Becoming a Priest at an Unpopular Time

After the sex-abuse scandal, serving the Catholic Church has never been harder.

eric cadinEric Cadin decided to become a priest at the height of the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal. (Photo by Matt Kalinowski)

When I first started reporting for my story “Resurrection,” I was hoping to understand what seemed like a straightforward question: Who wants to become a priest in 2012?

After all, a man who decides to become a priest is choosing a profession at a time when its public reputation has never been lower. Fifty years ago, Catholic priests were pillars of the community: trusted, holy men of integrity. Today, they’re widely seen as a group of odd, lonely, and sexually-repressed men who abuse children at an alarmingly high rate. In 2002, a Wall-Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that 64 percent of people thought priests “frequently” abuse children. Clearly, that’s a number inflated by anger over the abuse scandal, but still, various studies and reports have shown that somewhere between 4 percent and 10 percent of American priests between 1950 and 2003 were accused of sexually assaulting children. The Catholic Church has taken many measures to stop the abuse, including instituting stricter screenings and immediately reporting allegations to the police, but the fact remains that most people still don’t trust priests like they used to.

The Church is well aware of its public-relations problem. As Father Chris O’Connor, the vice-rector at St. John’s Seminary, is fond of saying: “Priests are like airplanes. Most of them take off and land, take off and land, and everything’s fine. You only hear about the ones who crash.”

The past decade has seen a lot of terrible crashes, and in the six months while I was reporting the story, there were a few bad ones. In July, Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was sentenced to three to six years of prison time for allowing abuse to occur. And locally, Father Andrzej J. Urbaniak, a priest in South Boston, was arrested in August for possessing child pornography. The crashes, unfortunately, will probably continue.

While all the men I spoke to were outraged and upset about the sexual-abuse scandal—not that it was exposed, but that it happened—most of their concerns weren’t about their reputation, but about their lives. After all, the priesthood is an abundantly difficult road to travel. If you stay true to the path, you’re giving up the ability to be married, to have sex, to have biological children, to change your career path, to pick where you want to live, to make a lot of money, and to have a lot of possessions. You know, just about everything that modern America values.

The family part seemed to be the biggest stumbling block for many of the men. When one seminary student told his family at dinner that he wanted to become a priest, his mother stopped eating and sighed. “You just graduated college, you have your whole life ahead of you!” she told him. “I thought you’d start dating, get married, have kids.” His brother later expressed more pointed concerns: “You can’t get married! You’ll never have sex!”

It’s something the student thought about a lot. “I’m not going to have a family,” he told me. “Some nights, I will go home to a rectory, and all the lights will be off and I will be alone. Can I do that?” He ultimately believed it was right for him: “Every man is called to marriage, whether it’s a natural one to a woman or a supernatural one to the Church,” he said. “I’ve learned that I might be alone, but I’m not lonely.”

To choose to become a priest in 2012 requires an overwhelming abundance of faith in God and the Church. This student and others I met, including the story’s subject, Father Eric Cadin, vehemently believed that God was calling them to serve. Whether priests do, on the balance, more good than harm is a religious and moral question for individuals to decide, but I will say this: I sincerely hope they land safely. Not because it’s good for the Church, but because Boston doesn’t need any more crashes.

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  • John

    The seminary student left out a third option. Follow your heart and if it leads you there, get married to a same-sex partner. This belief about “natural marriage…to a woman” is what causes so many confused men to enter the priesthood in the first place. I am not conflating homosexuality with pedophilia, because they are two separate issues, but it creates a safe space for confused people (whether gay OR a pedophile OR both) to escape society without too much questioning – getting a job that’s very honorable, even. It this catholic sexual hang up that causes problems.

    • John Shuster

      The Roman Catholic priesthood is a predominantly closeted gay profession. The previous poster, John, hit the nail on the head. Seminarian Eric will either be shocked or relieved to discover this reality. Three types of people are drawn to the priesthood: idealists, closeted gay men, and predators. Most of the idealists have left because they came to the realization that they built their vocation to the priesthood on a sexual toxic dump, and had little power to change this rich and powerful two-faced culture. That leaves easily extorted closeted gay men having to deal with cunning predators who know how to play the system. And you, good Catholics, end up paying for it all.

