Although clergy sexual abuse scandals aren’t new, the ones that have rocked the Catholic Church this summer revolved around a group seldom focused on before: seminarians. The sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians, and the response of seminary leaders, have been at the center of the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose removal from ministry in June began months of focus on abuse.
Many Catholics share a heightened, even unprecedented, level of concern for the well-being of Catholic seminarians. They rightly wonder, as well, whether our seminaries can not only screen out potential sexual predators, but also rise to the challenge of preparing for life and ministry men who are emotionally mature, and psychologically and sexually healthy. This requires training for contemporary American society.
The convergence of these concerns invites a long-needed conversation about reform in American seminaries.
Many of us who have labored in seminary formation for years consider 2018 a watershed moment, in fact, to insist on long-overdue adjustments and enhancements to seminary training. In retrospect, many of our institutions have too often failed miserably in preparing men for ministry, and many still fall far short of the goal of forming happy, healthy, holy priests. The church urgently needs new approaches to preparing men for priestly ministry given today’s sexualized, secularized culture and the personal challenges facing seminarians.
Young men who feel called to priesthood, although well intentioned, often have enormous gaps in their prior formation and upbringing. Many lack interpersonal communication skills. Many need basic formation in Catholic teaching. Not infrequently, they need counseling to discover and deal with trauma: “father wounds,” bullying, parental divorce, porn addiction and even sexual abuse. Added to that, they must acquire qualities and pastoral skills before ordination.
Bishops, rectors and seminary formation personnel can too easily believe that the way we’re doing formation today is just fine. But if we’re honest, we know that in many cases it’s not.
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