I Love the Catholic Church, Which is Why I Say, #ChurchToo
True love for Christ is shown by our willingness to lay down our lives — and even our “vocations” — for the truth
Ever since my childhood, I desired to become a Catholic priest. While many of my childhood friends wanted to become police officers, firemen, doctors, or teachers, I felt a deep longing to serve God & the Church as a priest. My earliest memories include accompanying my mother to daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, praying in the morning & at night, and learning more about the faith. Priests were my heroes. They dedicated their entire lives to the service of God and neighbor through preaching, teaching, offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, hearing confessions, offering counsel, and more. In the joyful moments of people’s lives (such as baptisms, First Communion, and weddings) the priest was there. In the sorrowful moments of life (illnesses, death, funerals, crises), the priest was there. The priest seemed to truly represent Christ in a world which all too often forgot about Him. But I soon learned that there were priests who forgot about Christ, too.
I was ten years old in 2002 when The Boston Globe published the results of investigations into clergy sex abuse & its subsequent cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston. Although these were not the first cases of sexual abuse brought forward against the Catholic Church, the Boston scandal brought the issues of clergy sex abuse into international spotlight. As accusations poured into the media, it was revealed that a number of priests and bishops in the United States not only committed abuse, but there was a systemic cover-up of the allegations. Priests who abused minors in one parish were oftentimes placed in another parish, a process which would continue over & over again, resulting in even more victims. In 2002, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team revealed that from 1992–2002, the Archdiocese of Boston “quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests.”
As a ten year old boy, news of this was sickening. Indeed, I — along with millions of other Catholics — watched the nightly news as new allegations popped up, new accusations of cover-up emerged, and priests we knew and cherished were revealed to be child-molesting monsters. Following news of these abuse scandals, the Catholic bishops of the United States gathered together in Dallas to draft the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which set polices and procedures to protect minors from potential abuse. The “Dallas Charter” would also commit the Church to cooperating with civil authorities in investigations, as well as promising to discipline offenders & offer transparency in its dealings with abuse. However, even today, abuse and misconduct happen — priests getting minors drunk, sexual assault, and cover-up of crimes. I know this from first-hand experience.
Part I: College Seminary
Immediately following high school, I entered seminary, with every intention to become a Catholic priest. It would be a long process — 8 years, to be exact — but I trusted that God would lead me through it. The minor seminary I attended was one especially known for its conservatism & “orthodoxy”. Dioceses from all over the East Coast sent their seminarians there, trusting that it would form good, holy priests. The rules were strict; for example, we were only allowed off-campus once a week, on Saturdays. Visitors did not always receive a warm welcome. One time, a priest from my home diocese visited a group of us, and was told that he could not take us out for pizza because it was a weeknight. Compared to my friends at “normal” colleges, this was a prison. Eventually, I became extremely homesick, lonely, and started to isolate myself from the other seminarians, many of whom I did not feel comfortable around.
One night, I received a knock on my door. It was an upperclassman. He wanted to “check in” on me, and see how I was feeling. I invited him into my room and we began to chat. I told him how I was struggling to adjust to this new life. He listened, but then he began to ask me very odd questions. “Do you masturbate?” I was stunned. I told him no, but he kept persisting. He asked me if I viewed pornography and if I had any sexual experience. I became very uncomfortable with his questions and asked him to leave my room. He then slouched in the chair and I saw that his erect penis was poking through his shorts. I yelled at him and told him to leave. He stuttered an apology, and I slammed the door. I then went to my next door neighbor, and told him. Later, we found out that this particular seminarian did the same thing to a number of my classmates. We spoke to the dean, and he was promptly expelled.
The rest of that semester did not prove to be any better. Every weekday, the schedule was the same — we woke up, went to the chapel for morning prayer & Mass, went to breakfast, had classes, then lunch, then afternoon classes/recreation, evening prayer, dinner, night prayer, and then lights-out at 11 p.m. I felt trapped, and would often use my free Saturdays to visit the nearby city, attend Mass at an actual parish, and see my best friend from high school (who providentially ended up going to a college in the same city!)
During the spring semester, I had the chance to go home for President’s Day Weekend. However, the week prior, a seminarian whom I did not know very well approached me and invited me to his house for the weekend. Seeing this as a rare chance to make friends, I agreed. I and a number of other seminarians went to his house for the weekend. Upon entering, I was greeted with a shot glass filled to the brim with strong-smelling alcohol, which he persistently commanded me to drink. I was 18 — and I had never drank before in my life. He kept insisting I drink, even threatening that I would not be allowed to stay at his house for the weekend if I didn’t. And so, I drank the shot of alcohol, and immediately felt disoriented and sick. I felt like my body was rebelling after that initial drink. I tried eating, but nothing would go down my throat. I tried walking, but I kept crashing into furniture. I came across a seminarian puking in a toilet. As I continued down the hallway, I saw two seminarians fondling each other. Eventually, I tried to seek some fresh air, and wanted to call my mother. As I was on the phone with her, a drunk seminarian came from behind me & groped me. I yelled at him and pushed him away. I went back inside, and saw seminarians playing the card game, “Apples to Apples”, making inappropriate joke after inappropriate joke. Eventually, I fell asleep in the living room chair. Upon waking, I found seminarians asleep next to each other, spooning. After calling a cab, I left the house & returned to the seminary, where I stayed in my room alone for the weekend.
