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On Guard: Abuse scandal changes how Catholic Church screens, preps future priests

St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.
St. John's Seminary
St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.

When the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese released thousands of pages of personnel files last month in connection with the priest sex-abuse scandal, St. John's Seminary in Camarillo was already prepped and praying.

One day earlier, Archbishop Jose Gomez met with St. John's 82 seminarians to ensure they knew what was about to happen. He told them the files would be unsettling. He warned how it would draw more negative attention. He asked for their prayers.

Archbishop Gomez’s visit meant a great deal to Father Gregory Semeniuk, the Dean of Students at St. John's, as they digested the news.

"The seminarians are making their choices right now about whether to become priests, and they're put in this crucible asking themselves, 'Is this what I signed up for?’" Semeniuk said.

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On Jan. 31, Archbishop Gomez also relieved Cardinal Roger Mahony of all public dutiesfor his failure to report the cases he was aware of. Cardinal Mahony had attended St. John's Seminary – one of only two seminaries in California that prepare men for the priesthood – before being ordained in 1962. In response, Mahony posted a letter on his blog stating, “Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem."

For anyone currently preparing for the priesthood, this can no longer be claimed.

At the behest of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and in accordance with “The Program of Priestly Formation,” St. John’s Seminary has followed stricter, more in-depth screening guidelines since 1986.

Even before applying to the seminary, there’s an extensive interview process by the archdiocese’s vocations office, which includes ongoing meetings to discuss the candidate’s discernment process. This year, the archdiocese received a record 24 seminarian applications – the highest in 25 years, according to Father Stephen Davoren, the associate director of vocations for the L.A. Archdiocese.

Each candidate then provides an autobiography detailing his family background, relationship history, academic records and parish involvement. Candidates are also required to elaborate on questions that touch upon celibacy, past relationships and the “meaning of obedience.”

Next come the criminal, financial and psychological checks.

Marinello Saguin, who completed most of his seminarian training at Mount Angel Monastery in Oregon, plans to enter St. John’s seminary in the fall so he can be ordained in the L.A. Archdiocese.

Having gone through two rounds of psychological evaluations since he entered the seminary 10 years ago, Sanguin, 27, recalls how nerve-wracking the process was at first.

During a three-hour long exam with a psychologist, he could only answer “Yes” or “No” to questions that ranged from “Do you like flowers?” to “Do you feel like hurting yourself?” Another test involved flashcards where he was shown a picture and had to create a story with a beginning, middle and end.

“After going through the whole process, any other application is a piece of cake,” said Saguin. “You’re always wondering, ‘Am I overthinking? Or over-talking?’”

Big changes since 1970

In Monsignor Cox’s experience, the current application process and background screenings contrast considerably from when he enrolled at St. John’s in 1970.

“Other than school transcripts and a letter of recommendation from your pastor, you needed nothing to get in – just your birth and baptism certificates. Anyone interested in the priesthood who had some basic academic background was brought on, and that was simply it,” said Msgr. Cox.

The current screening procedures used by the Catholic Church are similar to those used by other professions involving public duties, such as law enforcement or the fire department, says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has observed and assessed the Catholic and Episcopal churches’ screening methods for the past 25 years.

Plante acknowledges that the screening can’t predict all potentially bad behavior, but he believes it’s been successful in screening out psychiatric disorders, identifying risk factors and making sure the candidates are at low risk of harming others.

“It does work pretty well, but it's nothing that's foolproof,” Plante said. “Who knows 20, 30 years down the pike what may or may not happen? ... Nothing is perfect with this, and people change in ways you can't predict. But all of this screening makes for a better church and community.”

Perhaps the most telling difference since Cox’s time in the seminary — and a key element for ensuring a seminarian’s priestly capabilities — is what occurs following the psychological testing.

Once admitted to the seminary, each candidate is paired with a psychological consultant to review the exam results and design “a growth plan” to address any weaknesses and build on the candidate’s strengths.

“Our effort is not just to do screening in the beginning but to work with people deeply, comprehensively over a period of time,” Cox said. “If all we did was screen in the beginning and not do something with it and build on it, we would not be serving our men well or the people of God well.”

In his seminarian studies, Sanguin says he has also observed more of a focus on the “full person.”

“We’ve noticed in the [abuse] issues we’re facing that at some point these people didn’t develop. It stopped somewhere, and they lashed out,” he said. “Now it’s completely different. The seminary really looks at the whole human person: the human, pastoral, intellectual, spiritual.”

Seminarians also receive ongoing education about ministry ethics and how to report any form of improper behavior.

How to report abuse

According to Semeniuk, all of St. John’s seminarians and employees of the L.A. Archdiocese are required to go through the VIRTUS Program – established by The National Catholic Risk Retention Group in 1985 – which instructs the Church how to recognize and report credible cases of abuse, especially abuse toward children.

Seminarians are required to stay current on new information issued by the program and sign off on the articles periodically distributed by VIRTUS.

They also participate in "Formation Days," held three times a semester to focus on a theme from the program. The most recent one, entitled "Boundaries,” discussed how to interact during informal meetings and how to keep relationships professional.

The program also has benefits beyond the priesthood, Semeniuk said, by helping seminarians learn how to deal with stress, maintain a balanced lifestyle and find help during times of crisis.

As far as the most recent crisis regarding Cardinal Mahony, Semeniuk hopes the seminarians will use it to strengthen their bond and see it as an opportunity to be more vigilant.

“I think we can't lose sight of the many good things being done,” he said. “And maybe this is a call to do them better.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.