Hub Seminary Linked to Problem Priests
by Eric Convey
Sunday, March 3, 2002 - THE BOSTON HERALD
The sexual-abuse scandal tearing at the local Roman Catholic Church
has played out in courtrooms and psychiatrists' offices and even
the chancery on Lake Street in Brighton.
But ground zero could well be St. John's Seminary, a complex of
tan brick and stone buildings down the street next to Boston College.
A Herald analysis of cases of priests facing serious pedophile
allegations in the state, including those who settled out of court
or have been suspended by the church pending resolution of accusations,
shows that a disproportionate percentage attended St. John's in
the late 1950s and 1960s.
"This is the general pattern with these scandals across the board.
They're usually guys now in their late 60s and 70s who received
their priestly formation and were ordained in the '60s and '70s,"
said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who publishes
"First Things," a monthly journal popular with religious conservatives.
Others add that there was a broad crisis in theological education.
Some former students say the culture of St. John's was corrupt -
a breeding ground for trouble as graduates moved from the tough
constraints of seminary life to the freedom - or loneliness - of
Regardless of why, the numbers are staggering, especially for certain
The class of 1960 contained at least five men involved in pedophilia
allegations. That's out of a class of approximately 77 graduates.
Experts put the incidence of pedophilia in the general population
at around 1 percent. For the St. Johns' graduates ordained in 1960,
the figure appears to approach 7 percent - seven times the national
average for men.
Four of the accused belonged to the class of 1962 and six to the
class of 1963 - this at a time when seminary enrollment was declining
steadily. The next few years were relatively quiet, producing only
a few priests who face allegations.
Then came the class of 1968, which included six men accused of
pedophilia, including Paul Mahan - target of some of the most vile
Significantly, this graduating class was far smaller than those
that had passed through St. John's a decade earlier. With fewer
than 50 members, the incidence of alleged pedophilia in the class
rises to about 12 percent.
The figures trail off from there, with a few priests who graduated
in the 1970s accused of misconduct and almost none from the 1980s
and 1990s. Officials have identified about 90 accused pedophile
priests since the scandal erupted.
"(The) counterculture had made significant inroads in the lives
of the churches, including the Catholic Church," Neuhaus said of
There were priests educated in the 60s and early 70s, he said,
"who really believed, who were led to believe by somebody, often
at the seminary, that the rule on celibacy was soon to be abandoned.
"There was what I think is aptly discerned as a kind of wink and
nudge attitude - everything is up for grabs," he said.
Neuhaus attributes widespread disobedience of sexual rules to broader
straying from the church's doctrinal teachings.
"It's perfectly understandable that dissent in one area encourages
dissent in other areas, including sexual ethics," he said.
Other experts scoff at such notions.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who authored a key 1985 report
on clergy sexual abuse and now serves as a U.S. Air Force chaplain
in Germany, is among them.
To blame pedophilia on liberal teaching or a loosening of social
mores is "nonsense," Doyle said. "Most of (the accused) were
born with this disorder."
But there were some changes that could play a role, he said.
"A lot of the internal and external constraints were dissipating
and dissolving," he said. "That restrained some to some extent."
Another reason so many priests ordained in the 1960s are being
accused is that they were the first generation of perpetrators to
lose the cover provided by an attitude that clergy were "untouchable,"
Victims abused earlier by earlier generations of clergy would have
been less likely to come forward, Doyle said.
"(Priests) lived in ivory towers. You could have a private life,
you could get away with that. Nobody would believe it. Your stature
was such that you could intimidate kids," he said.
"But men have been sexually abusing kids for eons," Doyle said.
"It's a very secret disorder."
Numerous students who attended St. John's during the 1950s and
1960s described it as a strict place.
Unlike students at nearly all colleges, those at St. John's had
their own bedrooms. Being found in a fellow students room was grounds
for expulsion. For much of the day, the young men followed vows
of silence outside the classroom.
Despite such official rectitude, what happened behind closed doors
is hard to establish.
One student described an atmosphere of frequent experimentation.
Gay students quickly identified each other, he said, and established
networks that would last in some fashion until years after graduation
and ordination into the priesthood.
Another student from the late 1960s said promiscuity - homosexual
and heterosexual - was taken for granted in some circles.
But if a secret society existed, it appears many students were
unaware of it.
"We were naive," said one former student. "We were busy studying."
Another St. John's student from the 1960s, speaking recently on
the condition he not be identified, said there were no signs of
sexual activity among students.
"Certainly it wasn't discussed in any public way," he said.
