September 6, 2020
By Nicki Gorny
When the Rev. Phil Smith stepped into his role as director of the Office for Priestly Vocations in the Diocese of Toledo, he was told that “the most important work I’ll do in this position is not the men I’ll bring into the seminary, but the men I’ll keep out.”
“So the most important contribution I’ll make to the life of the church will be keeping out men who are not fit for the priesthood,” Father Smith continued.
Now in his fourth year in the role, he understands the sentiment.
“I think that’s really true,” he said.
Catholic institutions across the country employ a particular discretion as to whom they ordain as clergy, subjecting seminary applicants to psychological assessments and continuing to almost constantly evaluate their suitability through up to nine years of seminary formation. Father Smith said that’s true of the Diocese of Toledo, too, as well as the various seminaries where it enrolls its candidates for the priesthood.
While such measures offer a holistic look at would-be clergyman, who might be well or ill suited to the priesthood for any number of reasons, they’re one notable way that institutions attempt to weed out men whom they suspect could one day be sexually abusive – an issue that the faith tradition has been battling in a particular public way since at least 2002.
The Diocese of Toledo just last month saw the arrest of the Rev. Michael Zacharias, the former pastor of Findlay’s St. Michael the Archangel Parish. Federal authorities have accused him of grooming and sexually abusing two men that he met when he was a seminarian and they were students at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Toledo in the 1990s.
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