[Note: Below is an extraordinary opinion essay sent to me by its author, Peter Mitchell, a conservative Catholic and former priest. Mitchell was ordained in 1999 and laicized in 2017. He says that he “is grateful to be a baptized and practicing Catholic.” — RD]
We Catholics ought to thank God that the abuse committed by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick against young men under his authority is finally coming to light. As a former priest, however, I fear that the bishops may be tempted to allow McCarrick to become a scapegoat for abusive patterns — sexual and otherwise — running deep within the hierarchical power structure of the institutional Church. My own experiences and those of others in seminary and priesthood lead me to conclude that there have been and continue to be numerous other such instances — and not only on the "liberal" side of the Church but, astonishingly for some, on the "conservative" side as well.
In other words, McCarrick's unspeakable behavior and the conspiracy of silence that protects and enables it is sadly not some bizarre anomaly or rare exception but actually much closer to the norm than the Catholic faithful may at first be inclined to believe.
The revelations about McCarrick, as well as reports coming from Honduras of an entrenched homosexual network throughout the seminary system there, raise some significant further questions. Given that we know that many other people in positions of ecclesiastical power have been aware of McCarrick's behavior and yet said and did nothing about it, the question must be asked: How many other bishops, vocation directors and seminary formators have engaged or are engaging in similar behavior with young adult men considering vocations to the priesthood, and how many other bishops and priests have agreed to remain silent about it "for the good of the Church"? My own experience as a seminarian and priest indicates that there may be many.
I was a seminarian for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, from 1994 to 1999, the so-called "John Paul II years." I was encouraged to enter the seminary there by priests and lay people whom I respected because I was concerned that “liberal” dioceses had problems with homosexuality in the priesthood, and I wanted to find “good formation.” The Diocese of Lincoln enjoyed outward success in having numerous vocations to both priesthood and religious life, and many young men like me were drawn there by its prestigious reputation for orthodoxy, traditionalism and conservatism.
(The other place I strongly considered entering seminary was the similarly conservative-slash-traditional group called the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder Fr. Marcial Maciel was exposed as a serial abuser).
I went to Lincoln when I was 20, believing that by going to a "conservative, traditional" seminary program I would find a place immune from the systemic problems that I knew infested "liberal, progressive" seminaries. I could not have been more mistaken.
When I arrived in Lincoln to be a seminarian, I was introduced to the vocation director and told I needed to follow his directions if I wanted to become a priest. This man, Msgr. Leonard Kalin, was the vocation director for the Diocese of Lincoln and pastor of the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska for an entire generation (1970–1998) under two bishops with a reputation for impeccable orthodoxy. When he died a decade ago, Kalin was remembered publicly as a good and holy shepherd of young souls. It was a façade.
Kalin had a widespread reputation for heavy drinking, chain-smoking, frequent gambling, and basically modeling addictive behaviors to the young people whom he was set over as pastor and vocation director. Young men who wanted to toe the line as Kalin's seminarians had to be perfectly dressed, clean cut, well groomed, and maintain a crisp, neat appearance, as well as follow a regimented life of Masses, Rosaries and daily prayers. Such external discipline and order was impressive to me and to many of the young men who entered seminary with me.
Like McCarrick, Kalin always kept a close circle of attractive, handsome young men around him, and, curiously, he rarely if ever socialized with other priests or people his own age. There was a clear hierarchy of power in Kalin's social circle, and he was always at the top.
As soon as I arrived I was told that all seminarians were required to attend daily Mass at the Newman Center. I was bewildered to find that the social life at the Newman Center centered around a culture of partying and alcohol. Indeed, from the very day I arrived, numerous other students and seminarians spoke excitedly about the highlight of the annual Newman Center social calendar — a trip to the well-known college party locale, South Padre Island in Texas, where all of the students and seminarians spent a week together of late night partying, drinking, and dancing — an atmosphere that would apparently be less than conducive to recollection and vocational discernment.
Kalin regularly took trips with seminarians to Las Vegas — referred to with a wink as his "desert retreat" — as well as all-night trips to a casino a few hours away just across the Iowa border, and seminarians were not-so-subtly pressured to attend and join in his gambling, drinking and late-night fraternizing. I cannot count how many times I turned down invitations to join Kalin and his "favorites" for a so-called "desert retreat" in Vegas or a late-night trek to Iowa after the nightly 10 p.m. Mass.
"Why won't this man let me go home because I have to get up for work at 6:30 tomorrow morning," was about the only thing I was ever really thinking as I endured these mandatory "seminarian meetings," which were filled with cigarette smoke from Kalin and the "cool" seminarians. But many of my brother seminarians couldn't wait for the meeting to end so they could join Kalin for his "nightcap." Those who politely declined the invitation were never quite treated with the same kindness and affection by Kalin as those who went.Meanwhile, when Kalin wasn't headed out for the night to the local casino, seminarians were required to attend meetings with him at the Newman Center, which began at 11 p.m. and regularly expanded into the wee hours. These meetings, which often involved Kalin berating individual seminarians in front of the entire group, were inevitably followed by an invitation to join the good Monsignor for a "nightcap" in his private quarters in the rectory. I never went for the nightcap. I never understood why others wanted to go.
