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Seminarians' Reactions to Sex Abuse by Clergy

Story from St. Louis Today by Bill Smith

Inside the brown brick walls of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary where men are molded into Roman Catholic priests the news of child sexual molestation and abuse has come raining down like falling shards of glass. It has been, the students admit, almost beyond their ability to comprehend.

"How could they do that . . . to little kids?" asked Vitalis Anyanike, a fourth-year graduate student at the seminary from Nigeria.

"A terrible disconnect," said Nick Muenks, 24, a first-year graduate student from Maryland Heights.

"How do we salvage what has been destroyed?" asked third-year theology student John Schweitzer, 31, of Chesterfield.

The 70-year-old Romanesque-style seminary building in Shrewsbury with long corridors of pink-tiled floors and high ceilings is home to 112 students this spring.

Thirty-four of those are in the seminary's college program and commute to St. Louis University for most of their classes. The remaining 78 are graduate students and spend many of their days inside the seminary, an immaculate, self-contained complex of classrooms, two gymnasiums, an auditorium, two chapels, a dining room, faculty offices and living quarters.

Recent reports that priests from across the United States had sexually abused minors has touched off a flurry of classroom debate and informal discussions among the students, who represent dioceses throughout the Midwest. Some of the priests involved in the scandal had attended Kenrick.

"The integrity of the priesthood is shaken," said Anyanike, 31, a large man with a thick accent. "A priest is not useful if he is not trustworthy." Still, Anyanike said, he believes the Catholic Church must focus on the "goodness" of the vast majority of church leaders.

Jack Gardner, a first-year graduate student from Bismarck, N.D., said priests must find courage in the aftermath of the crisis.

"I have taken this as a challenge," said Gardner, 22. "Now is the time when the church needs to show her true colors."

Theirs is a life of structure and grace. They are surrounded by almost stunning beauty from the delicate religious symbols that seem to rise from every corner to the rich cobalt blue in the massive stained glass windows of the seminary's main chapel.

A sense of history is everywhere in the statue of Cardinal John Glennon outside the main entrance, in the photographs of the bishops who have graduated from the seminary and in the glass case containing cruets and chalices from the church's past.

Even as a young boy, Gardner said, he wanted to become a priest. One of nine children from a devoutly Catholic family in North Dakota, he was barely 5 years old when he first took notice of the men in the dark coats and white collars who seemed always to be coming and going from his family's house.

At a time when other children were mimicking sports stars or space travelers, Gardner was playing "Mass," carefully going through the rituals to the amusement of his family and friends.

Now, as a student at Kenrick-Glennon, Gardner is well on his way toward realizing his dream. But, like many of his classmates, he readily admits that he never could have expected the happenings of the past several months.

"Priests need to really look at where they are," Gardner said. "We need to question our own sinfulness, and we need to grow from there."

Schweitzer, who grew up in St. Louis, said his decision to enter the priesthood came relatively late in life. He was almost married twice. Once, he said, he had an engagement ring under the seat of his truck, ready to propose, when he backed out.

It was while serving in the Navy aboard the missile cruiser Shiloh in 1994, he said, that he remembered the Billy Crystal movie "City Slickers." In the movie, Crystal and actor Jack Palance talk about focusing on that "one thing" that is central to their happiness.

That "one thing" for him, Schweitzer realized, was "serving the people of God."

When news of the sex abuse scandal first hit, Schweitzer said, he was "crushed" but not as surprised as many of his classmates. He said he had been disappointed by a few priests he had met who simply were not what they should have been. He specifically remembers being ridiculed by some priests who thought it unnecessary to "pray their divine office" five times a day.

"The church is your spouse," Schweitzer said. "You put it away on a shelf, and it's like putting your spouse on a shelf."

Muenks was in kindergarten when he first told his parents he wanted to become a priest, he said. As he got older, though, he said he buried the dream in his subconscious.

"I was having too much fun being me to go off into this new scary endeavor," he said.

It was while a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio that he realized the priesthood was calling him again, he said. He had been "bamboozled" into attending a retreat, he said, and while he remembers almost nothing of what was said or done there, he will never forget the priest.

"He just seemed radiant in his happiness," Muenks said.

"Now, I feel I have these size 38, triple D shoes, and I have to grow into them."

Muenks said he felt a deep sadness over the allegations and admissions involving the priests. Still, he is neither embarrassed nor ashamed of the priesthood or the church, he said.

"It is a reminder that I'm human and so are the people who have done these things," he said. "And it reminds me that I really need God's help."

"What happened?"

Anyanike said his father had always expected him to become a physician in his home country of Nigeria. But when he was sent away to medical school, he went instead to a Nigerian seminary.

When he finally told his father, he said his father was devastated and barely talked to him for the next year. They finally reconciled, and his father attended his recent ordination as a deacon in Omaha, Neb. His father died soon after, he said.

"I always said I was still a doctor, but I was a doctor of the soul," Anyanike said.

He said he had felt great sadness and anger in recent weeks specifically anger at the priests involved in the abuse.

"I remember wondering, 'Where could the breakage come from?'" he said.

"'What happened?'" He wondered how so devastating a flaw could have "slipped by."

He still has few answers, he said. But he said he did know this much: "A priest is not a superman." One morning last week, amid news reports about the scandal, Anyanike stood in his room debating what to wear for his spring break flight back to Omaha. As a newly ordained deacon, he was allowed to wear his religious collar outside the seminary, but he considered wearing regular street clothing. He worried how people would see him in light of the scandal. Ultimately, he opted to wear his collar.

"This," he said, "is who I am."

Because of the scandal, there have been renewed calls from outside the church and within it that the Roman Catholic requirement for celibacy for priests be abandoned.

Students interviewed at the seminary said the end of the celibacy requirement would do nothing to make better priests.

"This is what I have chosen," Anyanike said. "Celibacy is something I understood to come with priesthood. I didn't question it. Celibacy is not a demand; it is a gift."

The students said they were concerned about the recruitment of future priests. But, they say, they believe there is a chance that what has happened may actually renew enthusiasm for the priesthood. "I believe people want to do what is tough sometimes," Anyanike said.

Gardner said, "Good things can come of this."

And Muenks said: "Youth are idealistic. That's just the way they are. And within their idealism, they are going to become the kind of parents the kind of priests the church needs."