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O'Brien on the Visitation

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Sep 08, 2005

An article in the National Catholic Register reports on an interview with the coordinator of the Apostolic Visitation of seminaries, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, in which he gives his views on the admission of homosexuals to seminaries. As such, O'Brien's opinions on the matter are of no special weight, as his role is that of organizer of the data collection, but he'll obviously help set the tone for the visitators themselves. His answers are characteristically slippery.

"I think anyone who has engaged in homosexual activity, or has strong homosexual inclinations, would be best not to apply to a seminary and not to be accepted into a seminary," Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, who's coordinating the visits of more than 220 seminaries and houses of formation, told the Register.

That sentence (perhaps intentionally) doesn't parse, and O'Brien leaves his brother bishops plenty of wiggle room, even though it sounds on first reading as if he's taking a tough stance. Yet the question of admittance of homosexual seminarians, important though it is, is largely a smokescreen. Focusing on admission reinforces the pretense that the seminary faculty and administration are generally healthy as they are now -- the same faculty and administration that produced for us the St. Luke's Institute grads of 1990-2005. Dead wrong. The scrutiny should focus on the men who screened, admitted, taught, counseled, promoted, and dismissed the seminarians entrusted to them -- because that's where the villainy occurred. The test of success will be whether (and which) influential heads roll as a consequence of the visitation. Back to O'Brien:

The de-emphasis on chastity in the 1981 visitation led some to call it a "whitewash." Archbishop O'Brien disagreed. He participated as a visitor in the '80s, while serving as rector of the New York archdiocesan seminary, St. Joseph's in Yonkers, and said it was a net plus for participating seminaries.

It's not surprising that a man who conducted a visitation should deny that the visitation failed. But even if one doesn't admit it was a whitewash, one must account for the many, many formatores whom the Marshall Visitation failed to detect and who were subsequently expelled -- not by their colleagues, not by their bishops -- but through the efforts of the vice squad of the local police. If Marshall was a success, what does a failure look like?

"Probably the most valuable work is done in preparation for the visit," Archbishop O'Brien said. "Seminaries know what the Holy See is looking for, and they have ample time, if they're not meeting some of the standards, to make those standards a reality, and that's what happened in the '80s. Once the visits took place, most things were in place."

This is discouraging. Telegraphing ahead what you want to see when you arrive is simply a gentlemanly way to sabotage the Visitation: "Relax. Nobody gets hurt." If you know your sergeant will inspect under your locker, you clean there. If you know the Holy See will ask about instruction in celibacy, you adjust your course catalogue accordingly. If you know they won't make random phone calls to law enforcement, you cease to worry. Small wonder they're laughing into their Bushmills at Menlo Park and Boynton Beach.

There are, however, two glimmers of hope visible in this same article. The first concerns seminarians:

Archbishop O'Brien said that in the new visitations, interviews will be conducted on an anonymous basis in order that truth can be told without fear of retribution.

"The seminarians themselves will be key players to this whole thing," Archbishop O'Brien said. "They'll be questioned individually, and if we get 50 out of 60 saying this was the case when I came in and this is the way it is now, there's reason for credibility there."

Anonymity will depend on the discretion (and honor) of the visitators, and if they appear too cozy with the seminary staff little candor will be forthcoming from the men whose future depends on the staff's good will. But the fact that every seminarian will be interviewed at least lowers the threshold of anxiety for the potential whistleblower.

Archbishop O'Brien said neither he nor the rectors will see the individual reports from the seminaries going to the Vatican. He then added, "Rome will review it, and if they have concerns they'll be in touch with the bishop or the religious superior about it."

This is the best news yet reported. If, as O'Brien seems to say, the visitators will send their reports directly to the Vatican without "editing" at the local and national level, it at least allows us to hope that some candid information will get through to headquarters. Once it gets there, obviously, we can't know whether it will be reviewed by men who want to fix the problems or those who want to deny their existence. Almost every indication points to yet another self-congratulatory failure, but I still cherish a small hope I'll have crow to eat.

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