sent by the wayside and expelled... but told that it was entirely our fault. The technical term for this is "gaslighting."
Pope Francis has been speaking along these lines recently as well, which alarms me greatly. He speaks of accusations against abusers and their protectors as works of Satan, saying that we cannot accuse anyone but ourselves. These are almost identical to the lines I heard from Fr. Linden. If we cannot accuse others because we only have the right to accuse ourselves, then there would be no justice in this world, and really no mercy, as we could not recognize that which requires either of them. Also, if one is unwilling to accuse oneself, then how does another aid that soul towards salvation? We must face our own wrongs, yes; however, helping others towards salvation is our duty through baptism. To ignore it out of a false sense of profound wretchedness is completely incongruous with what it means to be Christian. This would also remove the Church’s ability and moral imperative to chastise the sinner so that he may repent.
Does this mean that there aren’t good men in the priesthood or episcopacy—men who don’t abuse their power? No. Not all priests that I have encountered have manifested this general horridness. One priest—Fr. Joseph Krupp—one of my great friends, is a prime example of what a good priest looks like. His focus is on God’s people, he cares for them sacramentally and does not lord his authority over them. His attitude towards the parish is that it is the laity’s first; he is just a steward who is caring for it for a time. As he puts it: “This is their home, I’m just passing through.” He has others help with all of the ministries of the parish. If someone wants to start a program, they run it by him, but he does not have to be the one who invents it or put his own spin on it. When it comes to finances and other decisions, Fr. Krupp usually goes along with the decisions of the parish or financial council since he recognizes that they know more about these sorts of things than he does. There are other elements, including his very apparent love for Jesus Christ, but suffice it to say, Fr. Krupp is a pastor and a priest first and an administrator somewhere past second.
There are plenty like Fr. Krupp who are good, humble, faithful priests. So, I’m not suggesting that we need to constantly second-guess our priests’ motivations or actions, but we should be aware that priests are humans just like the rest of us who are susceptible to the same foibles. After all, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
So, those are the problems as I see them. I won’t sugar-coat it: things are not good. That is not to say that there are not good men coming out of the seminary system, but as it stands right now, there are no structures in place to check the arbitrary use of power to remove seminarians for no apparent reason nor with the need to give a reason that is accepted by both parties involved.
What is the solution? That is a far trickier issue, but I won’t simply leave this as a condemnation without at least a suggestion of how to move forward; no one is helped by that. First, let me be clear, we don’t need more policies, policies are not the issue; people are the issue. We need bishops, cardinals, rectors, etc. who are men “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and are held accountable. Particularly that they are willing to be held accountable. So, the solution as I see it – for the leadership, at least – is to start holding each other accountable, perhaps by implementing a group of priests (not bishops) and lay Catholics who are able to ask the necessary questions when problems arise and act as some sort of system for appeal against a bishop. We can still have cases go to the Pope, as that is proper in a hierarchical system, but in the principle of subsidiarity, the local churches should try to deal with it first. In the American system, at least, there must be lay involvement as the bishops have proven themselves incapable of self-regulation.
Another thing that must be part of the solution is having our leaders spend time being pastors. They must “smell like the sheep” as Pope Francis puts it. Many bishops and faculty at seminaries (like Sacred Heart) have had no pastoral experience. Yes, they have served as associate pastors for a few years, but then they were moved on to “bigger and better” things. They believe themselves competent to teach other men how to be pastors (and judge their worthiness to do so) all the while having next to no experience in it themselves. They need that experience in order to impart the wisdom that it engenders.
As for the sexual issues… Those bishops who are guilty of those acts or complicit in their silence should make public acts of reparation and penance. Public sin requires a public penance. This was common in the early Church and should probably be brought back to aid in the “cleansing of the temple.” That must involve public apologies and concrete action. This will vary depending on the bishop and the severity of the crime. We cannot issue blanket condemnations or punishments because circumstance needs to be taken into account. But for the worst ones, I would suggest immediate resignation and retirement to a Trappist or Carthusian monastery, preferably a remote one in the mountains. This may seem extreme, but these are severe, public sins that require severe penances. The reason it needs to be a penance is that these men are not just apologizing to their victims, they are also apologizing to us, their flock, to the Church herself, their bride, and to Jesus Christ, their Lord, to whom they are conformed sacramentally and whose name and authority they have sullied by their actions. God willing, these penances will bring about true repentance and aid in the redemption of these men’s souls.
