Did you ever read something that seemed darkly funny right up until you realized it wasn’t fiction, and then you found the same thing absolutely hideous?
That’s not exactly the reaction I had to reading Stephen Parisi’s withdrawal letter from Christ the King Seminary, where he was a seminarian and dean of seminarians, because I didn’t doubt his account’s veracity in the first place. Still, the accusations in the letter are so enormous that I kept lapsing into thinking I was reading an expertly crafted piece of black comedy. And then I would snort with shocked laughter, and then I would go back to realizing that this is, according to Parisi and according to all we know from this year’s news cycle about the Diocese of Buffalo, not an over the top parody. It’s things he declares are actually happening at a Catholic seminary. And that makes me sick with sorrow and anger.
And I can’t really doubt he’s telling the truth, based on everything else we’ve been told. We already know about the seminarian pursued sexually by his confessor. We already know that a RICO lawsuit was filed under the Child Victims Act against the diocese. We know about the alleged party where seminarians were forced to listen to sexually harassing talk. Everything else he has to say sounds totally in character at this point.
And that is tragic.
]Parisi was a religious brother who entered the seminary expecting to become a priest, but he has suddenly left his position as dean of seminarians and resigned from his seminary studies. His resignation and withdrawal letter have been made public by WKBW 7 Buffalo, and there’s also a PDF here if you prefer to read it in larger print. Please take a moment to read the letter yourself. Remember, this is a man with nothing to gain. He’s just thrown away what he thought was his vocation and his career, publicly, to be a whistle-blower. No other seminary’s going to touch him after this. He’s finished. And remember what’s already been reported about this seminary and this diocese; I’ll try to link to that information as I go through it myself.
He begins by listing some changes he tried to make in the seminary, such as increases to the seminarians’ stipends. I didn’t know that seminarians were paid stipends in the first place. Then he apologizes for a bad paper he apparently wrote for a pre-theology class which he forgot to proofread in his haste.
He then alleges that the seminary has often defrauded the diocese that pays students’ tuition by making them re-take courses which they’ve already passed, and then it’s on to a long list of behaviors he encourages the remaining seminarians to work to stop. The list is where I kept feeling like I wanted to laugh and cry all at once.
I want to examine these accusations individually.
“STOP the insensitive and sarcastic remarks against a seminarian who had the courage to share his ongoing abuse story with you.” We know that the Reverend Jeffery Nowak was accused of sexually harassing a Buffalo diocese seminarian, and this was backed up by (among other things) a return receipt for the letter the seminarian’s mother sent the bishop.
“STOP allowing priests to use information obtained in the confessional to blackmail seminarians or anyone else, for that matter.” Father Nowak stands accused of violating the seal of the confessional in his harassment of that seminarian, as is mentioned in the news article I already quoted.
“STOP the power struggles that seminarians see existing between staff members, formation and students. STOP discouraging seminarians from asking probing questions because they are afraid of being branded as a heretic in their annual review.” From what I know of the sad state of Catholic academia in America, this is sadly par for the course. And it ought not to be. Nobody can become competent to preach the Gospel if they’re not free to express their doubts and learn. How many blockheaded homilies have we been forced to sit through because seminarians were taught that thinking is wrong?
STOP encouraging seminarians to drink fine scotch so that their minds can loosen up enough to better comprehend philosophy. He goes on to say that this is the cause of a Buffalo seminarian crashing his car right through the front of a neighbor’s house. That car crash was reported on the news. It definitely happened. This is a perfectly feasible explanation of how that seminarian got so drunk.
STOP breaking federal and state liquor laws by selling alcohol without a license in the seminary soda bar. STOP making vulgar remarks to a class about what it sounds like for a female country music star to urinate in police custody. Those are two awfully specific accusations to just make up from whole cloth. And the story about the female country music star sounds strikingly similar to the sort of unspeakably lewd remarks that priests were suspended for making to seminarians earlier this year.
STOP encouraging seminarians to shoot or break the kneecaps of protesters and/or the press. I have nothing to say about that one except that it was one of the moments at which I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream, and I didn’t want to let it go by without remark.
In the interest of brevity I won’t copy and paste the next several items, which involve not giving seminarians adequate stipends or sending them to do edifying or properly paid summer work, neglecting their formation in etiquette and in their prayer lives, and assigning too much busywork. I don’t know enough about seminary culture to comment on all that. I do know that if it’s regular practice to neglect seminarians’ prayer formation and training in minding their p’s and q’s, it explains a lot about the young priests I’ve encountered. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true.
STOP using the seminary as a dumping ground for (some) priests who have problems with their personalities and pastoral skills. Seminarians who are natives of the Buffalo diocese often know the troubled personal history of some individual priests placed on the formation team. Has anything we’ve heard about the Diocese of Buffalo given us grounds to doubt this? Look again at Father Nowak.
I am beyond disgusted, shocked though not exactly surprised, still feeling like I want to put my head in my hands and laugh and cry at the same time. Just as I was when the news broke about the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Just as I feel I’ve been increasingly often for the past year.
Our Church is in crisis. She is falling into ruin. She has become a cruel punch line, and the hierarchy is entirely to blame. This isn’t because the laity haven’t fasted and interceded enough. It’s because of those in charge. There is no good reason why Bishop Malone hasn’t resigned in absolute disgrace for a number of reasons; he should have done so several times in the past year. And whoever’s put in charge next needs to take drastic measures with Christ the King Seminary until a thorough investigation of these accusations and a reform of the school can somehow be carried out. That’s not going to fix everything, but it would be a start.
I keep exhorting my readers to “cry out with a thousand tongues” against the outrages committed against our Church by those we ought to have been able to trust. And I’ll say it again: cry out with a thousand tongues.
If you’d like to begin by calling the archdiocese, their number is 716-847-8700.
(image via Pixabay)