"What Went Wrong in Priestly Formation?" A Catholic bishop's explanation of how seminaries put out priests who became sexual predators

This bishop’s remarks are at https://www.catholicsun.org/2019/02/17/purification-2/

To summarize what he said:

…Church leaders failed to adequately screen applicants for the priesthood during the confusion caused by the Sexual Revolution. Amidst the changes of thought and practice coming with the Sexual Revolution, they failed to detect and address, with sufficient boldness, clarity and quickness, the lies that had crept into the culture.

…In the 1970s and ‘80s especially, many seminaries were places of dissent from orthodox teaching about Scripture, theology and especially sexual ethics… It was erroneously thought among some that the nature of the priesthood itself would change. Sadly, some seminaries became places with not only men who lacked a true calling from Jesus to the priesthood but even where a homosexual subculture sprang up.

…Putting a priest on a pedestal not only fails to recognize his call to be a servant, but it can invite some to enter the priesthood for ulterior motives such as a “comfortable life.” Nothing could be farther from Jesus’ intentions for His priesthood.

…One should enter the priesthood through a calling from Jesus to share in His mission… Church leaders have been slow to embrace this mission and settled for simply maintaining her membership… Instead of being Catholic out of conviction and a deep relationship with Jesus, the faith has become for too many something merely cultural.


Very well put. I agree with the Bishop whole heartedly.


There is one thing that is at issue here.

McCarrick was ordained a priest in 1958. So he was in the seminary and finished long before the sexual revolution and Vatican II.

While I agree that the Sexual Revolution and confusion after Vatican II may have made things worse, homosexual predators like McCarrick made it to the priesthood long before this took place. And there are a number of the predator priests who are McCarrick’s age. So he wasn’t an anomaly (at least age wise).


You beat me to it.

I did a cursory check of two of the dioceses in the Pennsylvania grand jury report (Allentown and Erie). At least half of the priests named were ordained prior to 1965, so clearly the church failed to adequately screen applicants long before the sexual revolution.

And we should not forget that the majority of seminary instructors in the 1960s and 1970s were generally all educated and ordained prior to the sexual revolution.

Interestingly, most of the rest of the abusers in those two dioceses were ordained in the period 1966-80. Very few named were ordained after 1985, so perhaps the screening process improved by then.

Now, I can’t claim that these two dioceses represent the entire church…I used them because they were a readily-available source of online information about ordination dates for abusers. But I think we can say that while the sexual revolution and dissenting teachers in seminaries in the 1970s and 1980s certainly didn’t help the situation, they certainly was not the sole cause of abuse. Sadly, it’s been going on for a long time.


Take anecdotal evidence for what it’s worth, but —Two priests from my wife’s high school and the priest who married us are in the Pennsylvania report, and all three were ordained in the 1950s.

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My significant concern with this is as follows:

As with others my experiences are anecdotal. I’ve talked to somebody who experienced abuse long before the sexual revolution. Was the abuse sexual in nature…no, but a hard strike(s) to the face of a 13 year old by a priest or brother is still significant abuse…It reminds me of John 18:23…“why do strike me?”.

Perhaps the nature of the abuse changed after the sexual revolution, and certainly the sexual revolution did not help things. However, I do not agree that there was not significant abuse prior to the sexual revolution, and then all of a sudden after the sexual revolution significant abuse started happening.

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In the town where I live (think the size of Madison, WI or Richmond, VA), a report was just released detailing priest abuse that took place in the 50’s. At least for some, then, it began before the period of McCarrick’s ordination.


It seems odd for me to praise the sexual revolution, but it probably is the reason we are aware of the abuse. Before, the abuse was hushed up; after, it could be told. It still took years for it to become known well enough to address.

What is really missing from the article’s analysis is a sense that people grow and change. Pre-seminary screening is important, but not everybody can be identified then; people can change. Dissent, as described here, was part of the movement toward openness that we saw with the sexual revolution. And yes, vocations should be a call from God, but we should not set up our institutions so that they seem like the right answer for anyone who is called to celibacy (= all gay people and clergy).

There is sexual abuse mentioned in both the OT and the NT. Nothing new under the sun…

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Obviously we’ll never know the rate of sex abuse in each given year since the founding of the church, and it is possible some years/decades may have had more frequent abuse than others. But I wonder whether the 40s and 50s, which produced McCarick and others, had a particularly high rate of sex abuse in comparison to decades before or since. My suspicion based on accounts like St Peter Damian’s (who condemned abuse in the 11th century), is that this has more or less been a constant scourge for centuries.

