Vulnerability to the scandalmongers begins the moment a young man enters the seminary. The tendency is to believe the accusers. Here a former seminarian draws on bitter experience to remind us of the need for charity and prayer
WHEN I APPLIED to a seminary, I was surprised how the interview panel wanted to hear of my previous girlfriends and experiences of sexuality, as if encouraging, for the seminarian, that which the Church would openly condemn in any other single man. Thus, the memorable experience of my life as a seminarian started. The joys of the life were outweighed by the horrors I experienced, which resulted in my leaving, feeling betrayed and disgusted.
One day in my first year a member of staff asked me to attend and observe a local self-awarenss project of which I had extensive experience prior to entering the college. Through this I befriended several local people including two girls, Jenny and Jane. My Spiritual Director saw these friendships as normal and healthy. In response to a request I received at the awareness project, I travelled some 30 miles to visit a young pregnant lady resident in a Catholic Rescue centre. On this one occasion many things were discussed, including her pregnancy, about which she was totally naive.
Several weeks later, while out for a night in a local pub with college staff and students I was continually teased by a man, Joe, who was about to leave college and return to his native diocese before being ordained Deacon.
The subject of the tease was my "sexy" chat up line. Among a normal group of young men such a topic may not be unusual. However, among a group of celibate seminarians such suggestions can be damning to the victim's integrity. I challenged Joe, who then took great pleasure in telling all present that it was well known that I was having a sexual relationship with a local girl called Jenny. He continued to give a precise word for word account of my discussion on pregnancy from the rescue centre some three weeks before. I quite rightly denied his allegation and easily explained the other conversation, considering he had intentionally quoted it out of context.
Talking through this incident with my Spiritual Director, his answer to Joe and his actions are as unprintable here, as in any newspaper! He assured me any gossip from this incident would soon fade away and could not do my position in the college any harm. However, despite this man's great experience of humanity, he was totally wrong on this point. College gossip was minimal and soon faded away.
However, jenny who was implicated with me, suffered cruel gossip in her local parish community. I was furious when I discovered this. I knew of nobody who could wish me harm, I felt totally victimised without knowing the indentity of my attacker.
Joe had returned to his native diocese, thus could not be the source of the continuing rumours, but Jenny lived in the parish he had served in prior to leaving. The parish priest, Terry, was very friendly with Jenny and had participated on the awareness project where we had met. He had been the only contact between the project organisers and the girl at the rescue centre and yet I found it hard to accept that an ordained priest could have been involved in such salacious gossip.
My Spiritual Director recommended that I be chaperoned by another seminarian whenever I was in the presence of women, but that I did not discuss the ongoing problem with any of the other students. Thus the pressure on me built up and my sleep and work started to suffer. Jenny was even brought to the college and interviewed in confidence by my Spiritual Director, who after this yet again confirmed my innocence. After this, Jenny challenged Terry directly. He admitted joking about us in the pub one night but gave little more information to her.
As time passed the gossip faded and life started to return to normal, or so I thought. In the last week of the summer term I was summoned by a senior member of staff. At this meeting I was presented with a letter from the rescue centre which I had visited almost three months before. The letter made the allegation that I had made sexual advances towards one of their residents. I felt as if the floor had opened up before me. Where was it ever going to end and what could I do to redeem myself?
I went immediately to the president of the college and demanded a formal enquiry. The president didn't know what I was talking about. Over the previous three months none of his staff had told him what had been happening, something he was not happy about. He pointed out some oddities of this recent allegation. First, that the letter was sent to a general member of staff and not directly to him was very unusual. Then, that the letter was "conveniently" sent to a member of staff who would be responsible for discussing my future in the college at a open staff meeting the next day. It appeared that somebody who knew the system of adminstration within the college was controlling this allegation.
I was sent away from the college "under investigation". I had to be prepared that I might not be allowed to return, if any truth was found in the allegations. When I phoned the president towards the end of the summer, no investigation occurred. It had been considered politically insensitive that a student should be allowed to lay any claim against an ordained minister when that minister belonged to the same diocese as the seminary but the student did not.
The president recommended that the policy of chaperoning should continue. I resigned immediately. I wanted no part of this politically motivated ministry. My sense of social justice was inflamed by the very system that had taught me to root out injustice in the world! My saddest memories of these events come when I remember those friends in the locality who broke into tears when they heard why I was leaving. I was told that I wasn't the first to have suffered in this way and probably wouldn't be the last.
People still ask me how I can bear to enter a Catholic Church. My anger was directed against two weak men, whom I do not believe worthy of priesthood. However, I still have my faith, my belief in a loving God, and a Church attempting to love.