A few weeks later, I made an appointment with my formation advisor, the priest in charge of presenting me to the faculty as a worthy candidate. I told him about the party. He responded by telling me that I needed to be “more charitable” and understanding of my brother seminarians. He noted that the faculty saw that I was a “loner” and that I should build “fraternity” with my fellow seminarians. I began to cry. The priest then asked if he could “pray over me,” and I told him no. By this time, I knew that I was completely done with this seminary, and I planned on telling the vocations director that I was leaving. The priest ended up “praying over me” anyhow and suggested that my “resistance” to his prayer was from Satan.
I left that seminary after my first year, and I continued my studies at a Catholic college while living at a parish church. I studied philosophy and had a great time with the regular lay students, my pastor supervisor, and the various parishioners I interacted with on a daily basis. In spring of 2012 during my sophomore year, a number of seminarians were kicked out of diocesan seminary formation when it was revealed that they were going out to gay bars, were hooking up with each other in the seminary, and had pornography on their personal computers. Admittedly, such scandalous behavior was not uncommon at this particular seminary. Eventually, I realized I needed time away for myself, and thus I left seminary formation. The last two years of college were great — I dated, played lacrosse, made friends, volunteered at a local hospital chaplaincy, all while continuing my philosophy studies. These were the best years of my life.
Part II: Major Seminary
Still, I felt a deep longing to serve God as a priest, and so, following graduation in 2014, I re-applied to the diocese to enter major seminary and was accepted, sent out of state to continue priestly formation. Once again, the seminary I attended was another “conservative” one, though in secret, it was called “The Purple Palace”. Though unfortunate, the title was fitting, as there was misconduct by seminarians and faculty alike.
The year prior, a seminarian was kicked out for committing sodomy with a member of a religious order who took classes at the seminary. They were discovered by a faculty member after their moaning was heard by a seminarian across the hall. Both seminarians were expelled. Still, those two were not the only seminarians acting out in a homosexual manner. There were multiple nights where I went to the downstairs common room for a snack, only to find seminarians cuddling with each other — drunk, of course. Alcohol (ab)use was a major issue in the seminary, one which was largely ignored. Another issue was racial prejudice. Several seminarians from Latin & South America reported that they experienced racial profiling & slurs, even among fellow seminarians. For one seminarian, the racist culture was so bad that he had to switch seminaries. Even today, I continue to receive testimonies from other seminarians, many of whom have their own stories and experiences of misconduct.
That first year, a number of seminarians reported receiving creepy messages from a fake number, asking to “hook up”. Eventually, it was found out that the texts were from a seminarian. When it was brought forward to both priests in the seminary and outside it, the response was appalling — the recipient was told that “It’s not like he sent you pictures of his penis, don’t over-exaggerate and act like a victim.” A member of the faculty was so outraged by this courageous seminarian that the seminarian was threatened to be “thrown out” for openly questioning his authority. The seminarian who sent the sext-messages found another diocese to study for and, according to the vocations website, continues to be a seminarian this day, despite such inappropriate actions.
Seminary misconduct was not limited to seminarians, however. There were priests on faculty who would get drunk with their ‘clique’ of seminarians, and would invite them into their rooms late at night for “private parties”. In early May 2015, our seminary hosted a bachelor party for a lay staff member who was set to be married. That night, a priest on the formation faculty drank with seminarians until 2 a.m., and was so intoxicated that he fell out of his chair. The following day, I brought this up to other seminarians, who in turn criticized me for being “uncharitable” and “gossiping.” One former seminarian recently spoke to me and told me that he was being “groomed” by another faculty member, but when he came forward, it was his word against the faculty’s, and he lost. I myself brought my concerns to my vocations director as well as my formation advisor. My vocations director told me he would inform my bishop. I begged to be transferred to a different seminary, but I was refused. My formation advisor told me that there were “snakes in the grass”, and that I had to learn to play the game — he said that the seminary culture & inappropriate behavior by other faculty members was out of his control.
I kept to myself during those two years, and became more and more isolated. I stopped attending daily Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office, preferring to stay in my room and try to sleep my way through the day. Eventually, the rector of the seminary offered to pay for me to see a therapist, which I did. After speaking with the therapist as well as my spiritual director, I left seminary in 2016.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at the dining room table, eating breakfast, when I opened up The New York Times and saw the headline story. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, at one time the most visible face of Catholicism in the USA, was a sexual predator, who preyed on seminarians under his care. The Archdiocese of New York found the allegations of McCarrick sexually abusing a 16-year-old altar boy while a priest in New York “credible and substantiated”. Since then, numerous former seminarians, priests, and laity have reported similar cases involving McCarrick — and others.
