On the Sexual Harassment of Seminarians in the Diocese of Buffalo

On the Sexual Harassment of Seminarians in the Diocese of Buffalo April 30, 2019

I have just read a deeply upsetting article about the Diocese of Buffalo. I encourage you to read it yourself– but be careful if you read the attached complete written account, as it is extremely graphic.

The article concerns a report from a group of seminarians who wish to remain nameless for fear of repercussions. These seminarians were forced to listen to extremely disgusting, sexually explicit conversation and jokes about sexual abuse made by priests at a party. These priests have been suspended for the moment, but a diocesan spokeswoman suggests that they will be allowed back into active ministry.

The priest are identified as Reverend Art Mattulke of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Hamburg, New York; Reverend Bob Orlowski; and Reverend Patrick O’Keefe. Mattulke is a designated spiritual director for the seminarians at Christ the King Seminary. They jokingly described the sounds of a man and woman having sex on a retreat; they joked that a female dentist of their acquaintance wanted to “f*** a seminarian” and repeatedly asked the young men if they wanted to have sex with her. They laughingly shared the story of a priest professor from the seminary who gave oral sex at truck stops and compared the ejaculate to Holy Communion.

Reverend Orlowski referred to a woman who had formerly worked at his parish by the c-word multiple times and bragged about “putting her in her place.” He joked about the bishop enjoying anal sex. He and Mattulke made cruel jokes about obese and incontinent parishioners. Mattulke bragged in graphic detail about a series of photos of an ejaculation that were sent to him by a parishioner. The priests even joked about the professors and formation director at Christ the King Seminary sexually harassing and abusing seminarians, even perhaps engaging in anal sex with them in the dormitories as part of an “exam.”

I don’t think it can be denied that powerful people intimidating an underling into listening to prurient talk is a form of sexual harassment. Imagine how you’d feel if the priests were talking to a laywoman that way, instead of a seminarian, and the woman reported feeling like she couldn’t just leave, that she was forced to listen, that she was repeatedly asked to have sex with someone even if the request was framed as a joke.

I understand that another priest who was at that party has told the reporters that accounts of the conversation were “false” or exaggerated, or that the priests were not saying anything wrong and only “let their guard down a little bit.” However, we do have the testimony of several seminarians, the alleged victims of this harassment who felt forced to stay at the party and listen to this unbelievably filthy conversation. They’re so afraid of retaliation for speaking out that they won’t state their names. They are the ones with plenty to lose for reporting this, and nothing to gain. The bishop took them so seriously that he did suspend the priests’ faculties. And we also have the testimony of an employee of Christ the King Seminary that these priests are “terribly corrupt.” It’s even been alleged that seminarians who want to follow the law and report such talk feel pressured because the priests are accustomed to carrying on in this way. Who is more likely to be telling the truth?

I am reminded of Rod Dreher’s interview with former seminarian Gabe Giella, wherein Giella described the culture of sexual coercion in his unnamed, “very traditional” Catholic seminary. I don’t usually see eye to eye with Dreher on much of anything, but I believe Giella and I believe others who came forward to say that their seminary experience was the same. It would be difficult to deny, at this point, after everything that has been revealed about Catholic clerical culture, that there is a huge epidemic of grooming and sexual coercion in Catholic seminaries. And priests formed in these seminaries go on to work in our parishes; they interact with adults and children, and sometimes they sexually abuse them. They host Catholic families on retreats, and sometimes are voyeuristic to the married couples there. They manage parishes, and sometimes they bully and abuse the women who work for them and judge and despise the sick or elderly people in their congregations. And then they are the ones to help form future priests, and this keeps happening. That’s the cycle I see plain as day in front of me, and I don’t think there’s any rational way to deny it’s happening: our seminaries groom priests to be prurient and abusive, and the priests formed that way go on to abuse people and groom the next generation of seminarians.

And here are some seminarians who have stood up against the cycle and reported the priests’ disgusting behavior instead of just letting it happen.

And now, let me repeat what the last paragraph of this story says: according to the spokesperson for the diocese, the bishop intends to allow the priests who allegedly behaved in such a disgusting  manner back into active ministry. “As regards the three priests, there is no timetable. After a temporary leave of absence from their parishes and appropriate action, we hope they will return to active ministry.” That’s a direct quote.

Is this what we want to keep happening– this same toxic cycle, again and again, forever?

Sexual harassment of seminarians, making light of anal sex in the dorms, graphic jokes about pornography and parishioners on retreat having intercourse, bragging about the sexual exploits of priests– do you want this to continue to be the norm for seminary formation?

Do you want priests in active ministry who repeatedly harass seminarians with offers to “f***” someone?

How would you like it if a priest who acted like that were assigned to your diocese? Would you like to let your child go into the confessional with them? How would you like it if your son or brother went to the seminary and had these priests involved in their formation? Would my female readers like to be employed by a priest who called a woman the c-word and bullied her at work?

If we remain silent about this, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Nothing is going to change if we, the laity, don’t insist on change. The clergy and the hierarchy are content for things to go on as they are: seminarians groomed and formed to be predators, then released into the parishes and not given any real consequences if they’re caught behaving in accordance with their formation. I wish that weren’t true, but everything I have seen tells me that it is. They will not change– perhaps not at all, but certainly not if we naively trust them to change and reform their own selves. This will keep happening. People will keep getting sexually harassed and abused. The clergy will periodically tell us how sorry they are and how they plan new measures to protect people, and then it will happen again. That’s what’s going to happen if we tolerate it.

We just celebrated the feast of one of my favorite saints, Catherine of Sienna. Every year I see my friends sharing Catherine’s famous exhortation: “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues – I see the world is rotten because of silence.” And I think it’s time that we all took those words to heart.

I commend these seminarians for speaking out in the face of pressure not to do so. Those are the kind of men that need to be in the priesthood– men who understand that this immature and exploitative behavior is wrong and needs to be reported. I encourage other seminarians who are being abused in this way to step forward and keep crying out against it. And I encourage all my readers in the laity to do the same. Cry out and don’t stop until we see real, substantial change.

It has to start with taking a hard line against this old generation of priests who think it’s okay to sexually harass. They need to be shown, in no uncertain terms, that the rules have changed, or the rules won’t change.

I am appalled with the Diocese of Buffalo for even considering the possibility that these priests’ faculties should be restored. I am publicly calling for Fathers Orlowski, Mattulke, and O’Keefe to have their priestly faculties permanently suspended. And I ask my readers to join me in this. You can reach the Diocese of Buffalo at (716) 847-8700.

Our clergy and seminaries have grown rotten, and this has been encouraged by a culture of silence. From now on, we must cry out with a thousand tongues.

(image via Pixabay)




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