— and being shunned as a result
The text from Stephen Parisi’s fellow seminarian was ominous: Watch your back.
Parisi, dean of his class of seminarians in the Buffalo Diocese, and another classmate had gone to seminary officials about a recent party in a parish rectory. At the party in April, the men said, priests were directing obscene comments to the seminarians, discussing graphic photos and joking about professors allegedly swapping A’s for sex.
“I just wanted to be sure that you guys are protected and are watching your backs,” the seminarian’s text said. Authorities are “fishing to figure out who the nark [sic] is.”
Parisi and Matthew Bojanowski, who was academic chairman of the class, have made explosive news nationally recently after alleging that they were bullied by superiors, grilled by their academic dean under police-like interrogation and then shunned by many of their fellow seminarians after going public with sexual harassment complaints about those up the chain of command. The Vatican on Thursday announced it is investigating broad allegations church leaders have mishandled clergy abuse cases.
As striking as the charges is the fact that the men are speaking out at all. Parisi and Bojanowski — who both left seminary in August — are among a small but growing number of Catholic priests and seminarians who in the past year have gone to investigators, journalists and lawyers with complaints about their superiors. While still rare, such dissent has until now been nearly unheard of in a profession that requires vows of obedience to one’s bishop and offers no right to recourse, no independent human resources department.
Prompting the pushback, the men and experts on the U.S. church say, is what many Catholics view as the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to respond frankly and transparently to recently revealed cases of sexual mistreatment of seminarians and priests. That, and the #MeToo moment, in which Americans have shown new willingness to speak out against adult sexual abuse and harassment.
“My conscience bothered me. If it meant being thrown out, so be it,” said Parisi, now 45, who joined the seminary in 2018 after 25 years as a member of a Catholic religious order, caring for the sick and dying. He thought he knew the church well when he entered seminary. Now living with his parents and unemployed, he has received hate mail, and says priests in his hometown won’t acknowledge him. His faith in the institution has been “shattered,” he said. “That’s what you get for exposing the truth.”
In his Aug. 15 resignation letter, Parisi urged other seminarians, if they have issues, to go to state officials or journalists.
In addition to Buffalo, young men wrestling with scandals in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia, among other places, have also weighed expectations of obedience against their desire for more accountability — and chosen the latter.
More than half a dozen priests and former seminarians were the key whistleblowers in the recent fall of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, a well-connected fundraiser and donator in the U.S. church. Two recently exited West Virginia seminarians have gone public with allegations that Bransfield sexually mistreated them and have sued. One, who has not been named, said he was assaulted. The other, Vincent DeGeorge, 30, said Bransfield kissed and groped him, and pressured him to sleep over and watch porn.
“Because of the sex abuse crisis, I told myself going in [that] I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t going to let myself be complicit in a corrupt institution,” said DeGeorge, who left seminary last year after he says he was sexually harassed by his then-bishop, wrote an op-ed criticizing regional church leaders and quickly became a pariah.
“To scrutinize a bishop is to attack the church, is to be a bad Catholic,” DeGeorge said.
Several current and former clergy members spoke out beginning last summer about their treatment by defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick, some by name and others anonymously. The Washington Post has received more calls from Catholic seminarians and clergy members with tips and concerns in the past year than in the previous decade.
“I’ve never had conversations in all the previous years like the ones I’ve had in the past year. People feel they can finally talk about things” among themselves, said a seminarian in the D.C. region who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he fears dismissal.
Some said the expanding of a more aggressive Catholic media in the past couple of years has emboldened Catholics, including seminarians, to challenge the hierarchy.
A power imbalance
But even as the scandals have spurred some to speak out, church culture and theology dissuade more from raising their voices.
In the Catholic Church, bishops are kings of their dioceses, and priests swear an oath of loyalty to them. Seminarians’ pursuit of the priesthood rests completely with their superiors — the bishop in particular. There is no appeal or required explanation if one is deemed not to be priest material.
Some seminarians described having their spiritual fitness scrutinized if they raised too many questions. They fear that criticizing a bishop or higher-up could get them removed from seminary.
An internal church report investigating allegations against Bransfield quotes one priest-secretary who was allegedly harassed as saying he was in seminary when the bishop first asked him to remove his shirt.
“He stated that he did so out of fear. ‘Your life is at the will and pleasure of the bishop when you’re in seminary,’ ” the man told the lay investigators last year, according to the report, which The Post obtained.
In an email on May 7, 2018, a diocesan official in West Virginia told DeGeorge that he must stay over with Bransfield for a week — even though the then-seminarian did not want to.
“The request … was not actually a request. It was basically an expectation. You need to be there with the bishop during those dates,” the email reads.
The guide for seminarians by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops encourages submissiveness.
“Seminaries should articulate that priestly obedience begins with humble and willing cooperation in seminary life, docility to direction and wholehearted compliance with the seminary’s policies,” it says.
Priests, seminarians and former seminarians described in interviews a climate of self-censure, with men often tattling on one another and gossiping rather than speaking openly. And when they do speak up, they said church authorities often do nothing.
