A priest ordained in 2017 is now serving a life sentence for sex abuse. How did he slip through the cracks?

America [New York NY]

December 2, 2021

By Kevin Clarke

Just two years after his ordination in 2017, the Rev. Robert McWilliams was charged with a cascade of sexual assault and child pornography charges. He was sentenced to life imprisonment a few weeks ago, on Nov. 9, in a federal criminal court in Cleveland.

The McWilliams case came as an unhappy shock to Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland and all over the United States who might have hoped that years of procedural changes and an enhanced screening process for seminarians would have put an end to the ordination of priests like Father McWilliams. The most recent report card from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, released the same day as Father McWilliams’s sentencing, offered some reason for optimism. Although 4,228 allegations of sexual abuse by clergy surfaced between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, only 22 came from individuals who are now minors; the rest reflected historical cases, most of them from decades ago.

Father McWilliams entered the seminary system in Cleveland in 2008, six years after the abuse crisis detonated on the front pages of The Boston Globe. He could not have been unaware of the fall-out from that crisis and the greater scrutiny that candidates for the priesthood would draw because of it. Despite it all, Father McWilliams, who has not yet been laicized, made it through to ordination and placement in a parish where he soon began a process of internet “catfishing” and sexual extortion involving three teenage boys.

At the Nov. 9 sentencing, defense attorney Robert Dixon pleaded for leniency to allow Father McWilliams to “secure the therapy necessary to confront demons from his childhood and the addictions and heinous behavior of his adulthood.”

Mr. Dixon did not describe those demons, but the emotional traumas of childhood are among the issues that contemporary seminaries say they are able to surface during formation in an effort to identify ordinands who warrant psychological intervention or who may not be suitable candidates for the priesthood. Why were those demons not discovered during Father McWilliams’s formation?

Only an outlier?

The Rev. Thomas Berg, the director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, N.Y., was aghast by the lengthy account from the families victimized by Father McWilliams, published by the Catholic news site The Pillar. He thinks the McWilliams case is one that should be studied and learned from, but not one that conclusively indicts the contemporary seminary system.

“Over the past 10 years, things have changed dramatically for the better,” Father Berg said. “The screening process is much more extensive, much more demanding, as many dimensions of the formation process have become.” Those changes “make it extremely more difficult for these kinds of behaviors to be hidden.”

“Once upon a time, those involved in formation were in some places, unfortunately, little more than glorified hall monitors,” Father Berg said. “We’re not hall monitors anymore. We’re very much involved personally with the guys, accompanying them, measuring them…evaluating them.”

He described Father McWilliams as “a very complex character,” not only accomplished at deception, but someone who apparently “gets a high off of keeping the deception going.

“I’m not going to Monday-morning-quarterback the director or the formation team at that seminary, a couple of whom I happen to know and respect very much,” Father Berg said. “I think an outlier case like this could happen at any seminary.

“That being said, I think we’re in a much, much stronger position today to really detect the men who should not be seeking ordination.”

Father Berg described “rounds of psychological and psycho-sexual evaluation” that contemporary seminarians are subjected to, looking at “wounds of family,” past sexual history and possible problems of sexual integration.

The Diocese of Cleveland and its seminary leadership declined to speak with America about the McWilliams case but did agree to respond by email to specific questions.

The diocese said that it was a “false assumption” that someone “with proclivities like McWilliams can be ‘spotted’ before they are ever caught engaging in the act towards which they are inclined,” adding, “no one has yet to indicate just what it is that the seminary should have done but didn’t do that would have allowed it to identify McWilliams as a future abuser of children.”

After Father McWilliams’s arrest, the diocese reports, seminary staff “held several focus groups with faculty, his classmates, the seminary psychologist, and others to determine if there were any indications of an issue with McWilliams.”

“No such indications were identified and all were genuinely shocked and surprised by McWilliams’ crimes,” it said.

Father McWilliams was able to commit “his vile acts,” according to the diocese, “because he was a master of deception, not because anyone failed to notice something they should have noticed.”

