|Many of Seminary's
Grads Can't Fathom Abuse
By Steven G. Vegh
September 1, 2002
Yearbook photos from a quarter-century ago portray a cheerful, intimate boarding school where mop-haired teenage boys studied, played and worshipped under the guidance of live-in priests.
Jump shots on the basketball court, amateur thespians posturing on stage, candid shots of teachers at work in the classroom; a safe haven.
Each image of normal, happy times at St. John Vianney Seminary helps explain the astonishment among alumni of the former Catholic high school as they try to make sense of allegations that their classmates were sexually abused by priests who were their teachers.
In the 1978 yearbook, the Rev. Julian B. Goodman, a quiet, gifted music teacher, is a picture of concentration at the keyboard as he directs a rehearsal.
A shot from one book captures the Rev. Steven "Randy" Rule, a history teacher, handsome in a school letter jacket and looking nearly as young as some students.
Then there are the pictures of the Rev. John E. Leonard, a charismatic leader and inspiring drama coach who was principal of the Goochland County high school for 10 years. Thirty-something at the time, his hair in a Beatles-style fringe cut, Leonard appears as comfortable in a crew-neck sweater and slacks as he does in liturgical vestments.
This is the school that alumni of St. John Vianney, which closed in 1978, remember with fondness. Not the one that suddenly surfaced in the headlines this summer:
- Goodman was permanently barred from ministry by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond last month after admitting that he sexually abused a boy at Vianney from 1976 to 1978.
- Rule was placed on leave from his Roanoke parish a week ago while the diocese investigates an allegation that he abused a student as a faculty member at Vianney.
- Leonard is under criminal investigation in connection with allegations that he sexually abused students. At least five men who attended Vianney have made such accusations.
- An investigative team appointed by the diocese to review the Leonard allegations reported that up to four Vianney priests had been cited in connection with abuse and that the Leonard case could be the "tip of the iceberg."
Seeing Vianney repeatedly portrayed as a venue of abuse has astonished and dejected alumni such as Guy A. Wolf.
"It's four years I wouldn't trade for anything," said Wolf, a 1978 graduate who lives in Virginia Beach. He had close ties with Goodman as well as Leonard, who was his spiritual director. "I didn't have any problems with either one."
Rick Powell of Norfolk remembers Vianney as "a nice place," even though he left in his senior year in 1971 rather than cut his hair as short as the school required at the time.
Powell is sure he'd have heard rumors if a classmate had been abused by any of the priests who taught and lived at the school. "They lived in a fish bowl," he said.
Yet Powell also said he has known one of Leonard's accusers, Thor Gormley, since grade school. "I have no doubt of the veracity of what Thor says. He's telling the truth."
Mark A. Hoggard, class of 1975, said the spiritual mentoring at his alma mater is the reason he is now minister of worship at St. Therese parish in Chesapeake. "I'm definitely who I am today because of St. John's," he said.
Hoggard wonders how to explain the Vianney abuse allegations, not just to himself but to the parishioners he leads.
"I know everybody involved, and I guess the hard part for me is trying to make sense out of it all," he said. "What do you tell people when they ask?"
[Photo Captions: 1) The Rev. John E. Leonard, left, was principal at St. John Vianney Seminary. The Rev. Julian B. Goodman, right, was a music teacher there. Students have accused both of sexual abuse. Goodman is now barred from the ministry. 2) Opened in 1960 west of Richmond, St. John Vianney Seminary started as a high school for would-be priests. Photo Vasna Wilson / The Virginian-Pilot. 3) Rick Powell of Norfolk left St. John Vianney Seminary in his senior year in 1971 rather than have his hair cut short as the school required at the time. Powell says, however, that he's sure he'd have heard rumors if a classmate had been abused. "They lived in a fish bowl," he says. 4) The Rev. Julian B. Goodman, shown in a 1977 yearbook from St. John Vianney Seminary, was a quiet, gifted music teacher. 5) The Rev. John E. Leonard, shown in the 1978 yearbook of St. John Vianney Seminary, was principal for 10 years and producer of its plays. 6) The Rev. Steven "Randy" Rule, pictured in a 1975 yearbook from St. John Vianney Seminary, is on leave from his Roanoke parish pending a diocese investigation of an allegation that he abused a student at Vianney. 7) The Rev. John E. Leonard, pictured in St. John Vianney Seminary's 1975 yearbook, is under criminal investigation in connection with allegations that he sexually abused students. At least five men who attended Vianney have made such accusations. 8) Bruce Jeter is among former students who have accused priests at St. John Vianney Seminary in Goochland of sexual abuse. 9) A half-mile driveway along woodsy River Road brought students at St. John Vianney Seminary to the main building and its jutting chapel.]