Nor were Kalin's shenanigans limited to his own parish. During his frequent trips to visit us at the seminaries we attended on the East Coast, we were frequently asked to help smuggle liquor into the seminary for late night social gatherings with Kalin, even though seminary policy forbade any possession of alcohol on the premises. In this way, Kalin trained future priests to show contempt for the rules governing clerical life. If a leader like Msgr. Kalin didn't take them seriously, why should anyone else?
Kalin's visits were also the occasion for the invitation to join him at beach houses on the Jersey shore near Atlantic City, in a manner similar to the way McCarrick operated. Such invitations were very flattering to young men, making them feel "included and special." We were all told that "building fraternity" was an important and essential aspect of preparing for the priesthood. My and others' consistent refusal to join in such fraternization led to our ostracism and subtle condemnation by our "brother seminarians" who were close to Kalin and compliant to his wishes.
On one occasion, after we were pressured to attend a party weekend at the Jersey shore (which involved drinking and gambling at various casinos followed by watching questionable movies at a beach house), I wrote to the then-Bishop of Lincoln stating that this sort of fraternization was terribly disturbing to me and detrimental to formation for the priesthood.
I received no official reply to my complaint, but a few weeks later another seminarian called me aside and told me that Kalin himself had informed the seminarians close to him that I had complained and instructed them to watch me to see if I would be "loyal."
"There are no secrets among this brotherhood," the seminarian said to me sternly, implying that my lack of loyalty had been noted and that I had angered Kalin and his henchmen simply by speaking up to express how I felt.
Just as Fr. Robert Hoatson of the Archdiocese of Newark has noted in his sworn affidavit, I experienced profound discrimination as a seminarian and later as a priest because I was a heterosexual in an overwhelmingly homosexual environment where sexually active gay priests protected and promoted each other. The experience of this homosexual atmosphere — at times overt, at times closeted — is felt across the board by heterosexual priests I know in numerous different dioceses and religious orders. It is "everywhere" within the Catholic clergy, but seems to be especially prevalent among priests within the power structure of chanceries, seminaries and the Church's bureaucracy, up to and including the Holy See, where I served for a brief time in 2008–2009.
Back to Kalin. Just as Newark's Abp. McCarrick had a ritual habit of inviting a seminarian to share his bed, Lincoln's Msgr. Kalin had a standard method for maneuvering young men into unwanted intimate situations. Each afternoon at the Newman Center, a summons would go out from one of the young male students who worked for Kalin as his "janitors" to see who among the seminarians was available to "take Monsignor walking." The one chosen for this ritual (always only one) was then instructed that at the end of the walk — I still can't believe I am saying this — he needed to "help Monsignor to take a shower" in one of the locker rooms at Memorial Stadium, to which Kalin somehow had a private key. The unconvincing premise was that Monsignor was old and feeble and "needed help" in the shower. Although I succeeded in always finding a way to excuse myself from "helping" with his shower, I know that the men who did — and there were many – endured Kalin's attempts to initiate sexual contact with them.
Every seminarian was required to have a private meeting with Kalin in his residence every couple of months. Whenever I would go in for my session, Kalin would criticize me extensively (which often involved him swearing at me) and then tell me that the most important thing I needed to do to prepare to be a priest was to "learn humility" (meaning obey him unquestioningly). Then, after working me over emotionally, Kalin would conclude by issuing an order: "Give me a hug." He would hold me for several minutes, cheek to cheek, with his body pressed against me.
I always found it bizarre and deeply off-putting, but at the time, in my naïveté, tried to explain it away as the somewhat eccentric kindness of an old man.
Assuredly, the outside observer will rightly ask, "But why would you remain in the seminary if you were subjected to and surrounded by such compromising and offensive behavior?" It is a question I have asked myself over and over in the past few years, turning it over like a prism, trying to ascertain a clear understanding of its many facets.
At the time, it seemed to me and many of my peers that the important thing was to "just get ordained" so that we could help others as "good priests." In addition, the reputation Kalin enjoyed, both within the diocese as well as nationally, made it extremely difficult to oppose his wishes. He held all the power over our evaluation and program of formation, had the ear of the bishop, and had great influence over the assignments of seminarians and priests. In a word, he held complete control over our lives if we wanted to become priests.
Although Kalin passed away in 2008, the seminarians he favored became the priests who continue to hold the reins of ecclesiastical power. To this day, anyone who tries to speak critically of Kalin's behavior and legacy is met with a code of silence for "the good of the Church." If I ever tried to express frustration with Monsignor’s treatment of me, priests in positions of power over me quickly shut me down, almost robotically: "While he may have had a few flaws he was very orthodox and recruited so many vocations."
