22 November 2017, The Tablet

Pay 'greatest attention' to protection of minors in Seminarian training

'The main challenge is how to live a meaningful and committed celibate life in the priesthood'

Pay 'greatest attention' to protection of minors in Seminarian training

A member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors has said seminaries must pay the “greatest attention” to the protection of minors and vulnerable persons in their formation programmes and mustn’t confine the matter to a one-off safeguarding lecture or workshop so that a box could be ticked.

In his address on ‘Formation in Safeguarding in Seminary and Religious Training’ at a symposium at the national seminary in Maynooth, Professor Hans Zollner of the Centre for Child Protection at Rome’s Gregorian University, said specific courses on the protection of minors must be included in seminaries’ programme of initial as well as ongoing formation.

The issue should not be something seminaries fear nor should it be confined to the area of sexuality, “it has to be part of our understanding of pastoral work,” he said.

Speaking to the Tablet, the Jesuit criticised the Church’s lack of a theology of safeguarding for children and the lack of a theology of childhood.

He questioned how the Church could talk to victims of abuse about salvation when the typical approach currently emphasises that individuals are saved from their sins. “How do you tell that to a survivor of abuse who has been sinned against” he asked.

He also highlighted how studies show that the average age of a priest when he first commits child sexual abuse is 39 and so celibacy is not the reason some priests perpetrate abuse otherwise the age at which abusive priests begin abusing would be closer to the age when priests undertake a life of celibacy, which is usually in their twenties.

“Celibacy as such is not the monocausal explanation for sexually abusive behaviour. Otherwise you can’t explain what so many non-celibates abuse and you can’t explain why so many celibates do not abuse,” he told the Tablet.  

“The main challenge is how to live a meaningful and committed celibate life in the priesthood and there is a need for ongoing formation and support for priests after ordination.”

Other speakers at the conference, including Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, Secretary for Seminaries at the Congregation of Clergy, also emphasised the need for ongoing formation for priests. The Vatican prelate also stressed the importance of a propaedeutic or pre-seminary year for those discerning a priestly vocation.

Nineteen new seminarians began their formation for Irish dioceses in the autumn, eight of whom are undertaking a propaedeutic year in locations in Ireland and abroad. The introduction of the pre-seminary year in Maynooth is part of the review of policies and procedures which the bishops announced in the wake of last year’s crisis over allegations of inappropriate behaviour among Maynooth seminarians including claims that some were using the gay dating app Grindr.

Discussing the issue of quantity versus quality of candidates, Professor Zollner acknowledged that there is “an urgent need for more priests” but questioned whether that was sufficient reason for seminaries to “lower our standards for admission and accept people who may make one more [seminarian] but in the end may take out two more when they create a scandal” [due to their unsuitability].

“When you take in anybody, the indirect effect is that it deters those who are up to the job and may not think of entering the seminary” because they see those intellectually and personally weak individuals who have been accepted and are put off by that.

He hit out at bishops who disregarded seminary formators advice on poor quality candidates and ordained unsuitable men in order to look good on vocations numbers.

Highlighting an EU campaign to promote awareness that as many as 1 in 5 young people in Europe are victims of sexual abuse, Fr Zollner said this suggested that some candidates in seminaries would be victims of abuse and he questioned what assistance and support they were being offered to help them deal with that trauma.

Another speaker at the conference, Fr Christopher Jamison who starred in the BBC TV series ‘The Monastery’ warned of a trend of narcissism among trainee priests.

PICTURE: Professor Hans Zollner ©Twitter 

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