In 1959, there were about 30 "minor seminaries" on the East Coast - but none in the Diocese of Richmond - when Bishop John J. Russell ordered the founding of St. John Vianney (named for a 19th century French saint). Like the other seminary high schools, Vianney aimed to educate boys and prime them to enter the priesthood.
The Rev. Chester P. Michael, now retired in Afton, was tapped to organize the seminary. Working frenetically, Michael supervised campus construction, personally visited every parochial school in the diocese, and recruited 80 eighth-graders interested in the priesthood.
The school Michael ultimately created occupied some 40 acres in rural Goochland, about a half-hour's drive west of Richmond.
A half-mile driveway, branching off of River Road, passed athletic fields before depositing students and visitors at the heart of the campus. A nearby pond was off-limits for swimming, but teens in contemplative moods could ramble in the woods, and the James River was a 20-minute walk away.
The school's center of gravity was its three-story main building, which contained the entire community: gym and rec room in the lower level, classrooms and dining hall on the floor above, with living space on the top floor.
The building formed an "E," with an extra leg: the chapel, a round extension that looked, as one alumnus put it, like "a spaceship with a crucifix sticking out the top." But at night, lit from within, the chapel's stained-glass windows were beautiful.
Most minor seminaries were still bastions of traditionalism when Vianney opened. But as founder and rector, Michael had his own plans.
While seminaries elsewhere treated students as childlike priests-in-training, Michael's ambition was to mold "balanced, mature men - and then they could decide whether they should go into the priesthood."
To reach his goal, Michael supplemented the standard academic curriculum. Sunday breakfast, for example, was not just a meal but a time for readings of secular as well as religious poetry and literature. Departing from the "grand silence" that was supposed to prevail overnight, Michael played a few minutes of Mozart and Beethoven over the public-address system each evening and morning, to instill a love of music.
His philosophy was too liberal for the times - the impact of the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council was still a few years off - and for Russell. The bishop replaced Michael in 1963, and Vianney became the sort of traditional minor seminary that Russell himself had attended.
Graduates and staff from the mid-'60s remember a disciplined, regimented school with distinctly formal relations between teacher and student.
"Some of the faculty members were not really trusting of the kids, and they'd spy on them to catch them breaking a rule," recalled the Rev. Thomas Nee, who taught Latin and now is retired in Virginia Beach. Infractions were punished with demerits that students could erase only by doing physical chores - one hour of work per demerit.
By the spring of 1968, the rigid format was not only unpopular with students, but a threat to Vianney's existence. Too many boys were quitting after their freshman year.
Russell's antidote was to replace the faculty almost completely with priests who were in step with both the liberal trends in society and the egalitarianism sweeping through Catholicism after Vatican II.
"It was a different spirit altogether," said Nee, the only priest retained in the transition.
Under the new leadership, with Leonard as principal, rules were no longer arbitrarily imposed upon students. Instead, each year started with a faculty-student discussion of what the school's guidelines ought to be.
"We felt we could speak our mind about issues, and that was new," said Roanoke's Tom Magri, a 1971 graduate who called the changes "liberating."
Under the new regime, the boys were no longer required to wake at the crack of dawn, and the "grand silence" was abolished. Upperclassmen could smoke, and even freshmen could light up with a permission slip from their parents.
