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After McWilliams, Cleveland seminary faces questions. Will they answer?

When a federal judge decided this month on a prison sentence for Fr. Robert McWilliams — convicted of child abuse, child pornography, and child trafficking — she had two versions of past events from which to choose.

In the account of McWilliams’ lawyer, the priest needed help, therapeutic treatment, to address the “demons from his childhood” which influenced the heinous crimes of his adult life.

The “demons” were not specified, but since a prosecutor’s memo spent several pages discussing the correlation between suffering abuse and committing it, it’s reasonable to presume that’s what McWilliam’s attorney was getting at.

But the prosecutor argued that McWilliams was not “corralled into a crime by a series of unfortunate life circumstances.” Instead, her assessment was blunt: McWilliams was “cruel,” “calculating,” and a “sociopath.”

The judge who sentenced McWilliams to life in federal prison seemed to align with the prosecution.

But whether McWilliams is more like an unfeeling Hannibal Lecter or instead a damaged, criminally unmoored Buffalo Bill, both accounts leave the Diocese of Cleveland in a difficult position.

Either its seminary was unable to weed out a sociopath ordained a priest just five years ago, or it was unable to realize that a deranged and unstable trauma victim was unsuitable for priestly ministry. 


To date, the seminary has said that McWilliams was so smart, so cunning, and so deceptive that he slipped through cracks in its formation program. The seminary’s rector told a reporter last month there were no red flags in the priest’s file.

But that claim may not hold water with Catholics looking for ecclesial reform, in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, and with two Cleveland priests, ordained in the same 2017 class, both now accused of aberrant sexual behavior.

Clinical sociopathy — antisocial personality disorder — can be diagnosed. And extraordinary childhood trauma, the kind that influences a grown man to serially abuse children for years, usually has some reverberation in psychological evaluations.

If it doesn’t, many Catholics wonder, is it time for Cleveland to get a new seminary evaluator? Or to make some additional administrative changes? 

Seminary screening is not perfect, nor is it foolproof. But when the system is beaten, most observers would expect a thorough postmortem — the kind that results in a clearly articulated set of changes, and a public commitment to follow through on them.

In Cleveland, seminary administrators have said thus far that the McWilliams saga hasn’t really suggested to them any particular changes they ought to make. That prompted one victim of McWilliams to suggest last week those administrators need, as it were, to take “their heads out of their asses.”

If a seminary doesn’t see an evaluative failure in the ordination of a sociopath, some Catholics have asked, what certitude can be had that McWilliams is the only one to graduate from the place? If there aren’t specific failures to recognize and to change, is it reasonable to conclude the failures are systemic, and the changes must be, too?

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The questions are being asked. But in truth, the Diocese of Cleveland will not likely need to answer them, if it simply prefers not to.

It is not apparent that the McWilliams affair will lead to a Vatican Vos estis investigation, although the case of another Cleveland priest well might. And without such an investigation, the diocese may not find itself immediately accountable to answering hard questions, or asking them internally. The situation may discourage or demoralize some Cleveland priests, while others will likely say that McWilliams and Fr. James Cosgrove were just unfortunate blots on an otherwise sterling seminary record.

If some Catholics find those answers an obstacle to the practice of their faith, their experience could well be camouflaged against a backdrop of widespread institutional disaffiliation, and go mostly unseen.

With all that said, if the Cleveland diocese decides to change course, commission a rigorous examination, and be forthcoming about the results, it would probably prove itself a leader in the bishops’ collective promises for ecclesial reform, candor, and transparency. 

There are, in short, two versions of future events for the Church in Cleveland, from which diocesan officials are now free to choose. 

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