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For decades, scores of victims brought forward complaints of clerical sexual abuse, only to find themselves revictimized by Church leaders. Victims, who had the courage to confront those who enabled their abuse as minors, found their voices hushed by threats of what might happen to them should they reveal their plights or even think of suing the Church. The Spotlight team of The Boston Globe took this challenge head-on in its 2002 exposé of the abuse crisis that has since proven to be of epic proportions. The Catholic Church in the United States alone has spent some $4 billion to date on abuse settlements and legal fees.
If 2002 marked a turning point regarding the clerical abuse of minors, 2021 is about to mark a new turning point, with more explosive revelations to come regarding abuse or reprisals against seminarians and the malfeasance of the clerics who allowed it to happen.
Up until now, hundreds of seminarians — targeted by prelates like now-disgraced Theodore McCarrick or the multitude of abusive seminary faculty members who follow in his footsteps — left formation and went away without ever revealing what happened to them. Others were threatened to have their prospects of ordination taken away if they should reveal the misconduct they endured or witnessed. When then-seminarian Ryszard Biernat tried to report attempted abuse by Fr. Art Smith in Buffalo, Biernat was told by Aux. Bp. Edward Grosz to keep silent or face being sent back to Poland never to be ordained a priest.
The longstanding "culture of silence" surrounding scandal-ridden seminaries is about to be broken by the cases and testimonies of whistleblower seminarians in New York and around the world.
In September 2020, the law firm representing former North American College (NAC) seminarian of the New York archdiocese, Anthony Gorgia, took the first steps in a lawsuit moving forward against New York cardinal Timothy Dolan, NAC rector Fr. Peter Harman, NAC vice rector Fr. Adam Park, and other responsible parties. Gorgia became a victim of reprisal and was coerced into leaving the seminary after he witnessed and received reports of inappropriate physical behavior on the part of the vice rector, Fr. Park.
After more than two years of reporting to responsible Church officials the allegations of misconduct against Park and cover-up by Dolan, Harman and others, only to find these reports unaddressed, it became apparent that whistleblower seminarians can only hope to find justice through legal action. The summons with notice filed by Gorgia's attorney cites the nature of the legal action as recovering for, among other things, discrimination and harassment Gorgia suffered as a heterosexual "at the hands of both the homosexual defendant(s) and their cooperating defendant(s)."
As Gorgia's attorney brings forward a solid landmark case that will incriminate both the accused transgressors and a vast number of complicit Church officials, the NAC becomes the second seminary connected with the Vatican to be publicly denounced this year for scandalous treatment of seminarians.
Whistleblower seminarian Kamil Jarzembowski was coerced into leaving formation at St. Pius X Minor Seminary, located inside the Vatican, after he witnessed alleged homosexual misconduct being committed against another seminarian. Jarzembowski reported the alleged abuse as far back as 2012, only to find his letters unaddressed by a list of Vatican and other Church officials. It has yet to be reported what sentence Fr. Gabriele Martinelli received after he was tried before a Vatican criminal court in October 2020 for accusations of repeatedly sexually abusing a young student. The Vatican has also been silent about the disposition of the former rector, Msgr. Enrico Radice, who allegedly covered up the abuse.
The way local church leaders and the Vatican have handled the case of Jarzembowski and other cases brought forward by seminarians explains why abuse advocates advise reporting abuse to civil and not Church officials. Unfortunately, regardless of to whom a seminarian reports abuse, he is usually dismissed or coerced into leaving while the abuser is generally retained and, in some cases, even promoted.
Former seminarian Mahe Thouvenel, for instance, found himself dismissed from the seminary after he filed a sexual assault complaint with French authorities against Abp. Luigi Ventura, a former Vatican ambassador to France. Thouvenel's testimony, along with that of other alleged victims, led a French court on Dec. 16, 2020 to find Ventura guilty of sexual assault. Ventura joins the ranks of over 100 prelates — cardinals, archbishops and bishops — who have been accused publicly of sexual abuse or misconduct. Despite the extensive harm done by these abusive Church leaders, few have been disciplined, and only seven have been laicized like ex-cardinal McCarrick.
Back in the United States, several other seminaries have seen key events unfold as scandal engulfed their institutions. Complaints by whistleblower seminarians in Buffalo and unearthed allegations of a decades-long "culture" of sexual impropriety led to the closure of Christ the King Seminary and the removal of its rector, Fr. Joseph Gatto. Around the same time, reports by former seminarian John Monaco concerning homosexual activity, intimidation and abuse at St. John's Seminary in Brighton led to the removal of the rector, Msgr. James Moroney.
It will be worth watching if the shocking revelations being brought forward by whistleblower seminarians will advance the trajectory of seminary closures owing to scandalous and immoral behavior on the part of rectors, vice rectors, faculty members and seminarians. Such has already been the case with the NAC's counterpart in Belgium, the American College of Louvain (ACL); St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Missouri; St. John's Provincial Seminary in Detroit (aka "the Pink Palace"); Christ the King Seminary in Buffalo; and other institutions closed over the years.
Unlike Church officials, who are supported by large numbers of lawyers whose services are paid for at rates up to $1,000-an-hour by the Catholic faithful, former victimized seminarians and priests depend upon private contributions to pay their legal costs involved in bringing suit. They rely upon the media to bring their cases to the attention of the public, who can then contribute by visiting websites such as the "Save our Seminarians" GoFundMe page.
Just as The Boston Globe's Spotlight reporters had no idea when they began their investigation how widespread the abuse problem involving minors was throughout the Catholic Church, the faithful may be surprised to see the multitudes of former seminarians and priests throughout the United States who will follow in the lead of landmark legal action moving through the courts. Victories by Gorgia and other whistleblower seminarians would well signal a defining moment for the hundreds of victimized seminarians who long for the day to have their voices heard.