An Important Hypothetical

Imagine that you’re in charge of a seminary.  Seminarian #1 reported to his counselor that while at a bar, another seminarian he was out with (Seminarian #2) patted a guy on the behind after they’d been drinking.  It hadn’t gone any further – it wasn’t as if the two men went home together, or had engaged in any further physical affection – but it was enough to trouble Seminarian #1. The counselor reports the incident to you, and you call Seminarian #2 into your office.

Seminarian #2’s story is identical to what you already knew from the counselor: he’d been drinking, and playfully patted a guy’s butt. Nothing else happened.  You question him further, and he reveals that several years earlier, he’d twice had gay sexual experiences after he’d been drinking.  He insists that it was an experimental phase, and that he’s prepared to live a celibate life.  You send him to counseling, in order to find out if he’s got what it takes to live a celibate life, and to see how much of a problem the history of drinking is going to be.  The evaluation suggests that he’s prepared to live a celibate life.

These are the facts you’ve got.  Given them, what would you do as rector of the seminary?  Specifically, you’re faced with a troubling question: should you deny Seminarian #2 ordination over these incidents, or not?  Should the answer be the same as if the sexual history were with women?  Mentally answer these questions, then click before.

As you might have guessed, this is an extremely important question, and it’s one that Bishop Kicanas faced while he was rector of Mundelein Seminary, according to his version of events.  He decided it would be “unfair” to prevent Seminarian #2’s ordination on the basis of these facts, and the young man was ordained.  Seminarian #2, better known as Father Daniel McCormack, went on to molest twenty-three boys… that we know of.  As you might have guessed, this has put Bishop Kicanas (who is currently poised to become the next president of the USCCB) into a lot of hot water.  His attempt at explaining the situation he’s found himself in made this much worse, as he said:

“It would have been grossly unfair not to have ordained him. There was a sense that his activity was part of the developmental process and that he had learned from the experience. I was more concerned about his drinking. We sent him to counseling for that. I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently.”

If you close your eyes to the monster that McCormack revealed himself to be, it’s pretty easy to understand where Kicanas is coming from here.  He felt it would be unfair to stop an ordination over the relatively small incident at a bar, even coupled with the earlier sexual activity, since that earlier activity seemed like experimentation rather than a gay lifestyle.  And since all of the incidents in question were preceded by drinking, that seemed to him to be the issue to tackle.  If McCormack sobered up, he’d probably not find himself in these situations… or so the logic seems to have gone.

Well, the news reports that have included this quote haven’t given it any context, so it sounds like Kicanas is saying that although he knew McCormack was a molester, it would have been unfair to stop him from becoming a priest, and that’d he’d do it over again.  That’s not at all what he was saying, and I wonder what Kicanas’ liberal critics wanted him to do — stop the ordination of a homosexually-inclined seminarian?  Or just psychically know which gay seminarians preyed upon very young boys?

I should note here that even had the story not turned out so tragically, Kicanas made the wrong decision.   This would become more clear in subsequent years.  A few years after Kicanas made his fateful decision, the Vatican issued guidelines for handling seminarians with same-sex tendencies:

Deep-seated homosexual tendencies, which are found in a number of men and women, are also objectively disordered and, for those same people, often constitute a trial. Such persons must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. They are called to fulfil God’s will in their lives and to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter[8].

In the light of such teaching, this Dicastery, in accord with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, believes it necessary to state clearly that the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question[9], cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called “gay culture”[10].

Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

Different, however, would be the case in which one were dealing with homosexual tendencies that were only the expression of a transitory problem – for example, that of an adolescence not yet superseded. Nevertheless, such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate.

This last paragraph, of course, directly addresses the situation as Kicanas presents it.  He’d determined that the early sexual experiences were “transitory,” or in his words, “part of the developmental process.”  Yet McCormack was still patting a man’s butt in a bar while in seminary.  Not only should this have set off more alarm bells than it did (I’m inclined to think if it were a woman he’d done this to, it would have been taken more seriously), the Vatican’s guidelines are quite explicit: this is objective evidence that McCormack’s homosexual tendencies were not “clearly overcome,” so his ordination should have been halted, or at least delayed for a few years.

Now, when these guidelines came out in 2002, the Vatican was slammed in the media for conflating pedophilia with homosexuality.  But the Vatican was just noting the obvious: the sex-abuse scandal has had a shockingly high proportion of male victims, and it doesn’t seem to be random. Even the rather liberal Jesuit, Fr. Thomas Reese, has asked:

Eighty-one percent of the [sex abuse] victims were male. Why? What role does homosexuality play in this crisis? There is no hard data on what percentage of the clergy is homosexual, because the bishops refuse to allow such a study.

