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Published: Tuesday, 12/3/2002

SHAME, SINS, AND SECRETS

Search for solution turns to quality of seminary applicants

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

Standing in front of a microphone at the opulent Toledo Club, the Rev. Jim Bacik told a lunchtime gathering of Toledo's movers and shakers that the Catholic Church is in need of "radical reform."

A theologian and pastor of Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish, Father Bacik said one of the root causes of the current sex scandal is the low standard for admission to Catholic seminaries. About 90 percent of applicants are accepted, Father Bacik said, adding: "Imagine if that were the acceptance rate for medical schools."

However, part of the reason for the high-acceptance figures may be to meet the needs of parishes. The number of Catholic priests in America has dropped sharply over the last several decades while the number of American Catholics continues to rise.

In 1965, the first year studied by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 45.6 million Catholics in the United States and 58,632 priests.

Thirty seven years later, the U.S. Catholic population has grown to 62.2 million - an increase of 26.7 percent - while the number of priests has fallen by more than 23 percent, to 44,874.

Bishop James Hoffman, spiritual leader of the Toledo diocese since 1981, agreed that one of the first steps the church must take is to "raise the bar" for admission to seminaries. Catholic leaders need to "make sure that we're selecting mature, healthy, wholesome individuals to do that - and individuals who can live the promise of celibacy," he said.

The bishop said seminaries began conducting extensive psychological testing of candidates in the 1980s and continue to evaluate seminarians on an annual basis.

"By the time that they've been under the microscope for four or five years, we feel we have a pretty good read on them," Bishop Hoffman said.

Father Bacik said there are two major reforms the U.S. Catholic Church needs to take in order to boost the pool of seminary candidates:

 

  • Allow priests to marry.

 

 

  • Ordain women.

 

Church debate on celibacy goes back almost to the time of Christ. It was commonly practiced among priests in the early Christian era, citing Apostle Paul's 57 A.D. letter to the Corinthians: "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please [his] wife."

Yet it wasn't until 1075 that Pope Gregory VII required Catholic priests to pledge celibacy to "escape from the clutches of their wives."

Today, the Vatican allows married clergy in the Eastern Rite branches of the church - including three parishes in the Toledo diocese - and allows married Episcopal priests to transfer into the faith.

Many priests and church observers say, however, that there is no connection between celibacy and the problem of child sexual abuse.

"The scandals and celibacy are apples and oranges," said the Rev. John Gremmels, a married Catholic priest who converted from the Episcopal Church in the late 1980s.

"The majority of child abusers are married men," said Father Gremmels, a father of three and pastor of a 17,000-member parish in the Fort Worth, Texas, diocese.

While Bishop Hoffman said celibacy is open to discussion, he pointed out that Pope John Paul II has banned debate on the ordination of women. The Pontiff has said numerous times that since Jesus only chose men to be his apostles, the church can only choose men for its priesthood.

"Pope John Paul certainly has made it clear that it's his judgment that he does not have any authority to change that," Bishop Hoffman said.

Another topic often mentioned during discussions on the scandal is homosexuality.

Some Catholics are blaming the sex-abuse scandal on the number of homosexuals in the priesthood, estimated to be 20 percent by the Rev. Donald Cozzens, president of St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland.

The Vatican has held firm in its strong opposition to homosexuality, calling it "objectively disordered" and saying homosexual acts are "intrinsically evil."

Bishop Hoffman and Father Bacik are among those who say homosexuality is not a factor in the current crisis.

"I don't think that I can equate the sex-abuse cases with a person who is a homosexual," the bishop said. "If one is looking at a candidate for priesthood, it's more important to know how they're living out their lives - and if they're living a virtuous, chaste life, we're interested in them for the priesthood."

Father Bacik, who has a doctorate from the University of Oxford in England, said it is not a matter of priests' sexual orientation, but their psychosexual maturity.

As long as priests remain celibate, he said, their sexual orientation is irrelevant.

"There are many gay priests who are great ministers and do a wonderful job of serving the church and their people," he said.

Part of the reason for today's sexual-abuse crisis is because past bishops often believed, like so much of society, that sexual disorders such as pedophilia could be cured based on the prevailing psychological theories of the time.

"It wasn't anything sinister," said Father Bacik, adding that the offending priests could be treated by therapists, repent of their sins, and restored safely to ministry.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that psychologists began to realize that pedophilia is incurable, said Dr. Fred Berlin, head of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in Baltimore.

The Rev. Stephen Majoros, pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Toledo, is among many who say the crisis does not call for reform, but adherence to existing Catholic law.

"All we have to do is go back to basics and follow tradition," Father Majoros said. "The church teaches that sex is an activity restricted to marriage and that the purpose is the procreation of children. When we say that sex is for pleasure, then we get into all kinds of problems."



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