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Spotlight Report

Seminarians follow the bishops' debate

By Charles Sennott, Globe Staff and Jason Horowitz, Globe Correspondent, 4/28/2002

ROME - On the winding Gianicolo street that overlooks the cupola of St. Peter's Cathedral, young seminarians made their way back Wednesday from their traditional passeggio, or daily walk, part of a tradition meant to ensure that future priests are healthy in body as well as soul.

But the young seminarians living at North American College had to sidestep the satellite-equipped news vans of American television crews and duck aggressive reporters trying to corner them for comments on the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

''There has been a tear in the fabric of trust between the ministers and the people. The bishops are icons. It's the job of the parish priest to do the repair work,'' said Dan Hanley, a 30-year-old first-year student from McLean, Va. ''That will be our mission.''

At the end of the extraordinary meeting here Tuesday and Wednesday between US cardinals and Pope John Paul II, one of the more controversial measures drafted by American church leaders to confront the widening crisis was the announcement of an in-depth study of seminaries.

The presence at the meeting of Cardinal Zenon Grocholewsky, the Vatican's prefect for the congregation of Catholic education, was another indication that seminary education is seen as a way to get to the root of the abuse problem, church observers say. It may also indicate that celibacy instruction has been found inadequate by the hierarchy.

The summit's final communique stated that the seminary study ''must be made without delay'' and have ''particular emphasis on the need for fidelity to the Church's teaching, especially in the area of morality, and the need for a deeper study of the criteria of suitability of candidates to the priesthood.''

Some Vatican officials have voiced worry that a culture of homosexuality pervades the seminaries where young priests are trained. On Tuesday, seminarians looking on from the rafters in their residence's auditorium listened to Wilton Gregory, head of the US Conference of Bishops, tell journalists that a ''homosexual atmosphere or dynamic'' harmed seminary life.

''It is most importantly a struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men,'' he said.

The Rev. John Wauck, a member of the ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei, agreed with the new principle of seminary research. ''The seminaries need to be studied,'' he said. ''People get too lax.''

But reformers within the church are furious about this approach. Liberal theologians say that a conservative clerical hierarchy - which many Catholics feel has failed in its leadership by sweeping abuse cases under the rug or, in some cases, shifting known abusers from parish to parish - is carrying out a kind of doctrinal coup rather then confronting its mistakes.

''They are saying that if Geoghan had a better moral discourse that he wouldn't have been raping children and this scandal wouldn't have happened? Are they kidding?'' said the Rev. James Keenan, a professor of ethics at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, referring to the defrocked priest and convicted child molester John Geoghan. ''Do they really think Catholics are going to buy this?''

Church hierarchy appears to be more concerned about preserving itself rather than facing the problems confronting the church, Keenan added. ''They want to come out of this with a sense that their medieval clerical culture will be stronger than ever,'' he said. ''This is a lot of conservative spin, but not an attempt to confront the failures of leadership.''

A few of the 160 elite seminarians who have been selected to study in Rome and currently live at the North American College offered differing views about the debate going on within the church over their own training.

''Anyone capable of being a good priest should be allowed to be a priest,'' Jeff Lorig, 25, a native of Omaha. ''So that includes homosexuals.''

Lorig said that he agreed with Chicago's Cardinal Francis E. George, who last week said ''an ordained priest is a married man. He's a committed man, the bride of Christ.''

Multiple sessions by Gregory and other clergy with seminarians have concentrated on the topic of celibacy. Though the topic is continually addressed and vows renewed throughout a priest's lifetime, workshops were being scheduled here to deal with sexuality in the crucial early phases of a clerical career.

''There's tons of talk to remind us that we are not destroying our sexuality, or getting rid of it,'' said Hanley. ''Celibacy is using our sexuality in a higher cause.''

In the days leading up to last week's summit, two American cardinals, Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and J. Francis Stafford, who is assigned to the Vatican, signaled that they were ready to discuss the ''roots and roles'' of celibacy with an open mind.

But after the pope stressed celibacy's essential role in the credibility of the clergy, church leaders concluded that the sexual abuse scandal had nothing to do with celibacy vows. No link between celibacy and pedophilia could be scientifically maintained, they said.

Seminarian David Center, 22, of Knoxville, Tenn., said that reaffirming celibacy was crucial to the church. ''Sure it's a struggle and a lot of hard work,'' he said, ''but it's also a great sign to the whole world in these times of moral laxity.''

An active debate going on at the top levels of the Vatican, as well in many Catholic parishes, is whether clergy who face credible accusations and who have undergone psychological counseling, or have led priestly lives for decades, should be unconditionally dismissed.

Joshua Rodrigue, 25, a seminary student from Louisiana, thinks that forgiveness is the key.

''It is necessary to look at both sides,'' said Rodrigue. ''Children are the victims, but there are also the priests who have done these things. They must be re-educated, reformed, and treated to an explanation of the teachings of the Church. There must be a medicine for both.''

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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