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Ex-Seminarian’s Struggle Shows ‘Overlapping Jurisdictions’ Gap in Abuse Crisis

A tree in full autumn colors is seen Nov. 17 in front of Theological College of The Catholic University of America in Washington. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Tyler Orsburn)

By Christopher White and Ines San Martin

ROME (Crux) – Seventeen years ago, a young foreign-born seminarian was packing his bags for the opportunity of a lifetime.

During a chance meeting at a Labor Day BBQ, the highly influential and now disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick encouraged him to transfer to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled in the Theological College (TC), the national seminary located at Catholic University of America (CUA).

Little did he know that choice would influence the rest of his life.

The experience turned sour when “Martin,” a pseudonym, (it is the policy of Crux not to identify the victims of sexual abuse who do not want to be named) says he was sexually assaulted by a transitional deacon who was studying at TC and who would be ordained a priest the following year. (That man eventually left the priesthood.)

After the alleged incident took place in the early 2000s, Martin reported it to his spiritual director, his confessor, another seminarian and even to McCarrick. Two decades later it’s never been investigated, and it’s not even clear who would be responsible for looking into it and seeing justice done.

Martin’s case, and others like it, appear to illustrate two serious gaps in the Catholic Church’s overall response to the clerical abuse crisis: A problem of overlapping jurisdictions, and what happens when the victims aren’t minors.

In terms of responding to Martin’s claim, there are at least five entities involved: The seminary, the university, the Archdiocese of Washington, the diocese where the offender was incardinated at the time, and the Vatican. Under Church law, this represents a “conflict of competence,” which can be positive, should multiple parties want to take responsibility, or negative, if none want to assume jurisdiction.

To date, Martin’s efforts to press his case have been a tale of passing the buck, with each institution, to some extent, deferring to one or more of the others.

In the words of a high-ranking Church official aware of Martin’s case: “It proves that at times, when it comes to addressing abuse, we’re still making it up as we go.”

If the victim is a minor, the diocese – or religious order – that has jurisdiction opens an investigation, which if found credible, is then sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. If the victim is not a minor or a vulnerable adult, there is no standardized process.

Though seminarians are not recognized in the code of canon law as vulnerable adults, some argue that they should be, including retired F.B.I. agent Kathleen McChesney, who was chosen by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) to establish and lead its Office of Child and Youth Protection in 2002.

Whatever ultimately is made of the specifics of Martin’s accusation – at this point it’s impossible to assess, since it’s never been seriously examined – the fact that it’s taken almost twenty years even to get a hearing points to important pieces of unfinished business in implementing the Church’s oft-repeated commitment to “zero tolerance.”

The case

In interviews with Crux, several other men who attended TC from 2001 to 2006, recall being made uncomfortable due to improper sexual advances made towards them by other seminarians, as well as members of the faculty. Their accounts matched much of Martin’s experience at TC.

A high ranking Church official with knowledge of the situation told Crux that “all the indications are that he was very seriously damaged by the experience of the abuse, and it would seem that the seminary did not react appropriately, in a way that was helpful to him.”

“Consequently, we’re living with the fallout of that,” the source, who requested to remain unnamed as he’s helping with the case now, said.

At the time of Martin’s reported abuse, McCarrick was the chancellor of CUA, a post he held by virtue of being archbishop of Washington, and thus had supervisory authority over the University. As the Archbishop of Washington, he also had supervisory authority over the administration of TC.

Days after the incident, Martin spoke on the phone with McCarrick, who assured him that “everything would be fine and that he should trust the faculty.” Martin decided to cooperate in an internal investigation.

The mother of another seminarian, who was privy to the situation, wrote to McCarrick regarding the incident out of concern for her son. He answered in writing, telling her the same thing he told Martin.

It was acknowledged that Martin had been abused, and his vocations director told him he believed him. However, Martin was sent to therapy and told that since he was “late at night in the room of another seminarian,” he had shown a lack of judgement.

Martin acknowledged that he’d been up late, saying that he didn’t expect to “be raped in a Catholic seminary” and that it was common to hang out with other fellow seminarians in their rooms at the time. He was also accused of drinking, which he denied.