Nobody (or virtually nobody) is suggesting that all pedophiles are gay, or all gay men are pedophiles.  But in this particular context, there seems to be a serious correlation, which we don’t necessary fully grasp, between priests with gay tendencies, and priests who molest minors.

So given this, it seems to me that (1) the Vatican’s guidelines have been once again vindicated, and (2) it’s troubling that Kicanas doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this (the statement I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently.” is galling, given that the Vatican had explained exactly what he should have done differently).  But it also seems that Kicanas has been attacked somewhat unfairly here.  He was presented with a tough situation — without being at the bar, it’s impossible to say whether the pat was jovial or romantic.  And with McCormack and the counselors’ evaluation promising that he’d stay celibate, I don’t think Kicanas is alone in thinking that the decision he made was the right one.  Still, I don’t know — part of the reason for setting the facts up in the beginning as I did is to try and gauge from you: what would you have done in this situation?  What were you thinking was the right answer before you read the rest of this post?


  1. Joe:

    I appreciate your warning about “Monday morning quarterbacking” and I agree with you that the media has distorted Bishop K’s positions. Nevertheless, the USCCB has an election upon it, and what it choses to do will say something to the faithful and the population at large.

    The second half of the 20th century was a time when I, myself, was discerning a vocation. I don’t speak about it much, primarily because the topic rarely comes up. However, a few years back the topic did come up in a conversation with the husband of one of my wife’s close friends. He relayed an experience visiting a seminary during his discernment process which was identical to mine.

    Basically, the environment was creepy. Both of us had it in the back of our minds during our respective visits that our “fellow students,” should we answer the call, were going to be difficult to live with. Some were just odd, others clearly same-sex-attracted if not actively homosexual, others clearly socially backward. Bottom line, this was not a group you’d want to spend time with at a social event, let alone have as your “business associates” for the rest of your life.

    The folks that ran these seminaries in those days just didn’t “get it.” Bishop K just doesn’t “get it.” The “it” is something obvious to all the faithful and even to the general population. In order to do the job, you have to be mentally healthy and well adjusted. You have to relate to the broad spectrum of humanity in a way that’s representative of the broad spectrum of humanity. You can’t just draw from the “socially-backward” pool any more than you can draw from a subgroup that comprises one-half of one percent of the human population. And most importantly, you can’t be making choices with those that you admit that drive away the most desirable segment of the potential admissions pool.

    The NCCB needs a leader without this baggage of prudential mismanagement. I’m not for purges in the current ranks of the American priesthood. I am however for Church leaders who, by their own background and deportment, show that they understand that there were serious mistakes in the way seminary admissions used to be handled and that the 21st century American priesthood will look very different.

  2. Michael,

    I agree. I think that it would be a pretty tone-deaf choice to elect Bishop Kicanas. I think not only is he not the most qualified (as I think the post makes clear, I think he employed poor decision-making skills here), but his election is likely to cause unnecessary scandal.

    Frankly, his election seems too bureaucratic – it’s traditional to elect the vice-president as president the next time around, and I think a fair number of bishops are more concerned with offending Kicanas (by not giving him the spot) than with choosing the best man for the job. There are a number of other reasons I’m not thrilled with Kicanas as a pick for president: namely, he’s quiet on anything controversial (like abortion), and seems to focus his time and energies on popular issues, like “social justice.” That doesn’t sound like strong leadership to me.

    Pro-choice politician Janet Napolitano has publicly praised Kicanas for taking a “softer” approach towards pro-choice politicians. To pro-life Catholics, this sort of “praise” is obviously quite disturbing. If those committing mortal sins feel placated by your approach, your approach isn’t that of Christ. On the flip side, bishop emeritus Rene Gracida has come out swinging against Kicanas as a pick because he’s too cowardly on (1) abortion, (2) applying canon 915 to refuse Communion to pro-choice politicians, and (3) the sex abuse scandal ( Between Secretary Napolitano and Bp. Gracida, you can guess who’s opinion I trust more.

  3. “I think a fair number of bishops are more concerned with offending Kicanas (by not giving him the spot) than with choosing the best man for the job.”

    This is actually THE key point. What has made the bishops such easy targets of the media is the perception (which their collective behavior continuously validates) that their own internal relationships are what’s important to them, not the welfare of the faithful (or the rest of humanity) at large.

    Playing this election as “business as usual” with just reinforce this perception. For a change, the media spin and reality will actually be one and the same.

