Next generation of priests faces the fallout of abuse

Aug 16, 2011

This series looks at how the Catholic church and its victims move forward from the legacy of abuse.

The young men who are now old enough to consider entering the seminary grew up in an era of crisis in the Catholic church. Clergy sex abuse cases cast a shadow over the priesthood. Yet the church is adding priests who will inherit that legacy.

Dale Tuckerman really has a great tan -– a combination of living in Rome for the last year, and rock climbing in eastern Washington during his summer break.

Tuckerman is a seminarian at the Spokane Diocese. And he doesn't fit the profile of generations past.

"I'm actually 30," Tuckerman says. "And I'm actually a convert."

There's a good story behind that too.

"Oh you're going to laugh, because this is awesome," he says.

So, Tuckerman met this girl. And she was Catholic. And then he was Catholic. And then she dumped him.

Tuckerman's new relationship

And amid his wallowing, Tuckerman started thinking about what he really wanted out of life. At some point in there he went to confession and his priest mentioned the seminary.

Tuckerman says, "I knew that everyone I know would be like, 'Yeah he broke up with his girlfriend, or she broke up with him, and now he's joining the seminary. You know it's like a rebound relationship. Only with God. He's going extreme.'"

"I didn't want to do that, and so I checked it out little by little.”

Tuckerman says, to his own amazement, something seemed to click.

"All these pieces came together to form this arrow."

An arrow in the direction of the priesthood. Now, as it happens, this was at a critical time for the Spokane Diocese. It had recently paid out millions of dollars to sex abuse victims in a bankruptcy deal.

"And the bankruptcy settlement was requiring that the Diocesan newspaper have explicit stories by the victims of sexual abuse, I mean they were horrendously graphic," Tuckerman says. "I read every single one."

Signs of the crisis

Tuckerman says signs of the crisis were everywhere - down to his own application process.

"For instance, you have to go get an intense psychological evaluation that takes like five to six hours," he explains. "You have to do two of those. And I think I might have to do another one before I get ordained."

But Tuckerman was undeterred. And he isn't alone. While the numbers are smaller compared with previous generations, seminaries across the country report a steady flow of candidates.

And these candidates are different. They skew older - more are in their 30s like Tuckerman. They've already lived a "past life" - as one newly ordained priest put it - and they're looking for meaning.

Even the way they contact the church has changed.

"It's almost all email," says Father Jack Bentz, the vocation director for the Portland-based Northwest order of Jesuits. He's the guy who screens candidates for the seminary.

And Bentz says most don't seem affected by the abuse crisis.

"They see it as someone else's, some other generation's problem," he says. "Which is not quite accurate in the sense of we are an institution and we are trying to make that better."

Stepping off the pedestal

Bentz says the crisis has been a reality check for priests: it shows that they are flawed.

"Because it's very hard and very tricky to not be put up on a pedestal by Catholics. And you lose the reality of no we're just here to be servants," Bentz says. "That's all we are. And being discredited or having a credibility problem? Kind of helps that.”

The Northwest order of Jesuits is going through its own settlement right now with more than 500 victims of abuse from as far away as Alaska. Bentz says even before the lawsuit, the Jesuits had implemented tougher measures - everything from scrutinizing why men are entering the priesthood, to preparing them for a life of celibacy.

"Exacerbating this whole nightmare"

But there's more to stopping clergy sex abuse than who you pick and how you train them. That's according to Michael Dick.

Dick's history gives him an unusual perspective. For one thing, he studied to be a priest. Dick spent four years in Rome before changing his mind shortly before he was ordained.

He's also a victim of clergy abuse. As a child he was raped by a priest at his Catholic high school in Montana.

Dick is now one of the claimants in the case against the Northwest Jesuits. He thinks action in the Catholic Church needs to come from the top.

"There are people that have spent almost their entire lives working in Rome. They have no perspectives of the way people live. And this breeds an elitism," Dick says. "'Just have trust, we will handle it in our own time, in our own way.' And I see that attitude as exacerbating this whole nightmare."

Dick now teaches ancient languages at Siena College, a Catholic school in upstate New York. He doesn't come across as bitter. He describes Sunday mass as one of the most relaxing parts of his week.

But Dick is critical of the Church and its ability to change.

Back in Spokane, Dale Tuckerman, the convert turned seminarian, spends his afternoon hours in the rectory at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes. He believes the Church has changed.

Furthermore, he thinks the scope of clergy abuse - though egregious - has been overstated.

"And the more I researched it, the more I saw, maybe these were exceptions to the rule," he says.