Catholic institutions try, but don't always succeed, to weed out would-be offenders

By Nicki Gorny
Toledo Blade
September 06, 2020

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.

Kelly Donaghy, senior director of communications for the Diocese of Toledo, confirmed that Father Zacharias would have undergone a psychological evaluation. He was ordained in 2002, the same year that clergy sexual abuse exploded into public awareness and the same year that she said policies in the local diocese were strengthened.

It suggests that while tests, assessments and evaluations are rigorous in the local diocese and other institutions, they're not foolproof, as even recent years have made clear: Father Zacharias is one of three Catholic priests arrested on sex abuse-related charges in Ohio in 2019 or 2020.

Representatives for the Diocese of Cleveland and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati said that the Rev. Robert McWilliams, 40, and the Rev. Geoff Drew, 58, respectively, similarly underwent a battery of psychological testing before each was ordained.

Father McWilliams was ordained in 2017 by Toledo Bishop Daniel Thomas, who at the time was serving on an interim basis as apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Cleveland; some of the victims identified in a federal complaint filed against him have ties to a parish where he served as a seminarian.

Father Drew was ordained in 2004; he is accused of raping an altar boy at a church where he served as music minister before he became a priest, as reported last year by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The Rev. Mark Latcovich is the president-rector of Borromeo Seminary and St. Mary's Seminary for the Diocese of Cleveland. Father McWilliams is an alumnus.

"If we knew about that behavior, he never would have gotten ordained," Father Latcovich said of Father McWilliams.

In the wake of Father McWilliams’ arrest in late 2019, the president-rector said he and others at the seminary shared concerns with psychologists and in focus groups; he said they’re now looking at incorporating new and additional tests that focus on healthy boundaries.

While Father Latcovich said he felt seminaries are doing a “fairly good job” on the whole, referencing the extensive processes they have in place, he acknowledged they aren’t perfect. In any of their evaluations of would-be priests, they have to count on a candidate to be honest with them, he said. And he pointed out that there’s no psychological test to identify a pedophile.

Claudia Vercellotti, a local leader with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she can appreciate the latter. If there were a foolproof way to identify and root out sexual predators, she said, every daycare, school and similar institution would be using it.

When it comes to addressing the clergy sex abuse within the Catholic Church, she said her concern lies the way the institution responds to abuse.

“The issue isn't screening,” she said. “The issue is singularly the coverup. That is what enables these crimes to continue.”

Path to priesthood

In the Diocese of Toledo, as in other dioceses and religious orders across the country, the path to priesthood begins well before enrollment in seminary. In his role with the Office for Diocesan Priestly Vocations, Father Smith regularly hosts events for young men interested in the priesthood, and he meets individually with those that express a strong interest.

Father Smith estimated that only about half of the latter ever make it into seminary.

As they discern their vocation through retreats and conversations with him, some drop out for their own reasons, Father Smith said. That’s an option that he said remains open to them essentially until the day they’re ordained.

Father Smith declines to offer others a formal application, based on an expansive pre-application interview he conducts with them. He might determine a young man isn’t able to relate to others in the way that a good priest should, for example, he said by way of example; concerns about healthy boundaries or a potential for abuse are by no means the only metric he and others consider in their assessments.

Still others receive and submit a formal application that’s ultimately rejected by the Diocesan Admissions Formation Board or Bishop Daniel Thomas.

Father Smith said that formal application is extensive.

It encompasses a battery of psychological tests conducted by a licensed psychologist, who in turn prepares a report that addresses their “emotional health, maturity level, family background, psycho-sexual health and ability to maintain appropriate boundaries,” according to an overview provided by the local diocese. Applicants must also undergo medical evaluations, background checks and credit checks; they submit their academic records and present several references.

All of this information is presented to Diocesan Admissions Formation Board, according to the overview. The board in turn interviews a candidate and presents its recommendation to Bishop Thomas.

Because there is no seminary under the Diocese of Toledo, candidates who receive approval from the diocese then apply separately to seminaries, which have their own requirements and evaluations; Father Latcovich said the process is a bit more streamlined in the Diocese of Cleveland, where there is an undergraduate and graduate seminary.

St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana is the alma mater of Father Zacharias, The Blade reported around the time of his ordination in 2002. The seminary declined to make a representative available for an interview.

Evaluations of a seminarian's suitability to the priesthood continue throughout their time in seminary, according to Father Smith and Father Latcovich, and both seminary staff and the broader community weigh in. When a seminarian serves at a parish, for example, Father Latcovich said, parish representatives are asked to provide their feedback.

Both priests offered similar estimates as to how many seminarians make it to ordination: About 50 percent of those who enter seminary as undergraduates, and between 75 and 80 percent of those who enter as graduate students, are ultimately ordained as priests, they said.

This again reflects those who choose to leave and those who are dismissed for any number of reasons.

Father Smith was not in his current position when Father Zacharias was applying to and enrolled in seminary, so he declined to comment on the circumstances of that case.

He addressed his own approach to potential candidates today:

“The underlying principle is that we will not take a risk on a man, take a risk about them harming the church,” he said. “Or to put it in different words: We always err on the side of caution. If there’s any inkling that there might be something in this man’s personality, his motivation, his outlook that he would not be a good priest some day, he will not be ordained.”



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