      • drwho13

        John Shuster,

        I wanted to be a priest and spent time in a religious order during the 90’s. I left because I found the sexual toxic waste dump you noted.

        In one short paragraph you correctly pointed out exactly how it works. Very well stated John!

  • John A. Cronin

    The face of the church has been slowly improving since the scandals. Much has been done, much remains to be done. The Seminarians coming from St. John’s are enthusiastic, holy and good men, who are committed to their vocation. They BELIEVE, and the Faith is what is saving our world. They are responsible for our souls, and I trust them all. I could not say that before. I know Fr. Cadin and he is a first rate Catholic Priest, and we are glad to have him here at St. Michael Church in North Andover. It is sad to see the thoughts of the two or three previous commentors. Anger and hatred will not be returned by our priests.

    • Robert

      What you say is a trust/faith issue. Be reminded that every clergy-abused child had that same trust/faith in their abuser. John Shuster is right. I think Cadin may be one of the idealists who will leave when he sees the true workings of the church.

    • Syd

      Anger and hatred will not be returned by priest is to say it is more to being deceit and denial. These clergymen are trying to feel real and valuable. They are doing what they believe will make them more valuable, more important, brilliant and worthwhile. Once these men feel the vanity of their energies building up their self-image and sink, depression can set in like a ton of bricks. Getting through this hopelessness alone is impossible and yet these clergymen only know the role they play as priest in life.

      In a few words, when human nature sinks into the pits of hell, depression/despair, denial kicks in and deviant sexual behavior happen within human nature. The church needs to stop asking people to the impossible because hopelessness/despair is perverse and dark — even demonic. Yet the church is more into blaming the devil than taking responsibility for it sin of denial and deceit. The Catholic Church needs to stop being a father figure — someone strong and forceful — and learn we are not fighting against external difficulties but against inner doubt.

      • gerald nichols

        Syd,
        Though you struggle to verbalize it, I believe you are on to something true with your observations. A priest can indeed have a sad, miserable life IMO. The problem is that they are called “holy” when few people using the term know what it means. The most a priest or the Catholic Church can do for the world is be an exponent for morality. The RCC has no spiritual power because it doesn’t “get” what God has revealed in the bible; doesn’t understand the grace of God, nor what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. They ignore the scripture written by our apostle Paul, whom Christ gave the gospel of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13)I also think there is truth in John Shuster’s comments on who chooses the priesthood. God doesn’t lead men or women to serve in a counterfeit of His revealed truth.

    • drwho13

      John A. Cronin stated, “It is sad to see the thoughts of the two or three previous commentors. Anger and hatred will not be returned by our priests.”

      John A.C., my post has nothing to do with hatred. It’s simply a comment on what I experienced while in a religious order. On the other hand, I certainly feel a degree of angry. I came to serve God and his people, and the RCC scammed me, and continues to scam the People of God to this day. Yea, I’m angry!

  • Verity

    So crimes are now defined as “crashes” and sins are “mistakes.” Wake up people, crimes and sins are deliberate decisions to break the Ten Commandments. Now go get a co conspirator to absolve you of your crashes and mistakes.

  • Msgr. Andrew G. Varga

    I first had a sense that I was called to priesthood in early grade school. Every time I came to a choice point – high school, college, beyond – I chose for priesthood. I’ve never, ever seen my 35-year ministry in terms of what I was losing (maybe except for the times that I thought about being a mechanic or a pilot!). I’ve been blessed with infinitely more in being able to be with my parishioners at all the significant family moments of their lives: birth to death and everything in between. The scandalous events – and the presumptions that they have generated -weary the dickens out of those of us who never have wanted anything more than to journey in faith — and faithfulness — with those entrusted to our care.

  • JuneAnnette

    A FACT CHECK from Patrick Wall, former RC priest & Canon Lawyer reveals it’s safer for kids to fly than go to a RC church . . .