  4. Except that the media spin implies he intentionally allowed a pedophile seminarian to become a predator priest. When in fact, he let a probably-gay seminarian become a priest. While both are wrong, there’s a world of difference between the two (particularly from the media’s perspective).

  5. Joe,
    I am wondering if contraception and abortion/smaller families aren’t decreasing the pool of acceptable priests. Also it seems since men with same sex attraction will never marry, the priesthood is an attractive vocation. Our culture also makes it difficult.

  6. Knowing the Vatican guidelines on homosexuals and the priesthood, I would have gone with no, he should not have been admitted (or at least, not until he had proven he no longer had any homosexual tendencies). Indeed, I’m sure many others reading this would have thought the same. As Bill suggests, some homosexual men may find this hard as the priesthood may have seemed like an option instead of lifelong bachelorhood with people questioning, but for the sake of all the faithful, it just is not worth admitting them.

  7. While I fully respect the Vatican guidelines that you reference from 2005, as far as I know, those guidelines were not in place to instruct seminary formators when Bishop Kicanas was making his decisions regarding Daniel McCormack. It would be interesting to know if any similar guidelines were in place in the late eighties/early nineties. I’m not even sure which edition of the Program of Priestly Formation was in print at the time (the current edition can be found here: ).

  8. Touché, Fr. Andrew!

    The Vatican guidelines in question reference earlier documents, such as: “Congregation for Catholic Education, A memorandum to Bishops seeking advice in matters concerning homosexuality and candidates for admission to Seminary (9 July 1985.” But there’s a legitimate question of whether Bp. Kicanas would have even known about these documents, unless he’d really gone looking.

    Good catch on the Program of Priestly Formation, too. It was in the 4th edition (1992 ed.) at the time. And it wasn’t until 2005, with the 5th edition, that para. 56, “With regard to the admission of candidates with same-sex experiences and/or inclinations, the guidelines provided by the Holy See must be followed” was included, at the Vatican’s request.

    So it’s unfair to suggest (as I did in the post) that Kicanas should have followed explicit Vatican guidelines, when they weren’t well-known. I’ll change that part. But it’s still troubling to hear him say he doesn’t know what he could have done differently.

  9. Hey Joe,

    It is time for them and the faithful to stop these charades. I have prepared a special surprise for the folks in the Vatican. Read my recent press releases. They have lied about what they are up to and now you have proof.

    The head in sand pose may temporarily hide danger from the ostrich, but the hungry lion has no misconceptions about the truly dire nature of that bird’s predicament. The truth has escaped its cage, and gone on a rampage, seeking long overdue justice.

    Peace and Wisdom…

  10. Here’s the thing though, there has been a history of homosexuality pervading seminaries that drives away orthodox seminarians. Why not aggressively pursue this? Shouldn’t Catholics be concerned that Kicanas’s is more concerned with not causing waves in this culture than in promoting Catholic orthodoxy?

    See, e.g. this troubling anectodote:

    “Loren Swearingen, then a first-year seminarian who agreed with Ratzinger’s point of view, stood in the doorway, listening to his fellow students in disbelief, wondering what he had gotten into.
    Swearingen also had been troubled by scenes he’d witnessed at the seminary swimming pool. “I thought it was kind of weird,” he recalls, “seeing all these boys out there in bikini bathing suits, wrestling and chasing each other with water hoses. It kind of grossed me out. But that was the culture. It was not a very spiritual place.”
    Swearingen asked his spiritual director, “is it true there are homosexuals here?” The priest smiled and answered, “There may be a few young men in the .seminary who are uncertain about their sexuality.”
    The more Swearingen discovered about sex at Holy Trinity, the more uncomfortable he became, He says that over time he was unable to distinguish a friendly gesture from a homosexual advance. Eventually, he dropped out, abandoning his vocation for a career in engineering.”

    Kicanas sound like that spiritual director to me, which is a very dangerous thing, it seems to me.

  11. You go where the action is—a rather simplification. In high school, the guys went where the girls were on the weekend, Church dances, social dances etc. Living in NYC, we would head on over to the East Side where there were various Church dances. After we got our draft cards (age over 18) then we headed out to the bars and clubs, where the girls were.

    Homosexuals do the same thing, there were some gay and lesbian bars on broadway. The point is that the seminary is a gold mine for the homosexual, close living quarters, showers, secrecy, always male contact. Some missionary societies had missions in countries where access to young boys was available……..One society had a scandal published a few years ago.

    Also there were priests who seem to dwell on sexual sins in the confessional, requesting uhhh for the sake of penance, some details about the sexual activity. God only knows what was attached to this type of voyeurism.

    When the teatosterone flows and the sexual object (homosexual) is available, you go where the action is.

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