But accounts from a fellow seminarian and parishioners where he served as a deacon, also reported by The Pillar, suggest a few incidents during formation that perhaps should have raised concerns—among them Father McWilliams’s interest in “furry” cosplay (or costume play) and his self-appointed role as porn addiction counselor for fellow seminarians and parish teens, as well as his ability to evade the seminary’s internet restrictions and alcohol policy.

“When I spoke to our guys about this story,” Father Berg said, “I just reminded them again, ‘Guys, if you see something, say something; that’s love for the church.’”

John Cavadini, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the McGrath Institute for Church Life, acknowledged that seminaries have instituted enhanced psychological screening in the aftermath of the painful revelations of the abuse crisis. But, he added, in light of the failure to spot what in hindsight appears to be an obvious predator, the McWilliams case “should prompt seminaries to see if these tests, or other screening practices, are in need of updating.”

“I know the family [interviewed by The Pillar] claims there were signs and that the seminary could have seen them if they were more open to seeing things,” said Mr. Cavadini. “I just don’t know how to adjudicate that. I think someone who’s determined to lie and to hide and who’s kind of a sociopath, like this guy is, probably does a pretty good job of it.”

A source familiar with seminary processes nationally, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press, described a challenging balance that must be achieved by seminary formators and administrators—one that takes seriously the need to scrutinize candidates for psychological problems but also strives to create an environment of spiritual growth and personal truth-searching and -telling.

“The thing that you can’t have, of course, is that the major aspect of seminary is [focused on] trying to catch people that might be duplicitous,” he said. “If you do that, you turn it into a police state, essentially, or at least a heavily monitored place where formation becomes impossible.” That environment may indeed deter or identify problematic candidates, he said, but “you certainly are not going to build the trust and virtues that the guys are going to need to sustain themselves.”

Finding balance

It is no easy task: establishing screens, oversights and interventions meant to protect the public and the church while also fostering the openness, camaraderie, and spiritual and communal cohesion essential to seminary life. Contemporary seminarians feel “very managed already,” said Mr. Cavadini. “They’re very conscious that they are being watched all the time. They’re often afraid to put down honest responses to rather innocent questions that they might be asked in formation meetings.”

As part of a seminary’s formation team, “‘Yes, I have to be vigilant for the church, and yes, I evaluate you,” said Father Berg, “but at the same time, I am here in your corner as much as I possibly can be.

“And with God’s grace, if you have a vocation to the priesthood, I want you to make it and I want you to get there healthy, so that you can have a happy, healthy, holy priesthood.” The best way to reach that goal, he added, is “to be completely transparent.”

Father Berg thinks a good practice for contemporary seminaries is to make an investment in a full-time director of psychological services, someone who can be directly on hand to work with seminarians themselves as they discern their suitability for the priesthood and to keep an eye out for problematic candidates.

Out of a class of about 12 to 15 ordinands at a major seminary, Father Berg expects that three to five will leave voluntarily or be asked to find a different way to serve the church. Formation teams at seminaries literally vote on the suitability of an ordinand, Father Berg said. That vote is shared with his sponsoring bishop, who will make the final call. “Prudent” bishops, he said, will listen closely to what seminary teams are telling them, but in the end, it is the bishop’s vote that matters.

According to Father Berg, if pressure to approve candidates because of the vocation crisis plays a role anywhere, it is usually evident in those final “votes” made by bishops. “There can always be the case of bishops who believe they know the guy better than we do, and if the bishop still wants to ordain a man against the strong advice of the seminary formation team, that’s up to him.”

He said he knows that some bishops in the United States have elected to proceed with candidates that formation teams have raised questions about. “It’s a temptation, and unfortunately, it happens.”

A seminary crisis or a vocation crisis?