One the question, then, is whether the modern occurrence of sex abuse by clergy has causes which differ from the causes of the crime in other eras. I suspect there are some reasons which have been constant, and other reasons which have differed. I think the desire to cover up ‘scandal,’ and the failure to realize the damage sex abuse does to the victim have been, until recent years, a persistent cause
in facilitating abuse.

Sounds like this was from the era when corporal punishment for young people, including by people not their parents (such as teachers, clergy etc) was considered the norm and something that built character or was otherwise necessary.

We know now that this is not a good way to proceed, unfortunately the culture was not as evolved then. As with other forms of abuse, the abuser probably treated children and teens the same way he had been treated when he was that age and the cycle just perpetuated.

In past eras, the damage was very underestimated. Many thought that once the victim was removed from the situation, with time they would just forget about it and get on with their life. It was also thought that forms of sexual abuse like groping, that didn’t involve physical violence or actual penetration of the body, weren’t that big of a deal. I actually remember reading an article in the 1970s in Readers’ Digest that basically said if a child molester was just touching young children in a “grandfatherly” way then they weren’t a really dangerous offender because they weren’t physically harming the kids. With attitudes like that in society generally, it’s easy to see how this became a problem in many institutions like schools and churches.

Sometimes I wonder about this…

I’ve heard it said that most sexual abusers were themselves sexually abused as kids.
So, is it possible that you have some kid, he gets abused, he feels very icky and dirty about it and tries to reject all sexual feeling (even healthy ones), and sees the religious life as a place where he’ll never have to deal with sex again…
Only it’s not that simple, sexual feelings don’t just go away, and because his own abuse was never dealt with and healed properly, he goes forward with an unhealthy sexuality that eventually gets acted out.


It is actually highly likely that many of the priests who abuse were not only abused as children themselves, but were actually abused by priests, and grew up to repeat that experience.

They used to send the boys to the seminary school quite young, and many boys also had older priests as relatives or family friends who would mentor and sponsor them from a young age to go into the priesthood.

I am not saying every such case of mentoring was abusive, nor that every boy who went off to school in his early teens or whatever got abused, but I’m willing to bet a significant number did and we’ll never know the extent of it.

And then add sexual shame from the culture into the mix, and people who were abused have a much harder time to develop a healthy sexuality.


Yikes! I wasn’t alive then, but this sounds horrific. yes… no wonder abuse was so easily perpetuated


It isn’t like someone threw a switch and bad priests started being ordained as a result of Vatican II. I think people tend to conflate the situation that led to Vatican II with the council itself. Things had already started going bad long before the council ended in 1965 (or started in 1962).


It seems to me that you are correct. The John Jay report stated that 23% of abusers were ordained in the 50s, 25% in the 60s, and 20% in the 70s. Which indicates that the problem existed long before. Now, I do not take exception to much of what the Bishop referenced in the OP wrote. I do think priestly formation went off the rails in the 70s and 80s. A good friend of mine who is a priest ordained in the 80s has told me a few stories and they tend to be pretty weird. But there was something rotten before Vatican II in the Church. Look at the laity in the 60s. These were people instructed in the faith in the 40s and 50s and early 60s, yet in 1968 when Humane Vitae came out, there were mass protests. Literally people getting up and walking out of mass on Sunday. Much of the liturgical abuses that went off the rails in the 70s and 80s was directed by priests and lay people who were raised in the Church prior to Vatican II. Something was not working before Vatican II, perhaps St John XXIII had a reason for calling the council.

NOTE: as someone who definitely leans towards the traditionalist side of all things ecclesiastical, I have gone through the phase of my life of just wanting to blame it all on Vatican II. But history and analysis simply does not bear that out.


That’s not accurate regarding Humanae Vitae. And leaves radicals who sought to destroy the Church from within, and in greater society, out of the picture. First, what actually happened when Pope Paul VI decided not to follow the advice of his advisors at the time - 1968.

"Within 24 hours, in an event unprecedented in the history of the Church, more than 200 dissenting theologians signed a full-page ad in The New York Times in protest. Not only did they declare their disagreement with encyclical’s teaching; they went one step further, far beyond their authority as theologians, and actually encouraged dissent among the lay faithful.

They asserted the following: “Therefore, as Roman Catholic theologians, conscious of our duty and our limitations, we conclude that spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.”

Shortly after Vatican II - 1967


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