Students, who began voting annually on their own dress code, wore ties in class, but the priests often taught in casual clothes instead of a clerical shirt and Roman collar.
Compared to their predecessors, the new priests were less interested in policing teenagers and more generous with personal insights that went beyond academics. "There was a little more sharing, on an equal level, of life experience, jokes," Magri said.
The new administration's ambition, though, was not just a relaxed campus. Imbued with Vatican II's emphasis on the importance of an active laity, the priests encouraged a Kennedy-style "what can you do for your church" Catholicism. Under their lead, Vianney added faith in action to religion by rote.
"Mass wouldn't be a faceless hour or two on Sunday. They had themes, and they'd construct special performances and music," said Mark Daigle, class of 1977.
One such service focused on Native American rites. Leonard tied the the rituals to the Gospel, and students complemented the theme with dance and role-playing, Daigle recalled.
In a carry-over from the old system, each student was assigned a priest as his spiritual director. Meeting as often as weekly or as seldom as every couple of months, a boy and priest might talk about homesickness, performance in class or anything else on a teenager's mind. Each director would also pray with the student and perform the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.
Religious vocations were regarded as a choice rather than an expectation, Daigle said. "They weren't beating you over the head with a stick saying, 'You must be a priest.' "
As a new student in 1974, Wolf lived with his entire freshman class in a single dormitory. It was an ample space, with about 40 beds in rows and lockers for the boys' belongings. Sophomores and juniors likewise had their dormitories. Only seniors enjoyed the privacy of space that came with just one or two roommates.
Life was ordered. Students rose at 7 a.m., attended chapel or morning prayer at 7:30 a.m., and were at breakfast in the refectory about 15 minutes later. Each table sat six to eight boys, an intentional mix of all grade levels, eating meals prepared by the Poor Sisters of St. Joseph, an order of South American nuns whose vocation was to seminaries. Freshmen and sophomores took turns serving the meals and waiting tables.
Morning classes followed at 8:30 a.m., some taught by the priests, others by a handful of off-campus lay teachers such as Mary Theobald, who taught French at Vianney in 1977-78.
"They were easy to teach, very, because they were so well-behaved, anxious to behave," Theobald said of Vianney students. "They were good kids - they didn't do anything kids do today."
Wolf recalled teachers who stoked student achievement by encouragement rather than competition. "You knew they cared, so you cared."
Mandatory singing, or "house practice," was held at 11:30 a.m.
"They'd get the whole school together and practice music for the liturgy," Hoggard said. "It was like a whole congregation singing four-part harmony."
After lunch and chapel at noon, the dozen faculty resumed teaching in the afternoon - though not every boy had to attend. Those with an "A" average could skip classes, knowing that if their grades slipped they'd be yanked back behind a desk. The curriculum was straightforward: English, Latin and foreign languages, history, religion, math, sciences. Electives included typing and economics.
Come midafternoon, Vianney's boys dropped their books for varsity sports (playing as the "Deacons"), intramural athletics, walks in the woods or club meetings.
And there were always rehearsals for the Vianney Players, the theater group that staged "Child's Play," "Glory be to God" and other dramas, all under Leonard's supervision. Some productions, such as "A Christmas Carol," involved nearly the entire school.
Chapel preceded dinner, a meal at which attendance was mandatory, since it was the venue for all-school announcements by the administration. Also compulsory was the after-meal work period in which students did KP, or swept, mopped and cleaned the school for 40 minutes. In retrospect, most alumni say the labor gave them a respect for hard work.
A two-hour study hall followed, although honor students were excepted. All-school night prayer in the chapel came next. The Vianney day ended with lights-out at 10 p.m.
Living seven days a week in a rural boarding school with 150 other guys would seem a recipe for cabin fever, but Wolf said that wasn't so. There was a recreation area with a television, pinball machines and pool tables. Occasionally, feature-length films were shown.