Some may clamor that we need to have mercy on these men. I agree that mercy needs to come into this situation, but as St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution. Justice without mercy is cruelty.” (Super Matthaeum, Cap. V, l. 2.) We need justice to be shown so that the bishops and we take the situation with the gravity it requires. That doesn’t mean that we do it impassively; we are all human and recognize that each and every one of us can fail, but sometimes, the most merciful thing to do is to punish somebody so that they can repent and reform.
There are several solutions that people are tossing about when it comes to helping priests. They include: longer assignments, having lay people – especially women – more involved in formation, living in community, more lay administration, amongst others. While I think some of these may have some merit, I would like to propose that a solution for the new priests coming up would be to have more focus on the pastoral and less on the administrative. This connects in a way with what I have been saying about clericalism. If the priest is not under the impression that he has to run everything or come in and be a CEO who is aloof from the people (especially his staff), then I think that he will function better. Most priests simply want to be with their flock, to administer the sacraments (I know that’s what attracts me to it). To trade that for finance meetings or other more mundane elements – however important they may be – is, honestly, a waste of material. The priest is ordained to serve the people of God sacramentally. So, by freeing up the priest from some of these meetings, you allow him to engage in those things that are important for the salvation of souls. It would allow for things like more times for the sacrament of reconciliation or more of an open schedule to meet with needy parishioners. This is actually what the early Church did in the book of Acts when they ordained the first deacons; their purpose was to focus on the more mundane issues so that the Apostles could focus on preaching. This doesn’t mean that the priest should cede all control to the laity, that would also be counter-productive. However, there needs to be a system of checks and balances in place. What exactly that would look like I cannot say, but there must be a way.
Regarding seminaries themselves, there are systems in place already to keep unsavory characters out of the priesthood, so I don’t think those need to change. However, I believe that there needs to be better treatment from those in authority for those who are currently studying and for those that they dismiss. I have observed (particularly in the cases that I have explicated above) that often a man is treated like a number going through a system. Not very much care is taken for the man as a person. This reflects back to the cookie-cutter mentality where men are not taken and developed to be who they are meant to be by God but are rather taken from an assumed base-line and forced to an end goal by those who “know” what the man is supposed to be. There especially needs to be better treatment for those who are dismissed. In these cases – and others – a man is dismissed with no regard for how it will affect him spiritually, emotionally, or personally. The man is often treated as a pariah for some time after his dismissal. But, we are expected to deal with it and suck it up, since, after all, we are the problem. This is potentially disastrous as this can not only ruin a man at a personal and emotional level—especially since many of these dismissals are at a personal level—but can destroy a man’s faith. I have seen this. It is a terrible thing to behold and is made that much more despicable as it is perpetrated by priests. There must be a system through which, those men who have been unjustly treated can appeal in order to have any instances of slander, libel, defamation of character, emotional or psychological trauma, but most importantly damages to faith rectified.
In conclusion, the shock that we Catholics have received over the past months has been the revelation of corruption in the very hierarchy; those whom we thought we could trust. This is a complete betrayal of the Church. But the abuse of power that is at the root of this issue goes much farther than just sexual predation. The Bishops and others in positions of authority need to give an accounting for themselves, repent, and open the seminary system so that it can be purified of this self-perpetuating system. This is especially imperative if we wish to be able to ordain larger numbers of priests as the current cohort dwindles. I leave the issue of homosexuality to those who have more experience with it than I. But as for clericalism: if there ever was a time for it to die a swift death, it is now. Regardless of the outcome, it must all be brought into the light; for as our Lord says: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3)
Fiat voluntas tua, Domine!