Indeed he did — as did McCarrick, who prized his reputation as a fisher of men. The relevant and germane question today is, what ongoing effects has the systemic abuse of powerful men like McCarrick and Kalin had on those who are presently serving as priests? How many of these men's "intimate friends" are now themselves bishops and chancery officials holding power over other priests' lives?
At least in Lincoln, the answer is: many.
I know so many good, generous men who serve as priests there and elsewhere who live in fear of Church authority and who remain silent about Kalin's abuse because they know that Kalin's protégés and protectors hold the reins of ecclesiastical power. The power of Kalin's "friends" exactly mirrors that of McCarrick's "friends."
The difference of course is that McCarrick rose in the Church to the level of cardinal. But within their own "kingdoms" each of these men rewarded those who complied with their wishes. This power structure remains intact. How many other McCarricks and Kalins are there in how many other dioceses and religious orders in the United States?
My own life as a priest was undoubtedly affected by the totally inadequate and abusive formation I received in terms of preparing me for a healthy life as a celibate heterosexual male. In 2017, I accepted laicization from the priesthood as a consequence of having violated my vow of celibacy as a priest on more than one occasion. I lived an unhealthy life as a priest, and I hurt people. I never intended to become such a person, but I did. What I did was wrong. I deeply regret having hurt people who looked up to me as a spiritual leader, and I take full responsibility for my actions.
I am painfully aware, however, that the people to whom my seminary formation was entrusted modeled addictive behavior to me and an entire generation of young men who are now priests. This culture of fear, shame, and secrecy — which exists within the "traditional" Church just as much as it does in the "progressive" Church — must be exposed and broken if the Church is to truly move forward.
Sadly, and perhaps understandably, this has not even come close to happening, because bishops and priests fear being exposed and lay people fear finding out. There is a strong tendency to engage in denial, particularly among devout Catholics who want to comfort themselves with soothing lies, like, "We go to a Mass said by a holy and orthodox priest, so those problems don’t exist here."
Perhaps the exposure of Cardinal McCarrick's lifetime of abuse can give other priests and former priests and seminarians who have lived through the kind of thing I and many others have endured the courage to speak up about what happened to them, as a way of beginning to unravel the problem and initiate some sort of movement towards healing. The first need of someone who has experienced trauma is to be able to speak about their experience and be listened to. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for active priests to speak out because the men they would be speaking out against control every aspect of their lives and their reputations. But it needs to happen for their own good and for the good of the Church.
That is my motive in sharing my story: to help the Church begin to heal by talking about how I feel about what happened to me, so that others — but especially other priests — may find the courage and freedom to do the same. I fully understand that abusers like McCarrick and Kalin are people who were themselves abused in some way. I wish for them as well as for everyone involved only healing, forgiveness and an encounter with the liberating Mercy of Jesus. I pray for forgiveness first and foremost for myself.
But there must be an honest acknowledgment of what they did, and sadly there must also now be an honest acknowledgment that many other bishops and priests have done what they did. There can be no longer be any hiding behind the illusion that silence and denial are good for the Church.
Forgive me if I close by sharing a personal insight from the journey I have taken. One of the key components to my counseling and healing has been a 12-step program called "Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families" (ACA). It has been an eye-opening experience for me to see how the description of dysfunctional family dynamics in ACA applies verbatim to the way the Church and seminary formation functions as a "spiritual family":
We became afraid of authority figures and isolated. We became approval seekers and lost our identity. We became workaholics. We get guilt feelings when we stand up for ourselves. We judge ourselves harshly and have a very low sense of self-esteem (ACA, "The Laundry List").
After 24 years of living entirely within the dysfunctional system that controlled my entire life, I am slowly beginning to find healing and a new way of living and thinking. I am finding the courage to speak honestly and candidly about how unhealthy my life was as a priest, despite trying to keep up the appearance of "holiness" on the exterior. I am overcoming the unwritten rule within the Church, common to all dysfunctional families: Don't trust. Don't talk. Don't feel.
In place of such destructive silence, the family of the Church needs to step into what ACA calls "The Solution": "You will find freedom to express all the hurts and fears you have kept inside and to free yourself from the shame and blame that are carryovers from the past."
Unlike those who are still priests, I am finally free to share the truth about my experience without fear of reprisal from the ecclesiastical authorities who used to control my life. My story is only one small and relatively insignificant domino in the abusive system which McCarrick and Kalin exploited and profited from. But surely there are many, many other priests and bishops in positions of ecclesiastical authority who have embraced a similar pattern of abuse of power within the Catholic Church and who have brought great shame and sorrow upon many good people, including many priests.
Are there any others out there with whom my story resonates?
Will you have the courage to join me in speaking the truth to power by sharing your own story?
On August 3, Bp. James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska acknowledged Mitchell's story in a column titled "Christ Suffers With Us, in This Painful Moment."