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Campus, seminary react to priest scandal

C. Spencer Beggs | Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Editor’s Note: This article is part two of a two-part series about the Catholic Church.

Two years after news surfaced that Catholic Church officials had covered up evidence about sexual abuse or rape of minors by priests, both the Catholic community at Notre Dame and across the country are still coming to terms with the scandal.

Earlier this month, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the results of an audit indicating that 90 percent of the nation’s 195 dioceses and eparchies are complying with the USCCB’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

Father Richard McBrien, theology professor, said the audit was a step in the right direction but could have been prevented if the Church had responded properly when allegations began coming to light over 25 years ago.

“The results are both impressive and misleading,” McBrien said. “They are impressive because many dioceses have, in fact, been doing the best they can to address this terrible crisis. The results are misleading, however, because this process does not cover the many religious orders and the thousands of priests who belong to them. Also, some of the dioceses were not as forthcoming – and still are not – as they should be.”

But McBrien said that it is too early to tell if the scandal will have negative ramifications on the number of men entering seminaries, but he did not think that the scandal had provoked a crisis in the religion itself.

Crisis of faith or not, it is unlikely that the sexual abuse scandal will bode well for a Church that is already having problems recruiting priests. According to a 2003 USCCB report, 44,487 diocesan and religious priests served the nation’s 63.4 million Catholics – about 7 priests per 10,000 lay Catholics. In 1965, there were 12.9 priests per 10,000 lay Catholics.

Although the actual number of priests has only dropped slightly, the number of Catholics in the country has increased substantially, led by Hispanic immigration. A controversial study by Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Younger predicts that the U.S. will lose 16,000 priests by 2015 – a 40 percent decline. To make matters worse, the Catholic population of the country is expected to increase by 65 percent in that time. The average age of priests will also rise, making turnover a much more substantial problem as seminary admission rates falter.

Schoenherr began his study in the 1980s and published his results in 1993. Although Schoenherr’s projection was initially dismissed by analysts, his successor, Younger, was able to show it to be statistically accurate within 1 percent over a 10-year period in 1998. Twenty-seven percent of U.S. parishes already do not have a resident priest.

Father Jim King, director of vocations at the Moreau Seminary, said that seminarian applicants are screened rigorously, though some ask about the scandal and have had a mixed reaction to it.

“People who are truly called to do this are not going to be dissuaded by it. There’s scandal everywhere. Your generation has become inoculated against it,” King said.

King said that due to the irregularities of how many people enter the seminary each year it is hard to gauge if the sexual abuse scandal has had any effect on application rates. He said that there has been some shock and disappointment in the seminary, but he does not believe that it will affect the number of men seeking ordination.

“From what I have seen, there’s been an amazing resiliency, as well,” King said. “I haven’t seen people leaving out of disgust.”

Old College freshman Joe Wysocki said that the news of the priest scandal hasn’t affected his decision to work toward becoming a priest.

“You have to think about yourself and you have to know that that’s not the majority, that’s the minority. I know that if I became a priest, I wouldn’t be part of that,” Wysocki said.

Wysocki said that people’s reactions to his priestly ambitions have been overwhelmingly positive.

“Once you get to know people, I think those sorts of ideas pass away,” he said.

McBrien agrees that the controversy will eventually pass, but says that officials need to be more proactive in openly addressing it and its causes.

“For starters, the officials of the Church need to allow every relevant question to be placed on the table and discussed,” McBrien said.  “Nothing can be ruled out of bounds from the start. Not celibacy. Not the ordination of women. Not seminary education.  Not the way bishops are selected. Not the way the Church formulates its teachings on human sexuality and reproduction. Those who insist that certain questions like these may not be discussed are making a constructive resolution of this long-term, deep-seated problem impossible.”