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Sins of the system: 'Immediate need' in seminary database faces years of delays

Nearly two months after that news conference, 10 Investigates attempted to find what progress was made on pledges by Columbus Catholic leaders. 10TV found a lack of details and the existence of delays likely to postpone progress for more than a year.

Story highlights:

  • Pontifical College Josephinum pledges seminary application changes

  • Changes after 10 Investigates exposed how convicted sex criminal admitted into program

  • Proposals to create seminary database faces more than a year of delays

“He's been speaking with the folks in Washington about what we perceive to be an immediate need for the establishment of this database."

Father John Allen spoke those words from a podium at Pontifical College Josephinum March 22nd, 2016. Allen spoke during a news conference convened to address investigative findings by 10TV. That investigation revealed a widespread problem resulting in substandard screening of incoming seminarians. Those problems allowed Joel Wright, now convicted of attempted child rape, to gain a position of trust as a Josephinum seminarian.

Nearly two months after that news conference, 10 Investigates attempted to find what progress was made on the pledges by Columbus Catholic leaders. 10TV found a lack of details and the existence of delays likely to postpone progress for more than a year. Meanwhile, new seminarians are arriving at the Josephinum for the Fall 2016 semester.

"Our rector's already in the process, he's spoken with you about the initiatives that have been underway for several weeks to make sure that our application process, that all of our processes for seminary formation are at the highest possible level," said Father Allen March 22nd at the Josephinum.

Josephinum rector, Monsignor Christopher Shreck, wrote a letter to the Josephinum’s Board of Trustees recommending changes, including “A formal recommendation to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to establish a national database to record the fact of all seminary applications to each seminary and house of formation in the United States.” The Board of Trustees approved the proposals during their April 19th meeting. But little action has taken place since then.

Part of the reason has to do with the speed at which the US Conference of Catholic Bishops operates. The Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations gets the first look at proposals during their next meeting this September. The Administrative Committee hears the proposal next, and can make changes, also during September. Then, the General Assembly, made of bishops from across the country, must approve any proposal by two-thirds vote this November. To make a proposal binding and mandatory, a committee at the Vatican in Rome must have the final say.

“It could take months, it could take years,” says Fr. Thomas Reese, senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter.

“There's no absolute timeline. It's very flexible. They might never get an answer, frankly, from the Vatican,” added Fr. Reese.

“If they can't get together a national database and a vetting program within a couple of weeks or less and get it up and running, that to me speaks to a lack of will to do it," said Carol Zamonski, regional coordinator with SNAP, the Support Network of those Abused by Priests.

Posted on the US Conference of Catholic Bishop's website, 10 Investigates found a previous proposal from last year designed to track seminarians dismissed from Catholic programs. When asked, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops knew of no action taken to make that happen.

10 Investigates asked to speak to the presenter, Father Ralph O'Donnell. That request was denied.

Father Allen told reporters when asked about creating a seminarian database March 22nd, “There've been discussions of this possibility that go back as far as 2012."

If any action would have been taken in 2012, Joel Wright would likely be flagged as a troubled seminarian before his admittance, arrest and guilty plea for sex crimes.

10 Investigates asked to see the specific proposal to create a seminarian-tracking database in repeated calls and emails to the Josephinum and U-S Conference of Catholic Bishops. 10TV received no details, other than the Catholic Bishops conference stating they received what they call a "letter of inquiry." from the Josephinum. Neither group is saying what safety improvements, if any, the letter of inquiry proposes.

When approached outside of the Josephinum on May 4th, Monsignor Shreck responded to questions about incoming applicants coming in under outdated and dangerous guidelines: “It is in process. Look at our website. OK?” said Shreck while closing his car door.

10 Investigates looked at the Josephinum's website, as the monsignor suggested, the day after, May 5th. Nothing was posted on the website about database proposals. The Josephinum did post a short statement claiming they sent a proposal to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to create a seminarian database. That posting was first observed May 6th, two days after the Monsignor's comment, despite the posting showing the date May 4th. Questions to the Josephinum to explain this discrepancy remain unanswered.

Joel Wright came to the Josephinum after being recommended by the Diocese of Steubenville. 10 Investigates reached out to them and asked what changes they pledged to take.

"It has been determined that more interaction between a potential seminarian and clergy and laypeople would be helpful as part of the vetting process. By the time men are sent to study at a seminary for the Diocese of Steubenville in the fall, the new steps will have been implemented," said the Diocese of Steubenville in a written statement.

When asked for specific proposals, the Diocese of Steubenville did not provide any.

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