Study: Up to 10% of Catholic seminarians are victims of sexual harassment, abuse

By Danae King
Columbus Dispatch
September 29, 2019

A new study reveals that 10% of Catholic seminarians in the U.S. experienced or may have been subject to sexual misconduct. The study comes on the heels of last’s year’s scandal involving disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was accused of abusing seminarians at a beach house.

After news emerged in 2018 that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been accused of sexually abusing fellow students while studying to be a Catholic priest, John Cavadini came up with an idea.

“There were so many rumors about what’s going on in seminary culture and was what happened with McCarrick the norm,” said Cavadini, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and director of its McGrath Institute for Church Life. “People were scared. I decided to try to find some objective data.”

Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick, 89, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a prominent figure in the U.S. Catholic Church, in February after a church investigation determined that he had sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians over decades.

Cavadini, unable to find the “objective benchmark” data he was searching for, reached out to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to help him create an anonymous survey of U.S. seminarians to determine the prevalence of sexual abuse at seminaries.

>>Read more: Columbus diocese creates task force to review handling of priest-sex abuse allegations

“We thought of this as a first step,” said Cavadini, who frequently has seminarians from neighboring Moreau Seminary in class.

He unveiled the results of the study, titled “Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture,” on Sept. 21 at the Religion News Association conference in Las Vegas.

The study found that 10% of Catholic seminarians surveyed in the United States experienced or might have been subject to sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct. About 80% of those said that another seminary student was the perpetrator. Other times, it was a seminary authority or a church authority not associated with the seminary.

“The study tells us what’s needed,” including the need for someone outside the seminary to take abuse reports, Cavadini said.

Judy Jones, Midwest regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that so few seminarians might have reported being abused or mistreated because most abuse victims don’t disclose that they’ve been victims until later in life, around age 50. Also, “sex is a forbidden topic in the Catholic Church,” she said.

>>Read more: Priests accused of abusing children served in more than two-thirds of Columbus parishes

Cavadini hopes to create a national protocol for reporting and preventing sexual abuse in seminaries and to make it public to create “public accountability,” he said.

“Half the seminaries we contacted, approximately, didn’t participate or even respond,” he said. “It’ll be harder for half the seminaries not to sign on.”

Cavadini wants seminaries to see the survey and hear the voices of their students, he said, and “to understand they are asking for a reporting structure that’s not in-house.”

The Rev. Thomas Dragga, president of the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, said the topic is important.

“The more we can make seminarians aware of what sexual harassment is, the more we can make every human being aware of what sexual harassment is, the better off we are in our society,” Dragga said. “Certainly that would be part of programming we would encourage.”

Susan Gibbs, director of communications with the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, said the study is important because of the insights it provides into the experiences of men training for religious life. Her organization doesn’t have oversight in that area, but she said she would share the report with its members, and the conference will look at “how it can help inform and strengthen programs for formation, leadership, celibate chastity, boundaries, as well as the quality of psychological candidate assessments.”

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, a national coordinating and guiding body for the Catholic Church that publishes guidelines on priestly formation for seminaries, did not respond to a request by The Dispatch for comment. Neither did the five Catholic seminaries in Ohio, including the Pontifical College Josephinum on the Far North Side.

>>Read more: Columbus diocese has a priest take abuse reports

Cavadini said the new protocol would include asking seminaries that sign on to clarify what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, so there is less ambiguity surrounding it; make it clear how seminarians can report abuse and who to report it to; and employ an external reporting system for abuse.

“I think these three things would go a long way to changing the culture,” Cavadini said.

The majority of 1,544 seminarians who took part in the survey said that the administration and faculty of their seminary or house of formation take the issues seriously. Yet only 24% who reported their experiences to seminary authorities said it was “completely” taken seriously and acted on. An additional 18% said their reports were taken seriously and acted on “for the most part,” and 15% said their report of sexual harassment or abuse was “not taken seriously or properly acted upon.”

“You have to break that in-house, self-enclosed culture,” Cavadini said.

He also believes that the work he’s doing in seminaries can affect the overall issue of Catholic priests sexually abusing minors. Cavadini said that although he loves the church, it’s important that the effort be led by people outside the church.

“This is not a hostile, anti-church gesture,” he said. “This is meant to strengthen ... reform and renew. ... It requires self-scrutiny, and it requires change, and it isn’t always easy.”




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