by Olivia Martin
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Some elements of the current abuse crisis in the Catholic Church are very similar to the crisis in 2002. But a new twist is the part seminaries have played in some of the accounts.
What kind of screening do men undergo for admission to the seminary for the archdiocese? And once admitted, do they feel free to report concerns about their life in the seminary to the men that sent them there?
For answers to these and other questions, The Leaven went to vocations director Father Dan Morris, as well as two men currently studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
‘There was nothing hidden’
Deacon Nicholas Ashmore, of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Burlington, is in his final year of studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
Though it’s been nine years since his seminarian screening began, the intensity of the process has stuck with him.
“I was in contact with the vocations director for about two years before I actually entered [the] seminary,” he said. “There was no part of my life that was left unencountered.
“From the beginning, our conversations were substantial . . . [and] sexuality was a conversation that I had with my formators. There was nothing hidden.
“They truly wanted a process of discernment.”
There are four phases to the seminarian screening, involving multiple interviews, written essays, full psychological and physical evaluations and a meeting with the archbishop.
Seminarian Colm Larkin, a member of Holy Cross Church in Overland Park, is in his second year of pre-theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
He has found the psychological evaluation to be one of the most daunting aspects of his application.
“It’s five or six hours long — all at once,” he said. “It’s a very thorough process.”
The desire is to make sure that both the applicant and the seminary are a good fit for each other.
“The thing to remember is that [the seminary] is a two-way relationship,” said Father Morris. “It’s like dating: The man is discerning the church and the church discerns the man as a spouse.”
Father Morris said he seriously thinks about if a man is going to be a bridge or a barrier when considering him for seminary studies.
In addition to a man’s spiritual and intellectual development, his social skills, personal hygiene and grooming, timeliness and maturity are all among the things considered as indicators of fitness to the seminary.
The archdiocese also requires that men undergo a full investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation prior to ordination to the diaconate.
“They took my fingerprints, my records were checked against national databases and I was interviewed about any possible issues that might arise as part of it,” said Deacon Ashmore. “It was surprising, but I was edified by it.”
At St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, another layer of formation is added to the traditional four to six years of theology studies.
“We live in a very noisy, distracted, secular, Godless world,” said Larkin. “And in order for young men to adequately be able to discern or grow in relationship with Christ, they need to take time to step out of the world and enter deeper into Christian life.”
That entails no phones, internet, laptops or newspapers for one whole year — except one weekly email check and a phone call home.
“It sounds intimidating, but it’s one of the things I’m most thankful for and cherish,” said Larkin.
According to Father Morris, every seminary incorporates a similar aspect of formation that focuses on helping men to be purged of the negative effects of the culture.
“This is where the world is,” he said. “For the good of the church as well as each individual man, it’s better to take that extra time than have things go unaddressed only to come up later.”
A great sadness, a great hope
“My time in the seminary has been marked by the fact that the [sex abuse] crisis has been a shadow that covers everything we do here,” said Deacon Ashmore.
“For most of August, when all of [the sex abuse scandal] was starting to break,” he said, “I remember a great heaviness hung over me.”
From the intensity of the screening, his Virtus training and the frank conversations he’s had with others about clergy sexual abuse, Deacon Ashmore is grateful for the way the seminary is helping him face the hard fact of abuse.
“It’s not a topic that has been swept under the rug,” he said. “Our first day after summer was centered around the recent scandal and how the church should respond to it.”
With the guidance of his fellow seminarians, Deacon Ashmore has been increasingly discovering that a vigor for the Gospel is replacing the heaviness he felt in the face of the horror of the abuse crisis.
“I want to be the best priest possible, so I can serve the people of God,” he said. “The only thing that will heal us right now is sainthood.”
Safe in the seminary today?
For Father Morris, safety of seminarians is the Formation Team’s top priority.
If a seminarian comes to any one of them with an issue, they communicate that concern to the proper authorities. This includes civil authorities, the archbishop, the rector at the complainant’s seminary, the seminary’s board of directors or all of the above.
“I’m going to listen to any one of our seminarians and take their report seriously, totally standing with the seminarian until all is proven otherwise,” said Father Morris. “We’re on the seminarian’s side before we’re on the seminary’s.”
When asked if he felt comfortable going to the archbishop or any other authority with a complaint or accusation, Deacon Ashmore did not hesitate to respond.
“Not only do I feel comfortable,” he said. “I believe it is a duty.”
Larkin said he has never had cause for any concern at St. John Vianney.
“I don’t have a single bit of fear about anything about the seminary here,” said Larkin. “It’s a completely safe place forming men in virtue.”
As a method of accompaniment and accountability, each seminarian is required to meet with his spiritual director once every two weeks at the seminary.
And twice a year, Msgr. Michael Mullen or Father Scott Wallisch, the co-directors of seminarians for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, visit each of the five seminaries that are home to one or more of the 31 seminarians of the archdiocese.
Larkin said that he and the four other archdiocesan seminarians in Denver meet frequently to check in with each other.
“We are responding [to this crisis] by committing to fraternity,” he said.
“Looking across the board,” said Father Morris, “there is no more thorough process of accepting a man for studies and accountability throughout than the seminary.”