They “say the right things, how we encourage honesty and openness, but deep down it’s clear they want to move on from [issues] as fast as possible,” said Mike Kelsey, who was a seminarian in the D.C. Archdiocese from last summer until January when students were openly upset that more hadn’t been done to learn what the past two archbishops — McCarrick and Donald Wuerl — did and knew regarding sexual misconduct.
Kelsey and other seminarians and priests interviewed for this article agreed that the problem lies in how the vows are interpreted and lived out within the church.
“I don’t think obedience is bad,” Kelsey said, noting that corporations also suffer from similar transparency problems. “But it’s also not something I’m signing up for if the hierarchy behaves in this way. If leadership and so many are not willing to get to basic levels of truth and justice, I’m not willing to sit there and obey them. I think the church is deeply corrupt and broken.”
Questions about how sexual misconduct in seminary is handled are considered so pressing that the University of Notre Dame last month released a first-of-its-kind study of 1500 seminarians on the topic. About 3,500 U.S. post-college men — who make up the vast majority of seminarians — were enrolled in programs in 2018-2019, according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Seventeen percent said sexual abuse or misconduct is a problem at their schools, the survey found. Asked whether their administrators take the issue seriously, 84 percent said “very,” while 11 percent said somewhat or not at all. Of the 10 percent who said they have experienced, or may have experienced, sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct, 51 percent said they had not reported it. Of those who did, 42 percent said their reports were either “completely” taken seriously and acted upon or acted upon “for the most part.”
To get the seminarians to talk, researchers offered anonymity.
“They are afraid they’ll be judged as temporarily unfit, too assertive,” John Cavadini, director of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, which crafted the new research, said about seminarians. “That’s one aspect of seminary education you wouldn’t have a close parallel of outside seminary. The bishop is a peculiar concentration of power in one person.”
The Rev. Carter Griffin, rector of the St. John Paul II Seminary in the D.C. Archdiocese, said that, if taught correctly, obedience to church authority can be a beautiful act, “to follow the Lord through the word of another.”
But younger men who grew up in the shadow of earlier abuse scandals know that automatically going “into protection mode” isn’t wise for the church, Griffin said. Regardless of what higher-ups do, he said, seminarians must do what’s right.
“ It might mean that people will misunderstand you, there may be consequences for your actions and you have to shoulder those,” he said.
Shunning as punishment
Speaking out, especially for those who do not leave seminary or the priesthood, can be risky. Some seminarians report a lack of support from their classmates — even social shunning.
An unnamed seminarian who filed a lawsuit against the West Virginia diocese earlier this year alleging that Bransfield sexually assaulted him declined to comment for this article. But his mother told The Post that many priests “whom he called friends and brothers” and many of his former fellow seminarians for the most part have kept their distance from him.
“They feel they have to choose the church,” she said. The Post isn’t naming her to protect the anonymity of her son. The Post doesn’t identify sexual assault victims without their permission.
The man and the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese reached an unspecified settlement over the summer.
DeGeorge’s allegation of sexual mistreatment by Bransfield became widely known recently when The Post reported it in a profile of William Lori, the Baltimore archbishop who led the investigation of Bransfield. He had already made waves for a seminarian — he was on leave — in December when he wrote a Baltimore Sun essay critical of Lori. Many priests and his former classmates still avoid him — or speak of him as a troublemaker, he said.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 13 in Ohio County, DeGeorge alleges that Bransfield, the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not rein in someone known as a harasser, leaving seminarians vulnerable.
In Buffalo, the priests whom Parisi and Bojanowski blew the whistle on were suspended for a few weeks and returned to ministry in June. Bishop Richard Malone issued a statement that seminarians who spoke out “are to be lauded for coming forward.” Malone is accused of mishandling of sexual abuse and misconduct cases.
After more than 20 years serving Catholic organizations, Parisi says he’s looking for work outside the church.
“There needs to be major reform … But in my view, that won’t happen. The system is a very well-oiled machine,” he said. The church hierarchy believes “it doesn’t need fixing in their view because it’s running exactly the way they want it to.”
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By: Bob Blake
A Vatican office has temporarily suspended the decision of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to no longer recognize Brebeuf Jesuit Prepatory School as a Catholic institution over the school’s refusal to fire a teacher in a same-sex marriage.
The decision of the archdiocese to cut ties with Brebeuf was announced in June in a decre from Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.
The school reached out to the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome to consider “the issues at hand and, hopefully, rescind and permanently set aside the Archbishop’s decree.”
“We have just learned that the Congregation for Catholic Education has decided to suspend the Archbishop’s decree on an interim basis, pending its final resolution of our appeal,” school President Father Bill Verbryke wrote in a letter posted to the school’s website on Monday. “The Archbishop very kindly informed me that, as a result of this temporary suspension of his decree, Brebeuf is free to resume our normal sacramental celebrations of the Eucharist. Most happily, this means that we will be able to celebrate the Mass for the Feast Day of St. Jean de Brebeuf on October 24.”
In the letter Verbryke said the suspension of the order is temporary.