Crux has spoken with some of Martin’s classmates, who either knew of the events at the time or were contacted by him in recent months. All of them agreed that seeing the “hostile environment” they experienced in the seminary, they found his allegations to be “believable.”

This environment was also reported by The Washington Post before Martin entered TC.

Written by Hanna Rosin, the article draws from information given by two dozen “present and former TC students who were interviewed.”

They described participating in, or witnessing, some sexual activity, sometimes in the dorms and sometimes off campus. They also described a “weirdness” within TC, which they spelled out as a “gay undercurrent,” which was “ubiquitous yet unacknowledged.”

One of Martin’s classmates confirmed the existence of this undercurrent to Crux, saying that “even though I was never involved in the ins and outs, and it’s unfair and not helpful to just paint it in broad strokes as a ‘gay subculture,’ something was going on. The place was crazy, and it had an impact on me.”

For him, the “craziness” had more to do with a “complete lack of understanding of who Christ is. There’s a disconnect between what they were supposed to be learning and what they were taught. And this has caused an even bigger identity crisis within the Church, with many of those who today are in positions of power, not knowing what the call to the priesthood is actually about.”

Since the abuse reportedly took place, Martin left the seminary and moved on to become a technology executive. Holding two master’s degrees, he has worked as an executive for several high-level companies. He is currently based in the United States.

Having left his own case on the back burner for a while, he decided to turn up the heat last year, after the allegations against McCarrick arose: Already accused of sexual abuse and the abuse of power and of conscience, this is the first time the former cardinal has been openly accused of cover-up.

The evidence

Martin provided Crux with access to documents, including letters, emails, and memos detailing the abuse allegation, which Crux corroborated with the named parties.

In an email Martin sent to McCarrick and to his spiritual director in 2003, he announced that he was departing the seminary “due to recent incidents.”

Further correspondence from 2003 between a CUA professor and former President, then-Father David M. O’Connell, now Bishop of Trenton, New Jersey, show a concerned professor raising issues about the overall management and moral conduct of seminary officials and requesting a formal investigation into Martin’s allegations. Additional e-mails to other CUA authorities from the same professor document the same request for an investigation, which Crux has confirmed never occurred.

In addition, Crux has also reviewed a memorandum the professor said he sent last December to civil authorities in D.C. providing background on a case of “sexual assault at Theological College.”

In the memo, the professor details how in 2002 he wrote to O’Connell to “inform him that there was a sex abuse problem at TC, and that, in my view, he had both a moral and a legal obligation to investigate.”

“[O’Connell] refused to address the issue with his clerical superiors, seeking instead to treat it as a ‘human resources’ issue,” the professor wrote. “His refusal was confirmed in writing in June 2003 by a letter to me from the University’s then-General Counsel, Craig Parker.”

Crux also reviewed a copy of the agenda of a retreat for seminarians held in 2002 where McCarrick confirms there are concerns from the Archdiocese of Washington when it comes to sending candidates to TC.

Where the case stands today

In September 2018, Martin reached out to Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors. After reviewing the situation, Cardinal O’Malley sent a letter and memorandum to Archbishop Jorge Patron Wong, in charge of the Vatican’s office overseeing seminaries.

Crux reviewed the documentation sent by Cardinal O’Malley, which was provided to him by Martin and the same professor of CUA’s faculty who said he sent a report to civil authorities.

“These materials concern very serious and troubling allegations of sexual misconduct, retaliation and cover up in the Theological College at Catholic University of America with particular focus on such occurrences in 2003 and 2004,” Cardinal O’Malley writes. “As the correspondence and documents indicate, their content has relationship with the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick.”

Since the time in which Cardinal O’Malley penned the letter, McCarrick was removed from the clerical state by Pope Francis after he was found guilty of abuse.

A memorandum from 2018 from the CUA professor to Cardinal O’Malley that Martin had access to states that “At the time these events occurred, there was a pattern of retaliation against anyone who informed seminary and canonical authorities.”

“Even today, there is a reasonable fear of retaliation against those involved,” the professor continues. “Until I can assure the victims that there will be a confidential proceeding in which the tribunal has authority to resolve their complaints, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that they identify themselves.”

Despite his frustrations with the way in which his case is being handled, Martin has nothing but words of praise and thanks for Cardinal O’Malley.