Seniors could have cars on campus. "There were a lot of escapades as far as people getting out and about to parties and so on," Wolf said.
School vans with students at the wheel went to the movies or shopping malls in Richmond every day. Once a month, buses would take boys home to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia for a weekend visit.
There were also all-school jaunts to Broadway road shows in Richmond, and spiritual directors took their students on group retreats off campus. Wolf went on several in Virginia Beach at a house in Sandbridge; who the owner was, he doesn't know.
If measured by the enduring friendships, spiritual awareness and care for community that it nurtured in 18 years, Vianney was a success.
By the criteria of Diocese of Richmond leaders, however, it fell short.
The school took pride in the graduates who became priests, but that proportion dwindled almost to nothing among graduates of the later '70s.
Although enrollment was steady, Vianney could not survive without the $100,000 each in annual subsidies it got from the Richmond Diocese and the new Diocese of Arlington that formed in Northern Virginia in 1974. Neither diocese could afford the expenditure.
There was also speculation that Arlington's conservative leadership would deem Vianney too liberal and cut off support.
Most significant, however, was the consensus that schools like Vianney were outmoded. Across the country, the idea of boarding teens together week after week in an all-male seminary was increasingly seen as incompatible with their psychological needs, said the Rev. James E. Parke, pastor of Church of the Ascension in Virginia Beach.
On these grounds, the Richmond Diocese's priests council, which Parke headed, its lay pastoral council and Bishop Walter F. Sullivan agreed to close Vianney in 1978.
Sexual misconduct was never mentioned as an issue, Parke said. "There was never a hint there was unhealthiness going on there."
But was there? About a half-dozen former students who have accused Rule and Leonard say "yes." And, Goodman has admitted he abused one student.
Some alumni still find it all hard to believe.
Vianney was "like a small town," Daigle said - everyone knew each other, and about each other.
Students and priests lived in such close quarters that it would be impossible for abuse to stay secret, he said.
"Their apartments were right next to the dorms, on the same hallway," he said of the priests' suites. From door to door, "they were probably 10 feet, maybe 10 yards, from any kid."
Bruce Jeter, a former student, said that several times Leonard woke him in the dormitory after lights-out and brought him back to the priest's rooms, where abuse then occurred.
Daigle doesn't accept the story. Plenty of students remained awake and chatted after bedtime, he said, and they'd have seen any priest who entered the dormitory.
On the other hand, several accusers other than Jeter have said they were abused when they met Leonard for spiritual counseling or at his request. Incidents allegedly occurred in Leonard's suite and his office, late in the evening. Alumnus James Kronzer said he was abused by Goodman in the priest's rooms.
Vianney graduates all agree that each priest had a handful of teacher's pets, favorite students whom their peers labeled "licks," or brown-nosers.
With Leonard, "typically there'd be a number of kids trying to get in to see him in the evening because, for one thing, most of us didn't want to go to bed," said Bill Bryant, another alumnus who has alleged abuse.
"More than one of us would be in his room, smoking and talking into the night. Often he provided cigarettes," Bryant said.
Daigle recalls Rule as young, hip and cool. "He always let me hang out in his place and play records - we used to play our Black Sabbath records. We couldn't figure out why he was a priest."
Indeed, for some students, Vianney's priests took on multiple roles. "I saw them sometimes as friends, sometimes as mentors, sometimes as brother figures, sometimes as father figures, sometimes disciplinarians," Wolf said.
According to Gormley, the esteem that boys in a seminary environment felt for the priests is the key to understanding how abuse could stay secret.
"Understand the nature of a spiritual director, and confession. What happens in confession doesn't come out, and that's why this stuff didn't come out, at least in my opinion," he said. "It was very quiet, behind the scenes, behind the doors."
And still, even Gormley can praise Vianney.
"That coming together of young men for a common purpose was called the spirit of St. John," he said. "That's a part of my core."
Reach Steven Vegh at 446-2417 or svegh(AT)pilotonline.com
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