Resurrection: The Archdiocese of Boston Rebuilds

The clergy sex abuse scandal exploded onto front pages across the country in 2002. A painful decade later, the Archdiocese of Boston has begun to rebuild. But a stubborn question remains: What kind of man wants to become a priest?
boston archdiocese catholic church rebuild after sex abuse scandal

Scene from St. John’s Seminary: the sacristy, where the clergy prepares for Mass. / Photo by Matt Kalinowski

The first two years at the seminary focused on philosophy and a foreign language (the Church was becoming increasingly multicultural), while years three through six involved theology and developing the skills needed to serve as a priest, including how to put together a homily and the history behind the sacraments.

Cadin liked his philosophy studies and his classmates, but morale at the seminary was low. It had been just two years since the explosion of the sex abuse scandal had forced seminary students, trying to make their way to the library, to endure the chaos of protesters and news cameras. During the ordeal, the rector, Father John Farren, sometimes had the feeling that the seminary was under attack. Some students were left traumatized, and others, who’d been sent to St. John’s by other dioceses, were removed from the school by their bishops. By the time Cadin started in 2004, enrollment at a seminary that had once taught hundreds of students had dropped to just 30, the fewest in more than a century.

A malaise had set in among the older students and faculty, establishing the tone for the entire building. Classrooms, dorms, and the chapel were quiet. In his second year, Cadin began to question why he was there—something wasn’t quite right. Feeling God’s call, but uncertain he was worthy of it, Cadin started saying a daily prayer: Give me the grace to stay or give me the permission to leave.

In the fall of 2006, Cadin returned for a third year of classes, but a week in, he found himself spending a night in the chapel. He said his prayer over and over again. After 45 minutes, he was overwhelmed with an incredible peace. He was free to go. God would honor his decision to leave, so Cadin dropped out. A few months later, he enrolled in pre-med classes at Harvard.

That same year, O’Malley became one of just 120 active cardinals in the world, one rung below the Pope. In 2007 he made the controversial decision to sell the rest of the archdiocese’s land in Brighton to Boston College for $65 million. The sale included the property surrounding the seminary, the library, the gym, all of it. The only building the archdiocese retained was the actual seminary, St. John’s Hall, which contained the classrooms, the dorms, and a chapel. Father John Farren, the rector who’d withstood the protests at the seminary during the worst of the abuse scandal, sent two scathing letters to the archdiocese. The sale, he wrote, was galling not only because of what it represented for the future of St. John’s, but also because it had been made to BC’s liberal Jesuits. Farren predicted that the seminary would close within five years.


O’Malley wasn’t the first person to take over the Archdiocese of Boston and find himself in dire need of priests. When Bishop John Joseph Williams arrived in 1866, he was suddenly in charge of 300,000 Catholics, the second-largest diocese in the country, but had only 116 priests and no school to train more. Williams understood that he needed a larger clergy, so in 1880, the archdiocese bought 26 acres of farmland in Brighton and set out to build a seminary. Four years later, the archdiocese opened the Boston Ecclesiastical Seminary, which was officially renamed St. John’s in 1941.

As Williams had hoped, the seminary helped make the priesthood a popular career path for the sons of the area’s growing number of Irish and Italian Catholic families. The number of Boston seminarians went from 10 in 1884 to 86 in 1907 to 241 in 1942. By 1960 the archdiocese had 418 Boston seminarians, and St. John’s had expanded several times on the Brighton property to accommodate the surge in attendance.

The early 1960s were the zenith of Catholic life in Boston and the rest of the country. John F. Kennedy was elected president in the fall of 1960, when more than half the residents of the Boston metropolitan area identified themselves as Catholic. Nationally, around 70 percent of the country’s 49 million Catholics were attending Mass weekly, and more than 5.2 million children were enrolled in 13,000 Catholic schools. In 1965, there were nearly 59,000 priests across the country, and tens of thousands of young men were interested in joining them. Seminaries throughout the U.S. gladly expanded to meet the demand.

It was during this period of frenzied growth that the seeds of the sex abuse epidemic appear to have been planted. A 2004 study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that between 1950 and 2002, there were approximately 110,000 priests in America, and around 4 percent of them wound up being accused of abuse. (The majority of the assaults occurred between 1960 and 1985.) That works out to nearly 4,400 accused priests. Of those, a small number—3.5 percent—were found to be responsible for more than a quarter of all the allegations. The report’s findings have been contested, however, notably by Terence McKiernan, the president of the Waltham-based website ­BishopAccountability. McKiernan believes the real numbers are far worse, saying that when it comes to abuse data, “Any place that you have a lot of information, you seem to be up around 10 percent of priests.” In Boston, for instance, he points out that the Church has acknowledged that 248 of 2,324 archdiocesan priests faced allegations. Projected nationally, McKiernan’s 10 percent calculation would amount to about 11,000 Catholic priests assaulting children during the past half-century.

It’s difficult to determine whether priests abused children at a higher rate than did other groups of trusted adults. Pedophiles like Jerry Sandusky have used coaching positions to assault children, and in October, the Los Angeles Times revealed that nearly 1,900 Boy Scout troop leaders were dismissed from the organization for sexual abuse ­between 1970 and 1991. A study released by the American Association of University Women in 2000 showed that nearly 7 percent of teenage students had experienced inappropriate sexual contact at school, while other surveys have shown that number to be around 4 percent.