Mandated under an Obama-era broadening of Title IX, the federal law that governs gender equity in education, colleges, and universities has created an elaborate bureaucracy replete with lawyers, investigators, case workers, survivor advocates, and peer counselors to protect the students from sexual abuse and harassment on their campuses. Unfortunately, none of the campus bureaucracy that has been built has done anything to protect the young men on Catholic campuses who are discerning the priesthood and who have found themselves victims of sexual abuse and harassment by the predatory priests and senior seminarians who supervised them.
Seton Hall is just the latest Catholic university to find itself the target of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment of the seminarians enrolled on its New Jersey campus. According to Catholic News Agency, seminarians and priests from ordination classes spanning 30 years reported an active and predatory subculture of priests. One priest told a reporter that he had been told as a newly arrived seminarian to “lock his bedroom door at night to avoid visitors…” He added: “There was definitely a group of, well, I guess we’re calling them ‘uncles’ now. They would come by to visit … bring them stuff and take them out.”
One Newark priest told Catholic News Agency that he had direct knowledge that Fr. Mark O’Malley was removed in 2014 as rector of the Newark seminary after an allegation that he had hidden a camera in a seminary bedroom. Another said that when the now-disgraced former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick would visit the seminary there was a standing joke that they had to “hide the handsome ones.” Preying on young men who wanted to be priests, McCarrick invited seminarians for overnight stays at his beach house on the New Jersey shore. According to press reports, McCarrick would assign sleeping arrangements, always directing one seminarian to share his room with its one large bed. The former Cardinal McCarrick, who was removed from active ministry by Pope Francis in June, had served as president of Seton Hall’s Board of Trustees.
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An independent investigation at Seton Hall University is currently being conducted by Kathleen Ruemmler, a former White House Counsel to former President Barack Obama. Last month, in the midst of the investigation of the seminarian sexual abuse allegations, Mary Meehan, the interim president of Seton Hall, found it necessary to issue what the New Jersey Star Ledger called a “stern” rebuke to the student body for making Seton Hall’s seminarians the targets of verbal abuse on campus. Meehan said that her office was informed of several instances of foul language and incivility being aimed at members of the Immaculate Conception Seminary.
Lamenting that she was “saddened” that she needed to remind the campus to be welcoming to everyone, Meehan pointed to her “diversity and inclusion” series of lectures and initiatives as evidence of their tolerance for all. In interviews for the campus newspaper, The Setonian, one undergraduate student suggested that “in this political climate, people’s feelings toward religion have been agitated. I know that opinion is not too great toward the Church due to the scandal related to the Archdiocese and Seton Hall.” Another student said that “Even if people think negatively about the seminarians in light of the news, I never thought people would physically voice those thoughts and act against anyone from that group…”
Beyond the seminarian victims of sexual harassment and abuse, some young men discerning the priesthood have found themselves victims of those enlisted to mentor them. According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, five young men from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. provided similar accounts of harassment and sexual obsession by former priest, Matthew Riedlinger. Four of the five were in their late teens or early 20s when Riedlinger began inappropriate and persistent sexual dialogues with them. Tim Schmalz, one of his sexual harassment victims, said he met Riedlinger, a Catholic University graduate, when he was approaching ordination through Monsignor Walter Rossi, the National Shrine’s rector. Rossi was a friend of Riedlinger’s and had vacationed with him in Rome, the Star Ledger reports. Schmalz said that Rossi recommended that the young men seek Riedlinger out as a mentor as they discerned their possible vocations to the priesthood.
Concerned about the sexual harassment they were experiencing, Schmalz, an altar server at the National Shrine, and one of his friends, who was also being sexually harassed by Riedlinger, set up a sting to try and catch the priest. According to the Star Ledger, the two claimed that they were not looking to have the priest charged. They only wanted to prove to the diocese that the priest had a problem and should not be in ministry. Pretending to be a 16-year-old boy, they “friended” Riedlinger and within a week the priest steered the conversation to sex—encouraging the boy to enjoy sex and pornography—in pornographic texting conversations lasting sometimes up to six hours. Schmalz and his roommate cut off contact and forwarded the transcript to Trenton’s Bishop David M. O’Connell—formerly the president of Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University.
Bishop O’Connell assured Schmalz that he had personally escorted Riedlinger to a hospital for inpatient treatment. But no one notified the parishioners at the priest’s former parish. Schmalz and his roommate continued to press the diocese to notify parishioners, saying that they worried that Riedlinger might have spoken to other teens the way he spoke to them. Bishop O’Connell finally informed parishioners of the complaints in a statement a day after the Star Ledger questioned the diocese about Riedlinger and its decision to withhold information about the allegations. Monsignor Rossi remains the Rector of Washington’s National Shrine—where Catholic University students participate as altar servers. Rossi also continues to be listed as a member of Catholic University’s Board of Trustees. Although the District of Columbia’s attorney general, Karl Raciney, announced on October 23 that his office has opened an investigation into clerical sexual abuse in the Washington Archdiocese, it is uncertain whether Catholic University will be a part of that investigation.
Seton Hall’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, which follow fashionable trends in higher education, were not written with homosexual predation in mind, and are therefore unlikely to make much of a difference in eradicating the culture of sexual abuse and harassment of young men discerning the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Seminary. What is certain is that Catholic colleges and universities attached to seminaries are just beginning to realize the role they may have played in the most damaging clergy abuse scandal in the Church’s history.