The Abuse Scandal: What Did I Miss?

By Emil A. Wcela
March 15, 2004

Some of the priests identified as abusers, staring out from the pages of the local newspapers, are not strangers to me. I was on the faculty of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., from 1965 through 1979. I taught Scripture all those years and was rector for the last six. I knew many of these men.

We studied the Bible together and shared the Eucharist and prayer. We played together on the basketball court and softball field. We washed dishes and tended the seminary grounds together. As rector, I spoke to them about faith and priesthood. We met one on one about their vocation and their life in the seminary.

Psychological screening was part of the entrance routine for our seminary from the middle 1960’s. Psychologists outside the seminary staff were regularly available to interpret to the seminarians the results of the testing and to offer guidance.

Most of the men who came to seminary in those years were already fairly well known to us. Many had studied at the college seminary. There were reports and evaluations from that faculty. Some had an even longer history, having graduated from one of the high school prep seminaries. Not just priests were observing and advising, but also religious sisters and brothers and lay people.

At the seminary, the faculty met regularly to evaluate the seminarians and discuss with them their readiness to progress through the stages of preparation, based on our experience with them. Some men discerned that the priesthood was not their vocation. Others were helped to realize that they lacked some quality essential to serve well as priests. Some few were asked to leave because of obviously inappropriate behavior or attitudes.

Those who stayed the course to ordination and priesthood were not perfect. The priests teaching and forming them weren’t either. However, there was solid agreement that those recommended for ordination gave every sign that they would minister well as priests.

So what did we, as a faculty, miss? What did I, as rector, miss?

I still don’t know.

The psychologists’ sessions with the seminarians were confidential, but we regularly consulted with them for a general profile of the seminarians and for our own guidance. The advice we commonly received was that there is no foolproof psychological test that will predict the future for anyone, unless that person is very seriously troubled. We did not accept into the seminary anyone we knew to be in that state. The best indicator for the future, we were told, was present performance. We had to judge present performance by participation in the full life of the seminary, by signs of a healthy and growing spiritual life, by the quality of their relationships with other seminarians and faculty, by their ability to learn and present Catholic teaching, by how the seminarians fared in the parishes where they served in various kinds of pastoral ministry.

What went wrong with those who seemed to offer such promise and then failed so terribly in the priesthood?

Was it something they learned in the seminary? Did the shared life and support structures of the seminary not prepare them for the more individualistic life of the parish priest? Was it the culture of the time, too great an emphasis on individual freedom, not enough sense of duty, not enough awareness of sin? Was there a character flaw, perhaps unrecognized even by them? Was there something in their lives all along that they had been able to hide or keep under control? Was there immaturity that never got beyond narcissism? Did our example as priests, my example as a priest, not really model well for them?

I wish I could look back and pick out some cause or causes and tell everyone today, especially our seminarians and those involved in their formation, “Watch out for this.” But I can’t.

The great majority of seminarians from those years are true to their vocations and are still serving as priests. Recent studies have provided insights into what helped keep them faithful.

What about the others?

I suspect that many of those who did abuse young people, especially those who fell only once or a few times, feel great remorse now. What they might do to help heal those they hurt so terribly is very personal, depending on the abused and the abuser.

There is something they could do to prevent such tragedies in the future. They could continue to add to the developing understanding of what happened. What drew them into their conduct? How did they reconcile their daily celebration of the Eucharist and their preaching about Jesus with the sin in their lives? Can they now identify supports that were missing, that might have helped them get past the kind of temptations they faced? What advice would they give to seminarians, priests, bishops, families, today?

Perhaps some good might yet come from evil if we can learn from these tragic lives.

The Most Rev. Emil A. Wcela is an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and episcopal vicar of the diocese’s eastern vicariate on Long Island.


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