“It does not mean that the matter has been resolved, or that any permanent decision has been made,” Verbryke wrote. “It also does not mean that anyone should infer that the Congregation for Catholic Education is leaning one way or the other on any of the issues at hand. The Congregation has simply granted a temporary suspension of the Archbishop’s decree until it makes a final decision.”
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Its errors run from toting a saint’s relics around Scotland to an invitation to a reactionary priest
A grim little vaudeville act is currently touring some of Scotland’s Catholic parishes, featuring the remains of Thérèse of Lisieux, a long-dead French nun. Thérèse died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1897 and was canonised in 1925, becoming Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. By all accounts, this young woman developed an exemplary devotion to her faith and was the author of some beautiful (if slightly ripe) spiritual tracts. I’m not sure she deserved the fate of having some of her remains bumped in and out of cars and through the hills of South Lanarkshire and Paisley for the devoted titillation of the faithful.
These relics of Saint Thérèse are considered to be “first class”, this being the ultimate seal of Vatican authentication. To be accorded this distinction, they must be parts of the bodies of the saints, such as fragments of bone, skin, blood, hair or ash. Apparently, poor dead Thérèse (or parts thereof) has been getting ferried like this throughout the Catholic world since 1994. Is there no one to call a halt to this unedifying distortion of faith? Can we not let this blameless lassie rest in peace?
In secular society, we similarly raise up those who have performed feats of heroism that inspire us to make more of ourselves or to come to the aid of those in need. Behold the Scotland national football team. Our squad hasn’t qualified for a proper international tournament for 21 years and has long been tormented by the feats of better generations. The ghosts of great Scottish managers and players still haunt Hampden Park and our modern performers seem mesmerised by their shadows as they struggle to master the basics of the game. Thus, there were more people interested in attending Scotland’s rugby international against Georgia than our footballers’ encounter with Russia on Friday night. Perhaps we could seek permission from the families of Bill Shankly, Jim Baxter and Jimmy Johnstone to exhume their bodies in the national interest.
A lock of Shankly’s hair or Baxter’s left metatarsal or a bone fragment from Jinky’s hips, which he used to swivel and pirouette away from defenders, could be secured and placed in a casket. These could then be borne aloft through the neighbourhoods that reared these great footballers for the purposes of rekindling interest among these communities for our national sport. Perhaps, too, something of the sorcery interred in their bones might escape into the feet of a passing urchin and transport him to greatness in a dark blue jersey.
When the church’s spinmeisters urge its followers to bow down in medieval veneration to the bleached fragments of dead heroes you know that political machinations lie beneath. Our secular aristocracy relies on the fecundity of the royal family or the sacrifice of its soldiers in contrived theatres of war to avert our gaze from problems nearer to home. And the Roman Catholic church, still reeling from the global crisis of clerical sex abuse, is keen to encourage supernatural devotion like this for the purposes of redirecting scrutiny of its own grievous failings.
The success of the Reformation lay in freeing people from the spiritual slavery of Rome, where the bones of saints and counterfeit fragments of the Holy Cross had become an industry. The profits from this paid for the ruinous and brutal Crusades (and the beginning of Islamophobia).
The reformers offered a purer and less unequal route to heaven and the mercy of God, unencumbered by profiteering, exploitation and superstition. It wasn’t just a theological revolution, but a temporal one, which seemed to say that you didn’t need to wait until you entered paradise to experience equality and fairness.
While Saint Thérèse’s relics continue on their ghostly tour up and down the hills and glens, the visit to Scotland takes place of the American cardinal Raymond Burke, perhaps the most powerful Catholic churchman after Pope Francis. Burke, who has long viewed the current pope’s relaxed and compassionate views on human sexuality and the environment with deep suspicion, has become his greatest critic. He has thus become a totem for rightwing Catholic conservatives, a powerful and influential lobby, which is currently being wooed by Donald Trump and his chosen acolyte in this field, Steve Bannon. Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence that Thérèse’s posthumous visit to Scotland is occurring at the same time as Burke’s live one, but I hae ma doots.
Among the cardinal’s wide range of reactionary views is that female altar servers are a wretched sign of the increased “feminisation” of the church. “The introduction of girl servers led many boys to abandon altar service,” he has said. “Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural.” This is rubbish, of course. Where I grew up, if young female altar servers had been allowed there would have been a stampede among the boys to toil in the Lord’s vineyard alongside them. Burke also views any form of gay relationships as “evil” and has encouraged Catholics not to expose their children to close relatives who are actively gay. He’s had less to say about why the God he purports to serve and who does not make mistakes created, in His wisdom, gay people.
The familiars and acolytes attending this false prophet will include a shadowy assortment of arcane organisations that seek to preserve unfettered clerical control and power by means of exclusion and unholy inquisition. Spare a thought for us Catholics at this time. Not only are we seeking to deal with Brexit in the secular world but leave this shower of ecclesiastical Blimps in the spiritual one.
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By Deena Yellin
For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.
The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.
The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.
“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.
Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.
The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.
Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.
The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.
Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.
The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.
Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.
“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”
“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.
Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.
“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.
“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”
Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.
The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.
Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.
These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.
The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014
The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.
A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.
For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.
Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”
He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.
Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.
“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.
She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.
Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.
The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.
“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.
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