    1) “If you compare and contrast what the National Transportatio Safety Board (NTSB) reports with the Roman Catholic Church National Review Board (NRB) here is what you find:

    NTSB – http://www.ntsb.gov
    NRB – http://www.usccb.org/news/2012/

    NTSB – crash rate is eight million to one
    NRB – crash rate is 4-10%

    NTSB – 62 major crashes since 1950
    NRB – 6,115 priests since 1950

    NTSB – 910,000 licenses US pilots
    NRB – 39,718 active US priests

    NTSB – accident data base available
    NRB – accident data base is secret

    Citation: 1) Source: Patrick J. Wall’s Blog.
    Link: http://patrickjwall.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/is-it-safer-for-kids-to-fly-or-go-to-church/

    • Karl Audenaerde

      You may want to take a course in statistics. This comparison is pure idiocy. I’m not speaking as a priest or as an airline pilot, but as a guy with a Ph.D. in mehematical physics.

      • Karl Audenaerde

        That should be “mathematical.” And by the way, I’m also an ex-seminarian. Among the reasons I left, sex does not figure at all.

  • Dave

    There is not one single original comment here. All of you are taking this opportunity to scream from your pulpits. You obviously don’t know many priests nor have had your life changed by them for the better. I wouldn’t speak about my family this way, and I feel very sorry for all of you that this is how you speak about these guys, focusing on the imperfections of a minority rather than commenting on the content of the article. Thanks for making this word a drearier place internet users.

    • drwho13

      Dave,

      I was in major seminary for three years; there are a lot of freaky priests within the RC organization.

      By the way, John Shuster is a priest.

    • John

      I know many priests, and am very close with a few of them. They’ve certainly changed my lives in a positive way (I went to catholic college). Several of them are gay. A few I remain very close with to this day, and would call them friends. Some will admit (over drinks, always many drinks) that they disagree with the church’s teachings on homosexuality, women, birth control, same sex marriage, to the point where they would consider leaving the vocation.

      The RC church, as I said earlier, is hung up on controlling sexual expression. It causes a whole array of problems that make the institution out of touch with today’s parishioners.

      • Joseph D’Hippolito

        “The RC church, as I said earlier, is hung up on controlling sexual expression.”

        The RC Church is hung up on control, period! Just remember that the Index was not done away with until 1966! Just remember the kind of political and economic encyclicals the papacy has published throughout the centuries. Just remember the lack of transparency with the Vatican financial records.

        If it seems that the RCC is “hung up” on sex, it’s because sex is perhaps the one thing that large organizations can control the least.

    • Syd

      Dave,

      I complain about the Catholic Church because the pope to the bishops has never taken responsibility for their actions in a written statement to the church and the world. Rape and child molestation is an expression of aggression, especially damaging to those who cannot defend themselves. The church has inflicted the worst abuse and crime on people. The church is playing for very high stakes and vengeance is building up against the church, because the body of Christ is a sex offender. Even worst the cardinals and bishops have defied the law, morality, common decency, still blame the devil and show no responsibility for their actions. Many people are feeling anger, hatred and a desire for revenge, as this Catholic Church leadership is absolutely worthless

  • drwho13

    Yes, he’s a married Catholic priest.

    Syd correctly stated, “Even worst the cardinals and bishops have defied the law, morality, common decency, still blame the devil and show no responsibility for their actions. Many people are feeling anger, hatred and a desire for revenge, as this Catholic Church leadership is absolutely worthless.”

    Fr. John Shuster understands worthless RC prelates, that’s why he left and serves the People of God outside of their control. Thanks John S.!

    http://www.johnshuster.com/

  • Lainie_marie

    Until the church changes the rules on celibacy, these problems will continue to plague the church. The original priests were married and the rules didn’t change until around the 1300s over property issues and not sexual issues. Perhaps it’s time for Catholic men who want to become priests but don’t want to be in the current environment to become priests in the Episcopal order where they can marry and have a family. I don’t think a knowing and loving God would consider them traitors when he looks at what is going on is his church now.

  • Joseph D'Hippolito

    “The RC church, as I said earlier, is hung up on controlling sexual expression.”

    The RC Church is hung up on control, period! Just remember that the Index was not done away with until 1966! Just remember the kind of political and economic encyclicals the papacy has published throughout the centuries. Just remember the lack of transparency with the Vatican financial records.

    If it seems that the RCC is “hung up” on sex, it's because sex is perhaps the one thing that large organizations can control the least.