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USCCB seminary norms won't include proposed background database

The headquarters of the USCCB in Washington, DC. Credit: Fr. Gaurov Shroff via Flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

A U.S. bishops’ conference draft policy update on seminary formation does not incorporate a call to build a national screening database of applicants to seminaries and religious orders.

Advocates say a database could help flag problem seminary applicants before they are accepted, by tracking rejected applications from seminaries or religious orders, along with those applications deferred or withdrawn.

The database was proposed to the U.S. bishops’ conference by an Ohio seminary nearly six years ago, but there has been no apparent move toward adopting it. It has not been included in the USCCB’s draft for a sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation, the policy document which guides seminary admission and training in the U.S.

The recommendation came after the 2016 arrest of a seminarian studying at the Pontifical College Josephinum, for the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio.

Joel Wright, then 23, was arrested on Jan. 29, 2016, in San Diego’s airport. He carried at the time a duffel bag containing thousands of dollars in cash, along with children’s clothing.

He had arranged with an undercover federal agent, who was posing as a tour guide, to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, where he expected to “purchase” at least one very young child for the purpose of sexually abusing her.

In email correspondence before the arrest, Wright told the undercover agent that he had sexually abused very young children before. Wright asked the agent to arrange the “purchase” of several young children, whom he intended to sexually abuse, while filming the abuse to sell as child pornography.

The arrest was not the first time Wright caught the attention of law enforcement.

In May 2015, while he was a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Wright posted an ad to Craigslist offering to pay $150 to play with and babysit children. Police investigated the ad after they were notified of it by Steubenville residents and by university officials. According to 10TV, no charges were filed, after police visited an address it listed, but found no one at home.

Wright pled guilty in April 2016 to the attempted enticement of a minor, and is now serving a nearly 16-year sentence in federal prison. In 2020 his appeal for compassionate release amid the coronavirus pandemic was rejected; while Wright argued that his legal blindness and asthma made it unsafe to be in prison, a federal judge ruled that he remained a danger to children, and that it would not be “just punishment” to release him before the completion of his sentence, which ends in 2029.

But the former seminarian’s mother told 10TV that before her son was accepted as a seminarian for the Diocese of Steubenville, he had been rejected by at least 45 other dioceses and religious institutes to which he had applied or inquired.

Wright’s mother, Teresa Poquette, told reporters she believed those rejections had come because of his cataracts and glaucoma.

“I stopped counting after 45 rejections of how many dioceses and religious orders that declined him for his physical disability, for his vision, for his orthopedic, for his health impairment,” Poquette said at the time.

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After Wright was arrested, the Josephinum’s former rector, Msgr. Christopher Schreck, called for a national database of seminary applicants, which would allow formators and vocations directors to see whether a candidate had been previously rejected for priestly formation  — and how many times.

“There is currently no way to know if an applicant had previously applied to another diocese of seminary and had been deferred or rejected, independent of the applicant's truthfulness in answering the questions on the application form," Schreck wrote in a 2016 memo to the USCCB’s committee on clergy, consecrated life, and vocations.

The Josephinum’s board of directors formally recommended in April 2016 that the U.S. bishops’ conference establish a national database of applicants to priestly formation in dioceses or religious orders, which would list whether applications were admitted, rejected, withdrawn, or deferred.

While Wright passed background checks and psychological evaluations, the rejections would have been a red flag for diocesan officials, Schreck suggested at the time.

The Diocese of Steubenville, for which Wright studied, did not respond to questions from The Pillar about whether Wright disclosed previous formation applications when he applied to the diocese.

Under current USCCB policies, if a seminary applicant was previously in priestly formation, dioceses are required to contact the institution or diocese for which he studied, and to evaluate his background. But the norms depend upon self-disclosure, and they require follow-up only when applicants were previously admitted to formation, not when they applied and were rejected.

Those policies seem unlikely to change in the near future.

The screening protocols in the USCCB’s draft revisions to the Program of Priestly Formation, which are expected to take effect later this year, require criminal background checks and psychological evaluations, but continue to rely mostly on applicant self-disclosure of previous ecclesiastical formation.

The draft sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation incorporates the USCCB’s current policy on the subject: “Norms Concerning Applications for Priestly Formation from Those Previously Enrolled in a Formation Program.”

Those norms stipulate that “diocesan and seminary application forms must include a question which specifically asks whether an applicant has ever applied to, been accepted or rejected by, or been dismissed from a diocesan formation program, seminary, institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life.”

But while the norms say that supplying “inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading information” constitutes grounds to reject an applicant, they do not call for an objective, centrally-located source of information, about either former seminarians or prior applications to seminary.

The sixth edition of the Program of Priestly Formation will take effect after the bishops and the Vatican resolve an unrelated impasse over the text; there is disagreement between Rome and the USCCB about the implementation of  a Vatican requirement to add an additional year to seminary formation focused on spiritual and human formation.

It is not clear how the 2016 memo recommending a national database was received at the USCCB.

A spokesman for Bishop Michael Burbidge, who was in 2016 chairman of the USCCB’s committee on clergy, consecrated life, and vocations, told The Pillar that Burbidge recalls that his committee received the memo from conference administrators and discussed it in a committee meeting. But Burbidge referred questions on the details and outcome of that discussion to the bishops’ conference.

The USCCB declined through spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi to comment on the recommendation, or internal deliberations about the idea. The proposal does not appear to have featured on the agenda of plenary sessions at the bishops’ conference.

A former USCCB official told The Pillar on background that the idea of an applicant database has been suggested to the bishops’ conference more than once, but that he was given to understand there had been concerns that creating such a database might create legal liabilities for the conference.

Noguchi did not respond to questions about whether the prospect of legal liability might have factored into any USCCB decision on the suggestion.

The Pillar spoke with two U.S. seminary administrators who said they believe the idea is a good one, and consistent with the aims of seminarian background checks policies contained in the Program of Priestly Formation.

“I think it is an important idea,” one seminary administrator told The Pillar. “And as to the issue of liability, I would think that any tool helping dioceses to better screen their guys would prevent a lot more liability than it could possibly cause.”

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