But there were rumors, he continued, and perhaps once a year a
student or two would leave among speculation they had engaged in
inappropriate sexual behavior.
A priest in the archdiocese who studied elsewhere but was involved
in events at St. John's said the biggest concern among administrators
was students who were torn between piety and banned sexual behavior.
Many young men are "mixed up" at that age, the priest said, and
vulnerable to exploitation by older or more sophisticated classmates.
In at least one instance - the case of now defrocked priest and
convicted child molester John Geoghan - even effective oversight
by faculty and administrators wasn't enough to prevent trouble.
In court papers unsealed recently, Geoghan's supervisors at St.
John's wrote that he suffered "a very pronounced immaturity."
"Scholastically, he is a problem," the Rev. John J. Murray wrote.
"I still have serious doubts about his ability to do satisfactory
work in future studies."
But Geoghan, defended by a relative who was a ranking priest, went
on to graduate from the seminary in 1962 after taking some time
off. He then went on to abuse children across Greater Boston, according
to plaintiffs, many of whose cases were settled out of court by
the archdiocese for a total reaching into the millions.
By the 1960s, despite sometimes iron rule in the archdiocese by
Richard Cardinal Cushing, St. John's was the focus of dissent.
Catholic groups calling for an end to the celibacy requirement
spoke and recruited in Massachusetts, drawing newspaper coverage
at the time.
In March 1970, the archdiocese gave new seminary graduates the
right to veto their initial assignments. The students got less freedom
then some of them wanted - there was a requirement that a new priest
show a grave reason for wanting to avoid a parish. But it was a
rare sign of democracy within the hierarchical institution.
After the turbulent 1960s came something of a collective hangover
during much of the 1970s.
"By the mid-70s, certainly, a sobering climate set in and people
said, hey, things are getting out of hand," Neuhaus said.
At St. John's, by the 1980s, the situation had changed substantially,
a former student said.
Students were far less interested in social activism, at least
in the United States. Some took a substantial interest in issues
such as Reformation Theology in Central America. Serving the poor
in the United States was also on the agenda of many students.
But by then their classes were a fraction of the size of those
that had passed through a decade and a half earlier. Far more common,
people familiar with the environment said, was the young man whose
primary concern was to become a good diocesan priest rather than
One likely factor was an analysis of U.S. seminaries ordered by
the Vatican shortly after the elevation of Pope John Paul II in
1978. Church officials in Rome began what would become a lengthy
crusade to ensure that teaching at seminaries and Catholic universities
and colleges conformed with official doctrines. The message to the
priests and bishops running seminaries was clear, several academics
said: Get in line, or risk consequences.
If St. John's was taking a more theologically conservative tack
by the early 1980s, that course was cemented in 1984.
Humberto Cardinal Medeiros died in September 1983 and the pope,
in the midst of putting a conservative stamp on the church hierarchy
around the world, named then-bishop Bernard Law to oversee the Boston
Law was a theological conservative who, despite his own history
of social activism, especially on race matters, made it clear soon
after his arrival that priestly formation - the process of education
and spiritual counseling - was to focus on intellectual and moral
development. Since Law missed much of the early seminary experience,
few around St. John's at the time expected he would tolerate anything
that even smacked of wayward behavior.
Law also embarked, shortly after his arrival, on an aggressive
mission to recruit more young men to the priesthood. That emphasis
has paid off for St. John's and the archdiocese, said one Law confidant
who spoke on condition of anonymity. St. John's was able to become
more selective. The quality of new priests has never been higher
- at least not in recent years - the archbishop's friend said.
One St. John's professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity
steered clear of the sexual abuse issue. But he said by the 1980s,
the biggest concern among faculty was the decline in the academic
ability of students. That situation has improved significantly,
For St. John's, the last few years have been the best in decades,
one longtime faculty member said.
Whether he knew it or not - Law has repeatedly declined requests
for interviews - the new archbishop was creating an atmosphere at
his main seminary far different from that of the previous decades.
In the end, the most damaging thing that happened at the seminaries
may be the unavoidable result of the otherwise noble bonding that
occurs between men who spend years studying with each other who
embark on a common journey, experts said.
The priesthood is a brotherhood whose members sought to help each
other rather than take care of victims, priests interviewed in recent
"There was an understandable, but misguided, compassionate clericalism
of protecting brother priests," said Neuhaus. "Much of that is
to be admired. Any group, especially those bound together by the
radical sacrifices of priesthood, need to support one another and
it's a beautiful thing. But it can also be distorted into a kind