How The Catholic Church Trains Its Own About Abuse
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This week, a grand jury report found hundreds of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania abused more than 1,000 children over a period of 70 years. The Vatican released a strongly worded statement condemning the behavior of the clergymen and the system that enabled them to act with impunity. But this is just the latest episode in a scandal that stretches across the U.S. and around the world. We wondered. How does the Roman Catholic Church prepare its men in seminary to deal with such cases of abuse? And what training does it provide on issues of celibacy, sexuality and ethics? Paul Blaschko attended the St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota from 2008 to 2011. He wrote about his experience there for the magazine Commonweal. I asked him about his first exposure to this type of training.
PAUL BLASCHKO: One of the workshops that was put on during my first year there was a workshop that was called the Freedom And Victory Workshop. It was put on by an outside organization. You know, we started off by having kind of an open mic, where seminarians were encouraged to get up in front of like a hundred of their peers and kind of detail past indiscretions and their sexual history or things that they currently struggled with sexually. And that sort of gave me the wrong vibe from the outset. But I became even more concerned when I attended one particular session. It was called Discerning Psycho-Spiritual Dynamics In Sexual Compulsion. And at the outset, we were given a list of the names of particular demons and the ways in which they were supposed to try to influence priests, in particular, to behave in sexually immoral ways. And things really got weird when we participated in this - what they called a group psycho-drama. And each of us were assigned the names of one of these demons. And we were supposed to, like, act out this role and tempt, like, one of the other role-playing seminarians into, you know, sexual immorality. And it was just very bizarre and kind of disturbing.
LUDDEN: What was the message to you?
BLASCHKO: The message that came through is that sexuality is a battlefield, and there's temptations. But, you know, you can engage in battle with these demons and come out victorious.
LUDDEN: You've written about this experience in the past, and you have also said that the issue of masturbation came up. What did they say there?
BLASCHKO: One of the things, you know, that was touched on in the formation program was what are normal sexual behaviors of healthy priests. And the seminarians that I had talked to, you know, we kind of came to the table thinking, oh, we're going to get an overview, just at a psychological level, of the challenges that you face as a celibate priest. But really, what it came down to was stern don't-do-it - like, with respect to any sexual behavior that the Church would say is sinful.
LUDDEN: Not just sexual behavior actually - didn't you say they had, like, warnings about talking to women?
BLASCHKO: Yeah, another thing that kind of disturbed me during my training - we had masses where priests would give homilies devoted to explaining how women on campus will try to seduce you and will try to tempt you to immorality even in just the way they dress. And you have to fight the same sort of spiritual battle by only moving around campus in groups of men and by actively limiting your interaction with women.
LUDDEN: I want to be clear that this was your personal experience here. I mean, did you ever talk to men from other seminaries? Or do you have any idea how common this kind of approach is?
BLASCHKO: After I wrote about these experiences, I was contacted by quite a few seminarians - priests, ex-priests. And I was told, like, look. This captures my experience in the church or my experience with formation. And, you know, a lot of them told me stories about how they had expressed concerns and been totally shut down or even, you know, had their life messed up in sometimes really significant ways. So I get the sense from the people that I've heard that it's not an isolated thing and that human formation, especially with regard to sexuality, is still in crisis in the Catholic Church.
LUDDEN: What do you wish they had said? What did you want? And what kind of training do you think is needed?
BLASCHKO: What I expected when I went into the seminary was, first of all, professionals who work in, say, psychology or just other aspects of human formation - even just somebody to come in and train you on the basics of like criminal sexual behavior. What do you do if you witness or if you hear about somebody who's committed a crime - right? - who sexually assaulted a minor, say? And so when I encountered this kind of over-spiritualized, very dramatic battle model, I was just taken aback. And I was just confused because it seems like the obvious way of approaching these issues is to draw on the expertise of people who train those who work with the public to make sure that, like, the systemic issues have been dealt with.
LUDDEN: You ended up leaving your seminary. Why?
BLASCHKO: Yeah, I left the seminary - not just after the initial experiences that I've described here but after going to some of the relevant staff at the seminary - going to the bishop - and talking to people about what I thought was, you know, just an inadequate response to the ongoing priestly abuse crisis and finding out that there's just too much resistance out there. And there's really not much that individual priests can do to affect systemic change. And so you know, when I realized that if I continued on in my studies and became a priest - when I realized that that would basically mean becoming complicit in a system that I really couldn't see a way of changing for the better, I just thought I couldn't in good conscience continue in formation.
LUDDEN: Since the report that came out this week about abuse allegations in Pennsylvania, we've heard a lot from church leaders about how the abuse described in that report is a problem of the past. And they have made changes and are making more changes. Do you feel that the church has taken adequate steps to keep this from happening?
BLASCHKO: I'm not at all convinced that this is a problem of the past. I think there might be differences in some of the particulars now versus in the '60s and '70s and '80s. But my concern is really with the ongoing crisis of leadership in dealing with these problems. I don't think that the particular instances of abuse have stopped. I don't think that the crisis is over in that sense. And I know, for a fact, that the crisis of leadership has not even been started to be dealt with in an adequate way.
LUDDEN: Paul Blaschko is post-doctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame. Thank you so much.
BLASCHKO: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And we reached out to St. John Vianney College Seminary. Father Michael Becker, its director, told us the current training puts more emphasis on trust and openness and that all seminarians are told to report directly to the police if they witness any incidents of abuse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.