Hub Seminary Linked to Problem Priests

By Eric Convey
Boston Herald
March 3, 2002

The sexual-abuse scandal tearing at the local Roman Catholic Church has played out in courtrooms and psychiatrists' offices and even the chancery on Lake Street in Brighton.

But ground zero could well be St. John's Seminary, a complex of tan brick and stone buildings down the street next to Boston College.

A Herald analysis of cases of priests facing serious pedophile allegations in the state, including those who settled out of court or have been suspended by the church pending resolution of accusations, shows that a disproportionate percentage attended St. John's in the late 1950s and 1960s.

"This is the general pattern with these scandals across the board. They're usually guys now in their late 60s and 70s who received their priestly formation and were ordained in the '60s and '70s," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who publishes "First Things," a monthly journal popular with religious conservatives.

Others add that there was a broad crisis in theological education. Some former students say the culture of St. John's was corrupt - a breeding ground for trouble as graduates moved from the tough constraints of seminary life to the freedom - or loneliness - of parish life.

Regardless of why, the numbers are staggering, especially for certain classes.

The class of 1960 contained at least five men involved in pedophilia allegations. That's out of a class of approximately 77 graduates. Experts put the incidence of pedophilia in the general population at around 1 percent. For the St. Johns' graduates ordained in 1960, the figure appears to approach 7 percent - seven times the national average for men.

Four of the accused belonged to the class of 1962 and six to the class of 1963 - this at a time when seminary enrollment was declining steadily. The next few years were relatively quiet, producing only a few priests who face allegations.

Then came the class of 1968, which included six men accused of pedophilia, including Paul Mahan - target of some of the most vile allegations.

Significantly, this graduating class was far smaller than those that had passed through St. John's a decade earlier. With fewer than 50 members, the incidence of alleged pedophilia in the class rises to about 12 percent.

The figures trail off from there, with a few priests who graduated in the 1970s accused of misconduct and almost none from the 1980s and 1990s. Officials have identified about 90 accused pedophile priests since the scandal erupted.

"(The) counterculture had made significant inroads in the lives of the churches, including the Catholic Church," Neuhaus said of the 1960s.

There were priests educated in the 60s and early 70s, he said, "who really believed, who were led to believe by somebody, often at the seminary, that the rule on celibacy was soon to be abandoned.

"There was what I think is aptly discerned as a kind of wink and nudge attitude - everything is up for grabs," he said.

Neuhaus attributes widespread disobedience of sexual rules to broader straying from the church's doctrinal teachings.

"It's perfectly understandable that dissent in one area encourages dissent in other areas, including sexual ethics," he said.

Other experts scoff at such notions.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who authored a key 1985 report on clergy sexual abuse and now serves as a U.S. Air Force chaplain in Germany, is among them.

To blame pedophilia on liberal teaching or a loosening of social mores is "nonsense," Doyle said. "Most of (the accused) were born with this disorder."

But there were some changes that could play a role, he said.

"A lot of the internal and external constraints were dissipating and dissolving," he said. "That restrained some to some extent."

Another reason so many priests ordained in the 1960s are being accused is that they were the first generation of perpetrators to lose the cover provided by an attitude that clergy were "untouchable," experts said.

Victims abused earlier by earlier generations of clergy would have been less likely to come forward, Doyle said.

"(Priests) lived in ivory towers. You could have a private life, you could get away with that. Nobody would believe it. Your stature was such that you could intimidate kids," he said.

"But men have been sexually abusing kids for eons," Doyle said. "It's a very secret disorder."

Numerous students who attended St. John's during the 1950s and 1960s described it as a strict place.

Unlike students at nearly all colleges, those at St. John's had their own bedrooms. Being found in a fellow students room was grounds for expulsion. For much of the day, the young men followed vows of silence outside the classroom.

Despite such official rectitude, what happened behind closed doors is hard to establish.

One student described an atmosphere of frequent experimentation. Gay students quickly identified each other, he said, and established networks that would last in some fashion until years after graduation and ordination into the priesthood.

Another student from the late 1960s said promiscuity - homosexual and heterosexual - was taken for granted in some circles.

But if a secret society existed, it appears many students were unaware of it.

"We were naive," said one former student. "We were busy studying."

Another St. John's student from the 1960s, speaking recently on the condition he not be identified, said there were no signs of sexual activity among students.

"Certainly it wasn't discussed in any public way," he said.

But there were rumors, he continued, and perhaps once a year a student or two would leave among speculation they had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.

A priest in the archdiocese who studied elsewhere but was involved in events at St. John's said the biggest concern among administrators was students who were torn between piety and banned sexual behavior. Many young men are "mixed up" at that age, the priest said, and vulnerable to exploitation by older or more sophisticated classmates.

