This has not been the easiest piece I have ever written, I have struggled over this piece for several years writing and re-writing it, but now I feel it is time. I have delayed publishing this for a variety of reasons many of them personal but with the recent news of an investigation into the practices at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts as well as the releases of the report in Pennsylvania it just seemed like the right time. My decision to leave the Roman Catholic Church is complex and based partly on theology and partly on emotion and for me it was the right decision.
I want to say at the very start, that I know there are many, many faithful priests and bishops and many, many faithful lay people in the Roman Catholic Church and my heart aches for them as their church continues to grapple with the continuation of the revelations of child sexual abuse. This is my story and my story only. The other point I will make is I will be using the term Catholic here not in the universal sense of the word but only for ease.
For as long as I can remember I had wanted to be a Catholic priest. During my senior year in high school I applied to St. John’s Seminary College here in Boston. Let me say that I was not the best student in high school and I spent more time in the band room then the classroom and that was reflected in my grades. The priest running the school felt I would not be able to handle to rigorous educational requirements of the seminary college and suggested I enroll in a Junior College for a couple of years and try again. I did not take this news very well. I had spent the last; I am not sure how many years, dreaming of going to school to become a priest and now it was gone. So, I joined the United States Army.
I am going to skip over a bunch of years here, but during my time in the Army and for many years after, I experimented with a lot of different churches from Southern Baptist to Episcopalian, but I always came back to Rome. There was something always calling me back; I used to think it was the candle that continually burns outside the tabernacle in Catholic Church that signals, as I used to say when I was an altar boy, that Jesus was home. I returned home from the Army, enrolled in college and discovered another world.
After more denominational experimentation I ended up as a member of a Benedictine Monastery where I finally felt like I was home. I stayed there for some years, but I don’t think I was every truly settled there. I not sure why I decided to leave but I did and began teaching middle school, but still felt drawn to the priesthood.
In my fifth year of teaching I reapplied to St. John’s Seminary, it had now been about seventeen years, a little longer than the two years that had been suggested by the earlier, but I was accepted, and in August of 2001 I moved into the seminary to begin a six-year program of priestly formation.
Let me pause here to say that at that time, St. John’s had a world-class faculty of theologians. Some of the best minds in the Church were on the faculty there and some of the best practitioners of the spiritual arts, what we call spiritual direction, were also on the faculty. It was also a house of prayer and, like the monastery, we would gather in the chapel several times a day to pray. It was a fantastic experience.
September of 2001 saw the attacks on New York and Washington, DC and our world would never be the same again. We struggled as a community about what to do. I was serving in the National Guard at the time, and there was always the threat of a call-up. Several other seminary students also served, and we were concerned about what was going to happen in the near future. We tried to continue with our studies as the world changed around us outside of the walls of the seminary.
As was the custom, the seminary students and faculty spent a week on a retreat before the start of the Spring semester. We came out of that retreat to the front page news of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. This report was the culmination of months of research by the Spotlight Team of the Boston Globe that was turned into the movie Spotlight.
Describing the mood around the seminary at that time is hard. These allegations were hard to believe, and almost immediately some students started to call the reports false and fabricated in an attempt to discredit the church and their beloved Cardinal Law. For weeks after the news broke the student body started to divide amongst those who believed it and those who did not. There were arguments at meals and in small areas of the seminary, but it was never really discussed on an institutional level.
Almost immediately groups of seminarians formed, as far as I know on their own, with the explicit task of rooting out the “gays” in the community and one seminarian told me that is was “his calling from God to ensure that certain people were not ordained.” I was glad it was not my job. Support for Cardinal Law was at an all-time high, and if you had the slightest thought of not supporting him, you would be “outed” by what I and some of my fellow seminarians started calling them, the “brown shirts.”
Fast forward, Cardinal Law resigned in disgrace and was shuttled off to Rome and given a cushy job, and the Rector of the seminary replaced him and in his place came a man who was anything but a pastor and is one of the main reasons I left. I saw many a good man run out of the place because they did not match up with what the Rector thought a good priest should be. Seminary is a time of discernment for the seminarian as well as the faculty, but this one man had taken it upon himself to rid the place of guys he determined were unfit.