The Rev. Donald Cozzens was at one time the rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland, which Father McWilliams attended, and is the former vicar for priests in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is perhaps best known for his book The Changing Face of the Priesthood, a prescient look at contemporary clerical life published just two years before the abuse crisis became widely acknowledged by U.S. bishops and the U.S.C.C.B.’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was promulgated in 2002.

Recalling his days as rector at St. Mary’s, he said, “The pressure [to secure ordinations] doesn’t come from, say, the bishop or the Catholic laity.

“The pressure comes from the system, the pressure comes from the history of the church. I don’t think there’s any bishop that would set a goal of the number of seminarians that will be recommended for ordination.

“But, boy, our seminaries are half filled compared to what they were when I was ordained 56 years ago,” Father Cozzens said. “Have we lowered the bar in terms of admissions and promoting men from year to year?” he asked. “I want to say no, we haven’t, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate response.”

Father Cozzens laments the fact that some consider him to be an enemy of the current seminary system, though he admits to supporting some changes that are far from the mainstream. He is skeptical of mandatory celibacy for Catholic priests and remains a critic of efforts to root out gay ordinands and priests.

Though he acknowledged that St. Mary’s, like seminaries across the country, has significantly beefed up its psychological testing and interrogating of candidates, Father Cozzens said that if he were rector again, he would re-evaluate those candidate screens, “and I would have this review done by outside experts.”

Among other changes, he suggested interviews with a psychologist from outside the seminary structure “who is an expert in sexual integration” each year during formation. “There are nine years of formation; that would be nine interviews.” And nine chances to trip up someone like Father McWilliams.

But Father Cozzens also warns, “we could have some systemic issues here that go beyond the practical screening procedures and protocols.”

Boundaries are of course necessary at seminaries, but Father Cozzens is concerned about a systemic guardedness and even dishonesty about issues of sexuality that prevent frank conversations within seminaries and among seminarians.

“I think we need to have a renewed Catholic theology of human sexuality,” Father Cozzens said.

How to respond?

Some responses to incidents like the McWilliams case are already in motion. According to the U.S.C.C.B., the upcoming sixth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation “will focus more intensely on spiritual and human formation, especially during the Propaedeutic Stage of formation,” when questions about vocation and discernment are first raised with seminary formators or admissions directors.

As the beginning of a structural response to the McWilliams case, Mr. Cavadini suggests the creation of a national body, perhaps modeled after the church’s existing National Review Board on Child and Youth Protection, that could wield authority over seminary practices and host regular audits that review reporting and protection procedures. The key, he argued, is to empower outsiders in that oversight role.

“Anybody in a power structure always has some kind of interest in defending the power structure,” he said. “Not to be cynical, I’m not. You don’t necessarily realize it, so having some voices not in that structure in conversation could be a way to go.”

In its response to America, the Diocese of Cleveland defended its screening procedures and attention to seminarians’ formation, noting that it already regularly subjects its procedures to outsider review. It added that in 2020, after Father Williams’s crimes came to light, the seminary asked an independent psychiatrist to review its screening protocol. That psychiatrist, according to the diocese, was satisfied that its procedures “were appropriate and did not suggest any additional screening measures.”

The diocese forwarded a summary of its protocol and practices, which include a number of pre-admission interviews with the candidate and his parents, questionnaires, criminal background checks and two psychological evaluations, including reviews of the candidate’s sexual and family histories. Reviews by outside psychologists are included in the process.

Assuming all these policies were followed to the letter, saying where Cleveland went wrong on Father McWilliams is indeed a challenge. The fact of his crimes and his capacity to elude detection during formation, however, remain.

In 2021 the diocese hired a full-time psychologist, and it plans another external review of admissions protocol in the near future. But diocesan officials do not intend to take other measures at this time.

“In the wake of evil acts like those committed by McWilliams, it is natural for good people to want to believe that something could have been done to prevent them, if only people had simply tried harder or done more,” the diocese said. “However, in a fallen world, marred by sin, evil is a reality that often cannot be predicted or prevented despite even the best efforts. Such was the case with McWilliams.”