Experts: Seminaries need clear sexual harassment guidelines to prevent clerical abuse

America Magazine

November 24, 2020

By Michael J. O’Loughlin

Theodore E. McCarrick, middle row center, is seen with fellow seminarians in a close-up of the official portrait of the class of 1958 of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
When the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was bishop of the diocese of Metuchen, N.J., he routinely asked seminarians to join him at his vacation home, visits that regularly included the bishop sharing a bed with young men. Any reasonable standards would characterize those episodes, in which a powerful authority figure even suggested sharing a bed with students, as instances of sexual harassment. Stories like these led to Mr. McCarrick’s downfall, as was laid out in a recent Vatican investigation into allegations of harassment and abuse.

But a group of theologians, bishops and administrative professionals say that, even decades after Mr. McCarrick’s abuse, seminaries and formation houses are still learning how best to equip their students to recognize and report inappropriate behavior. According to the working group, assembled by the University of Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini, seminary and formation house leaders should strive to implement five benchmarks when it comes to protecting faculty, staff and students. There is a need, the group agreed, for regular training on harassment policies, clarity around reporting and investigating, support for victims, periodic review of policies, and the ability to apply guidelines to specific conditions. Meeting these benchmarks would not only protect seminarians from abuse and harassment but could also shape the culture in parishes.

“It’s not just policy training but part of the seminarian’s human and pastoral formation. These seminarians are going to be priests, and we want them to go away from the seminary formed in the kind of culture that takes this seriously,” Mr. Cavadini, who directs the McGrath Institute for Church Life, told America.

According to research released last year from the McGrath Institute and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 6 percent of active Catholic seminarians surveyed in 2019 said they had been subject to sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct. Nine in 10 seminarians said they had not been subjected to sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct.

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