“I’m particularly thankful to Cardinal Sean for the pastoral support he has given me,” Martin told Crux.

“I don’t want to interfere with an eventual investigation,” he said. But seeing that today “I’m strong enough to share my story,” he wanted to do so, in the hopes that it would help “expose a culture of cover-up and indifference with the truth; focused on perpetuating legal frameworks instead of providing pastoral care.”

According to one of Martin’s seminary classmates, his case exposes the lack of pastoral care that some Catholic institutions still demonstrate using lawyers and other coercive means with victims of sexual abuse instead of looking for the truth, healing, and accountability.

As Martin put it to Crux, “this is when the role of the Catholic Church as a Mother, as a source for healing and reparation gets overshadowed by a group of lawyers who try to protect the institutions and not heal the persons.”

The responses

Since September, Martin has been in regular communication with Cardinal O’Malley; CUA’s current president John Garvey; and Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, once the Vatican’s top prosecutor on abuse cases and one of the organizers of the Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit on the protection of children.

Crux reached out to all three, as well to Patron Wong’s office in the Vatican.

Monsignor Andrea Ripa, an official in the office, told Crux via email that “for problems of any nature relative to the life in the seminaries, the primary responsible person is the diocesan bishop, or in case of inter-diocesan seminaries, the bishop who moderates it.”

“If it is regarding a case relative to an abuse of a minor, the competent dicastery is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” Ripa said.

Stateside, Martin’s case was discussed at a March 2019 board meeting at CUA. Crux has been informed by Martin that CUA is in the initial stages of an internal investigation into Martin’s case, and more broadly, the plight of seminarians during McCarrick’s tenure, but the terms between Martin and the university have yet to be agreed upon.

According to Martin, the case was further discussed on June 3 at a meeting of TC’s seminary committee, which included both Garvey and Cardinal O’Malley.

An official from CUA told Crux that “the review was launched jointly by Theological College and The Catholic University of America, in consultation with the Archdiocese of Washington. It is ongoing, and no further details of the investigation are available.”

Yet the relationship between CUA and TC is complex, both legally and canonically, only adding to the layers in this case.

According to CUA spokesperson Karna Lozoya, “Theological College is owned and operated by the Sulpician Fathers. It is its own corporation and has its own Board of Trustees.”

“That said, Catholic University and Theological College have a long-standing relationship,” she told Crux. “We provide the academic and intellectual preparation for the seminarians at Theological College, and we financially support the operations of Theological College. Additionally, the Board of Trustees of Catholic University has a Seminary Committee that meets with the rector of Theological College. This committee exercises no governance role. It is a forum for updates and to discuss management issues and matters concerning the education and preparation of seminarians for the priesthood.”

“When issues do arise, Catholic University seeks to do all it can to assist Theological College in jointly finding resolutions,” she continued.

Suzanne Tanzi, media manager of TC, told Crux that “Individuals who are victims of a sexual offense are encouraged to report the offense to TC’s rector or other members of the TC formation faculty.”

“Whenever TC becomes aware of an incident involving a student that appears inappropriate, it investigates and properly responds as needed. When the situation involves the University, TC reaches out to the University in line with agreed upon procedures to identify and properly respond as needed,” said Tanzi.

“In addition, an individual who has a complaint related to a sexual offense is always free to report it directly to local law enforcement,” she continued. “TC is of course committed to protecting the privacy of all individuals involved in any review that it conducts,” she added.

As for the Archdiocese of Washington, a spokesman told Crux that “the Catholic University of America and the Theological College are independent of the Archdiocese of Washington and have responsibility for conducting investigations associated with their organizations.”

Cardinal O’Malley offered a broader picture, saying that since the #MeToo movement and the McCarrick situation, “in the Church we’re all much more conscious of the vulnerability of young religious, seminarians and young priests.”

According to the prelate, this has been reflected in the latest motu proprio issued by Pope Francis on the matter of accountability, and also in the recently published guidelines for the Holy See, that go beyond canon law.

“Until now, we had been working with a very restrictive definition of vulnerable adult to mean someone who does not have the habitual use of reason,” Cardinal O’Malley told Crux on Wednesday. “You see that there are other kinds of vulnerability that need to be recognized and dealt with.”