Abuse Crisis Answer: Stricter Seminary Entrance Standards

In late February, Pope Francis will meet with the heads of bishops’ conferences from around the world to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis which began about 50 years ago and continues to afflict the Church to this day. In a previously published article in Crisis Magazine, I pointed out the futility of this three- or four-day meeting in Rome next month. I would like to explain here in more detail why their meeting will be futile.

This meeting will be futile primarily because of something the organizers and other Catholic leaders refuse to acknowledge: the root cause of clergy sexual abuse is homosexuality among bishops and clergy. Due to this reluctance, the suggested topics focus instead on various types of Church “process” such as: stewardship, administration repair, educational programs, and accountability. All the “solutions” are designed as damage control after the dirty deeds are done—despite the fact that the pope admitted that the solution to clerical sexual abuse could not be reduced to “organizational” problems.

However, there is one topic that the pope and bishops are not addressing. If they did, it would make the short February meeting worthwhile: seminary and religious community entrance requirements.

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Whether it is sexual abuse of minors between the ages of 13 and 17 or sexual relations between clergy and consenting or non-consenting adults, the problem is the flow of young men into the priesthood and religious life who later become victims of bishops and other clergy. This early abuse by those in authority increases the probability that when these victims become priests and religious themselves, they will in turn sexually abuse other boys and young men under their care.  Particularly vulnerable young men should not be placed in an environment where abuse may take place. This process of abuse must be stopped at the very beginning.

The 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice Report (table 3.4.1) indicates that when a boy is sexually abused by anyone he is more likely to be a sexual abuser himself. And if he was abused by a priest while in the seminary, he was more likely to abuse boys after he became a priest. So, first of all, if a person has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, he must not be accepted into the seminary.

The present rule for the evaluation of men with homosexual tendencies seeking to enter the seminary was developed in 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education and it reads: “The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’”

The Congregation distinguishes between “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” and “homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem.” The document also states: “Nevertheless, such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.” This last statement implies that a seminarian can be accepted and remain in seminary life for a number of years (three or four) as long as he gets rid of this attraction before the last three years of his seminary training.

While the statement by the Congregation for Catholic Education makes several good points, it does not go far enough. Of course, the Church cannot accept as a candidate any person who practices homosexuality or supports the “gay culture.” That is obvious. So is denying entrance to any candidate with “deep-seated” homosexual tendencies. What the seminary should also not allow are candidates with any homosexual tendencies, no matter how deep, because the exception in the rules does not allow enough time to screen out men vulnerable to sexual manipulation by homosexual bishops, priests, and other seminarians.

There may be a valid distinction between candidates with a “deep-seated homosexual tendency” and ones with “transitory same-sex attractions.” Even so, we should really be asking whether a person with a “transitory” homosexual tendency should be allowed into the seminary in the first place.

The negative factors that contribute to “transitory same-sex attraction” in a seminarian only serve to impede his formation. These negative factors are documented by Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D., and Richard P. Fitzgibbons, M.D., in a Linacre Quarterly study titled “The Distinction between Deep-Seated Homosexual Tendencies and Transitory Same-Sex Attractions in Candidates for Seminary and Religious Life.” These negative factors are:

Close male friendships often are not present in childhood, resulting in a deep loneliness, sadness, insecurity, anxiety, anger, and poor body image. The attraction to other males often begins prior to adolescence and is an unconscious attempt to escape from emotional pain. Also, a lack of secure attachment to the father is present in some of these men that intensifies loneliness and male insecurity.

A person who enters the seminary with a “transitory same-sex attraction” may end up with a permanent same-sex attraction once he experiences living in close quarters with other males. He will probably experience aspects of the close living quarters commonly occurring in college dorms—such as roommates walking around in underwear and using open common showers, etc. Seeing fellow seminarians in such intimate surroundings may very well inflame a latent transitory sexual attraction into a permanent homosexual attraction.

While Pope Francis has not endorsed this concern completely, he has expressed some sympathy for it. When speaking about accepting seminarians in light of homosexual tendencies, he said: “It may be that at the moment they are accepted they don’t exhibit that tendency, but later they come out.”

Clearly, a declaration needs to be made by Pope Francis and agreed upon by the heads of the conferences of bishops that any man with a sexual attraction to other men—even if this attraction is a “transitory sexual attraction”—does not have a vocation to either the priesthood or the religious life.

Perhaps this decision will seem too restrictive to some but we must remember that no one—not even a saint in good mental health—has a right to become a priest or join a religious community. The Church is free to choose whoever she thinks will be best suited to serve the people of God. Higher entrance requirements will do more to encourage vocations than continuously making the same careless mistakes out of fear of depressing seminary enrollment. Furthermore, we should have learned by now that when it comes to protecting our vulnerable boys and young men in parishes and seminaries, it is better to be overprotective than not protective enough.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Pope Francis greets recently ordained priests at the general audience in the Paul VI Hall on December 20, 2017. (Photo credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)


  • Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M. Cap

    Fr. Regis Scanlon, O.F.M.Cap., is spiritual director and chaplain for Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in Denver, as well as being one of the spiritual directors for the Missionaries of Charity in the western United States. He was director of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver, from 1999 to 2010; a chaplain for Missionaries of Charity at their now-closed AIDS hospice, Seton House, and at Gift of Mary homeless shelter for women in Denver from 1989 to 2008. His articles have been published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Faith, Soul Magazine, Pastoral Life, and The Priest. He has also made three series for Mother Angelica’s EWTN: “Crucial Questions,” “Catholic Answers,” and “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?”

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