I know this seems rambling, but my decision to leave was a complicated decision based on many factors, some had to do with theology, and some had to do with personalities.
When a student comes to the seminary, they have to be sponsored by a bishop. When I entered, I was sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston. During my second year of studies, I switched sponsorship from the Archdiocese of Boston to the Eastern Rite Catholic bishop of the Romanian Catholic Church. This was another complex decision that I cannot explain here other than to say I wanted to be as far away from the Archbishop of Boston as I could.
My studies continued as well as discernment. As I previously mentioned, discernment is a large part of the program of priestly formation, and a great deal of emphasis is placed on this. As students, we had a faculty advisor as well as a spiritual advisor that we met with on a regular basis. These times, as well as the prayer times, were designed to assist us in determining if we honestly had “the call” to be ordained. Seminarians leave for a variety of reasons, and that is the idea of the program to “test” your vocation is you will. Some come and stay right up until the point they have to seek ordination and other leave after a semester; this is how it works. I started to have doubts, not about the calling but about the vows I would have to make at ordination.
As I approached my final year of studies, it was the time for ordination to deacon. Although the office of deacon in the Catholic Church is a permanent state when one is seeking ordination to the priesthood, it is a transitional step and is the first ordination. I was ready, or so I thought I was, but the bishop had others thoughts and decided, a week before my ordination was to take place, to postpone my ordination. I was of course devastated, but it did give me time for further discernment about one specific area, obedience.
Men being ordained in the Roman Catholic Church make three vows, poverty, chastity, and obedience, and it was obedience that I had the most difficulty.
Obedience is not a vow in the abstract; this is a personal vow. During the ordination ritual, the person being ordained kneels before the bishop, places his hand in the hands of the bishop, looks into his eyes and promises obedience to him and his successors. This is a personal vow between the person being ordained and the bishop, and I had a great deal of difficulty with this.
My theology teaches me that humanity is flawed and we are not perfect. My theology also informs me that these flaws flow into the church and that because of that, humanity running the church, the church also has flaws. My theology also taught me that the validity of the sacrament was not hinged on the sanctity of the person performing the ritual, in other words, the person was merely the vessel, and the Holy Spirit worked through them, so it did not matter if the person was a sinner or not. However, I was still having difficulty vowing obedience to a man, a bishop, that was part of an institution that perpetrated a massive cover-up that led to the continuation of sexual abuse of minor children not only in the Archdiocese of Boston but across the globe. The very institution I was to vow obedience to was rotten from the top down, and I could not do it.
For three years I had sat and watched an institution, run by men whose life calling was to serve people, care more about the preservation of the institution than the people. I watched press conference after press conference with Cardinal Law and others with their smug attitudes towards victims. I listened to my fellow seminarians say the vilest things imaginable about victims and others, most of those guys went on to be ordained priests and several of them have since left involved in their sex scandal. I listen to excuses after excuses for why this happened, and I was not buying any of it. I watched as Cardinal Law was whisked off to Rome and given a cushy job there while many of the victims of the clergy in Boston were killing themselves. I could not place my hands in the hands of a bishop and vow obedience to him and his successors, so I left.
My decision was based on emotion, and it was based on theology. For me, it was the right decision, and although I sometimes regret the choice, I believe it was the right one. I dearly love the ritual of my youth and my formation and spirituality, for the most part, will always be Roman Catholic. It pains me to see what all of this is doing to the great and holy priests that are just trying to make a difference. It hurts me to see that this is doing to the faithful of the Catholic Church who is trying to make sense of it all. Moreover, it pains me for the victims that were first abused by a priest and then abused again and again and again by an institution that could care less about them until they were exposed.
It has recently been reported that this scandal has cost the Roman Catholic Church close to $3 billion but what has it cost in the human, and the spiritual? What sort of damage has this done to the witness of Jesus Christ in the world? This has tormented the souls of countless numbers of people, those abused, their families, and to a certain extent the faithful and each time additional revelations happen it reopens those wounds.
I do not expect anyone to agree with me or my decision but it is my decision, and they are my reasons.