“Uncle Ted” McCarrick’s perversions were known by major media outlets, only there was a problem — no one was willing to go forward and put their name on the line. As Julia Duin noted,
I ran into similar blockages everywhere. There were priests and laity alike for whom McCarrick’s predilections were an open secret, but no one wanted to go after him. I heard about various settlements but couldn’t confirm the details. No newspaper can publish such explosive accusations with only anonymous sources and no court documents to back it up.
Why wouldn’t those who experienced abuse come forward and report the atrocities? Fr. James Martin, SJ, a popular Jesuit priest, recently penned a piece asking this exact question. Fr. Martin gives six potential reasons why victims of abuse remain silent: 1) the reflex to protect the institution to which one belongs; 2) the fear of being told to “just get over it” or that “it happens”; 3) the fear of not being believed; 4) the fear of hostility from fellow Church members, especially those whom you work, study, and minister alongside; 5) misplaced sympathy for the abuser; and 6) fear that those who knew about abuse in the past (but did nothing) will become angry.To the secular eye, the Catholic Church is a very powerful organization, and only a fool would think that the Church has always treated abuse victims fairly. I mean, even the popular Pope Francis victim-blamed those molested by a priest in Chile.
Inspired by the #MeToo movement & in light of the McCarrick scandal, I decided to come forward to say I too have experienced both sexual abuse & misconduct by seminarians of the Catholic Church within the walls of two separate seminaries, and my complaints went unanswered. If you are someone who has experienced abuse in the Catholic Church, I encourage you to share your story by using the hashtag #ChurchToo.
I have received an outpouring of support and prayers from hundreds of people. Seminarians from other parts of the country have privately messaged me, telling me of their own experience of abuse and misconduct within their seminary’s walls. As we speak, victims of seminary abuse in Chile are now coming forward, seeking justice and reparation.
Unfortunately, news has emerged from the grapevine that certain faculty members and priests are annoyed that I came forward. But as I mentioned on Twitter:
Some have called me a “disgruntled ex-seminarian” and accused me of “hating” the Church. These claims baffle me. First of all, I was not forced out of seminary. Both years in major seminary, received positive votes to continue. I left out of my own free will, and so I have no reason to be “disgruntled”. Secondly, how could I ever “hate” the Church? I attend Mass several times a week. I pray every day. I study theology & love teaching people about the Catholic faith. I have a Twitter & Instagram account which seeks to promote the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Catholic faith. I absolutely love the Catholic Church, and it is for that reason that I say #ChurchToo. True love is not found in hiding abuse, tolerating misconduct, or in protecting abusers. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes, love is “willing the good for the other”. A good parent would never allow his or her child to eat a razor blade, no matter how badly a child cries and asks to eat it. In the same way, to push misconduct and abuse under the carpet is not an act of love in the slightest. Those who associate “love” for the Church with a blind loyalty to defend misconduct neither understand the meaning of Christian love, nor do they understand the purpose of the Church.
Jesus teaches us that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:3) Our Lord exemplifies this love most powerfully through the Cross, where His arms are outstretched to embrace and die for all of us, so that we who believe in Him may live. In coming forward, I understand that I am making many enemies, many of whom are angry, afraid, or guilty. I may be ‘blacklisted’ by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and may never be able to run away from my testimony. I may not be able to teach in certain Catholic schools or work in certain parishes. And that’s okay. I would rather be poor, rejected, and betrayed than to live a lie. If that is what Christ chose, then I should choose it too.
I was told by some former classmates that I should have just “shut up & gotten ordained”. To them, the seminary was a gauntlet to “get through”, even if the formation was poor and the faculty held unaccountable. As for me, I could not, in good faith, continue to be at a seminary which did nothing to combat abuse and misconduct. I am sure that there are priests and maybe even bishops who played the company game, stayed silent in the face of this disgusting behavior exhibited by so many priests, and now have a very cushy, comfortable priesthood & Church career. But, as far as I am concerned, such silence is worse than violence. Bishops & priests must be held accountable for their actions, no matter the cost. How many people knew about McCarrick, and said nothing for decades? How many victims could have been spared if action was taken immediately? Who knew about this pervert, and why didn’t they speak? Many people in the Church are justifiably furious — there needs to be concrete acts of reparation and even public acts of penance by the shepherds who allowed their flock to be eaten by wolves. Abuse needs to be called for what it is — sin. Only then can the light of Christ cast away the darkness which tolerates the rot.
I am no longer that ten-year-old boy sitting in front of the television screen, watching molesting priests be taken by police in handcuffs. I am no longer that 18 year old seminary freshman (or fresh meat, rather) who experienced sexual harassment, groping, and was hazed into drinking strong alcohol. I am no longer that man in his early twenties who witnessed sexual and moral depravity within the same seminary that was intended to prepare him for a life of service to God’s people. I am simply a person who has experienced the above, and who doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else — ever again.
As badly as I always desired to become a priest, I had one desire greater — to follow Jesus. It is Jesus who is “…the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). I had to sacrifice my comfort, my reputation, and yes — even my “vocation” — to follow Christ, the Truth. And if He should soon lead me to Calvary to die with Him, I shall follow Him there also.