Saturday, November 23, 2019
Independent report finds inappropriate sexual activity at Boston seminary
Shaken by allegations of sexual wrongdoing at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, the Archdiocese of Boston released an independent report Friday that confirmed instances of inappropriate sexual activity and found that social drinking was frequently encouraged.
The year-long review, led by former Massachusetts US attorney Donald K. Stern and the Boston law firm Yurko, Salvesen & Remz, was prompted by two former seminarians who alleged in social media posts that their religious studies had been tarnished by an atmosphere of heavy drinking, sexual harassment, and bullying.
Investigators concluded that the seminary was not “a den of sexual misconduct fueled by excessive drinking,” but that it lacked strong leadership, solid financial controls, and tolerance for dissent.
John Monaco, one of the former seminarians, wrote that he brought his concerns to a faculty adviser in 2015, only to be urged “to learn to play the game.” The adviser said “the seminary culture and inappropriate behavior by other faculty members was out of his control,” according to Monaco.
In 2014, two seminarians were dismissed for sexual misconduct after they were discovered inebriated and largely undressed in one of the seminarian’s rooms, according to the report.
The following year, at least six seminarians received lewd, anonymous texts from what investigators believe was another seminarian. One outraged seminarian, Andrew Solkshinitz, wrote that when he alerted St. John’s officials, “this was the response: ‘It’s not like he sent you pictures of his penis. Don’t overexaggerate and act like a victim.’ ”
In other findings, two seminarians since 2016 were discovered to have used dating apps. One withdrew from the seminary, and the other was dismissed.
And in 2013, two seminarians who had been assigned to teach religious education at St. Mary’s High School in Lynn exchanged e-mails and texts with a 15-year-old girl, according to the report. They were informed that the texts were against school policy.
However, one of the seminarians continued the texts in 2014, sending messages with remarks such as “love you,” “I miss you,” and “sweetie,” the investigators said.
According to the report, the seminary responded “quickly and appropriately” to allegations of sexual misconduct. In addition, the report said, “our investigation uncovered no evidence of any sexual activity or any sexual behavior between seminarians and faculty members.”
O’Malley said Friday that he welcomed the findings.
“The inquiry has presented issues that require remedial action and oversight for ongoing compliance,” the cardinal said. “I am confident that the facts brought forth by this report and the actions being taken to address those issues unite us in the commitment to ensure that St. John’s Seminary maintains a standard of excellence for the formation of men discerning the vocation of a life of service to the church.”
Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented victims of clergy sexual abuse for decades, was not impressed with the investigation.
“Clergy sexual victims feel that the report by definition is not truly independent given that the Catholic Church paid the investigators, revealed only what could not possibly be denied, and only discusses the tip of the iceberg concerning inappropriate activity at St. John’s Seminary,” Garabedian said.
The review, which focused primarily on the last six years, found that training at St. John’s often occurred without any clearly defined boundaries between faculty and seminarians and without reliable channels to voice concerns in what could be a strict and intimidating environment.
The seminary’s former rector, Monsignor James Moroney, was a prolific fund-raiser and helped increase enrollment. But he was described as largely absent from the liturgical life of the seminary and often canceled classes he led, the report found.
Nicknamed “Diamond Jim” by seminarians because of his generous spending, Moroney used St. John’s funds to buy an $800 outdoor grill that a group of seminarians wanted. He also offered to buy a car for a seminarian who complained of difficulty reaching class.
Moroney, who could not be reached for comment, has been reassigned as rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Worcester. He apparently did little to rein in a culture of occasionally excessive drinking at the seminary.
His vice rector, the Rev. Christopher O’Connor, fell off a barstool in the seminary’s Common Room in 2015 while drinking hard alcohol during a bachelor party for a lay staff member, the report said.
While a group of seminarians dubbed “The Vatican III” provided music, seminarians took advantage of the stock of subsidized beer provided by St. John’s throughout the year and drank late into the night. The beer cost only $1 or $2 a bottle, leading one seminarian to joke that they had access to the “cheapest beers” in Boston
The report noted that “like many other seminaries across the country, St. John’s is not a ‘dry house.’ ” But the drinking there pales in comparison to alcohol consumption on typical college campuses, investigators said.
The review recommended much broader oversight by the board of trustees, which has been relegated primarily to financial and real estate matters. More attention needs to be paid to the “human formation,” or social development, of these future priests, the report advised. St. John’s currently has 96 seminarians.
The archdiocese has taken steps to implement nine recommendations from the report, including an anonymous hot line for concerns, stricter controls on alcohol use, and tighter financial discipline, church officials said.
Monaco, the former seminarian whose social media post helped spark the review, said he was pleased with the review.
“What I experienced and witnessed was completely inappropriate and unbecoming of seminary faculty and seminarians alike,” he said. “What was hidden is now in the light, and my specific complaints . . . have been answered through a thorough and careful report.”
About 80 people were interviewed for the report, including current and former seminarians, faculty, staff, and priests. The lawyers said they were given unrestricted access to seminary records and received “complete cooperation from both the seminary and the archdiocese.”
O’Malley first announced the review in August 2018. Two months later, Stern and the law firm were hired after O’Malley was criticized by Attorney General Maura Healey, among others, for initially appointing two members of the seminary board and a former faculty member to the review board.