In at least one instance - the case of now defrocked priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan - even effective oversight by faculty and administrators wasn't enough to prevent trouble.

In court papers unsealed recently, Geoghan's supervisors at St. John's wrote that he suffered "a very pronounced immaturity."

"Scholastically, he is a problem," the Rev. John J. Murray wrote. "I still have serious doubts about his ability to do satisfactory work in future studies."

But Geoghan, defended by a relative who was a ranking priest, went on to graduate from the seminary in 1962 after taking some time off. He then went on to abuse children across Greater Boston, according to plaintiffs, many of whose cases were settled out of court by the archdiocese for a total reaching into the millions.

By the 1960s, despite sometimes iron rule in the archdiocese by Richard Cardinal Cushing, St. John's was the focus of dissent.

Catholic groups calling for an end to the celibacy requirement spoke and recruited in Massachusetts, drawing newspaper coverage at the time.

In March 1970, the archdiocese gave new seminary graduates the right to veto their initial assignments. The students got less freedom then some of them wanted - there was a requirement that a new priest show a grave reason for wanting to avoid a parish. But it was a rare sign of democracy within the hierarchical institution.

After the turbulent 1960s came something of a collective hangover during much of the 1970s.

"By the mid-70s, certainly, a sobering climate set in and people said, hey, things are getting out of hand," Neuhaus said.

At St. John's, by the 1980s, the situation had changed substantially, a former student said.

Students were far less interested in social activism, at least in the United States. Some took a substantial interest in issues such as Reformation Theology in Central America. Serving the poor in the United States was also on the agenda of many students.

But by then their classes were a fraction of the size of those that had passed through a decade and a half earlier. Far more common, people familiar with the environment said, was the young man whose primary concern was to become a good diocesan priest rather than a rabble-rouser.

One likely factor was an analysis of U.S. seminaries ordered by the Vatican shortly after the elevation of Pope John Paul II in 1978. Church officials in Rome began what would become a lengthy crusade to ensure that teaching at seminaries and Catholic universities and colleges conformed with official doctrines. The message to the priests and bishops running seminaries was clear, several academics said: Get in line, or risk consequences.

If St. John's was taking a more theologically conservative tack by the early 1980s, that course was cemented in 1984.

Humberto Cardinal Medeiros died in September 1983 and the pope, in the midst of putting a conservative stamp on the church hierarchy around the world, named then-bishop Bernard Law to oversee the Boston Archdiocese.

Law was a theological conservative who, despite his own history of social activism, especially on race matters, made it clear soon after his arrival that priestly formation - the process of education and spiritual counseling - was to focus on intellectual and moral development. Since Law missed much of the early seminary experience, few around St. John's at the time expected he would tolerate anything that even smacked of wayward behavior.

Law also embarked, shortly after his arrival, on an aggressive mission to recruit more young men to the priesthood. That emphasis has paid off for St. John's and the archdiocese, said one Law confidant who spoke on condition of anonymity. St. John's was able to become more selective. The quality of new priests has never been higher - at least not in recent years - the archbishop's friend said.

One St. John's professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity steered clear of the sexual abuse issue. But he said by the 1980s, the biggest concern among faculty was the decline in the academic ability of students. That situation has improved significantly, he said.

For St. John's, the last few years have been the best in decades, one longtime faculty member said.

Whether he knew it or not - Law has repeatedly declined requests for interviews - the new archbishop was creating an atmosphere at his main seminary far different from that of the previous decades.

In the end, the most damaging thing that happened at the seminaries may be the unavoidable result of the otherwise noble bonding that occurs between men who spend years studying with each other who embark on a common journey, experts said.

The priesthood is a brotherhood whose members sought to help each other rather than take care of victims, priests interviewed in recent weeks said.

"There was an understandable, but misguided, compassionate clericalism of protecting brother priests," said Neuhaus. "Much of that is to be admired. Any group, especially those bound together by the radical sacrifices of priesthood, need to support one another and it's a beautiful thing. But it can also be distorted into a kind of protection."

Graphic: Cast out - Numerous priests singled out for allegedly molesting children attended St. John's Seminary in Boston in the late 1950s and early '60s. Two classes alone, 1960 and 1968, produced 11 priest who stand accused of assaults.

Class of 1960: John M. Cotter, Paul R. Shanley, Joseph E. Birmingham, Bernard J. Lane, Eugene M. O'Sullivan.

Class of 1968: Robert V. Gale, Thomas P. Forry, Joseph L. Welsh, William J. Cummings, Edward T. Kelley, Paul J. Mahan.


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