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Catholic recruits and the sex abuse scandal

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Lecture at the Pontifical Beda College, Rome
Formation is about spiritual, intellectual and biblical instruction

These days, anyone wanting to become a Roman Catholic priest must be someone with a very thick skin and an unflinching faith.

Catholic priests have been at the centre of the child sex abuse scandal that has so damaged the Church. Some have found themselves defrocked, on trial, or both.

But it seems, despite a scandal that has been building for years, that there are many who still receive the calling.

Like the builder, estate agent and the teacher who have all signed up to the Pontifical Beda College in Rome, one of many seminaries to open their doors to those who believe they have a priestly vocation.

They are all at various stages of their training, or formation, as it is called.

'Tragic betrayal'

John McHugh, from New South Wales in Australia, is coming to the end of his four years of formation and will be the first of the three to be ordained.

"The abuse scandal is a tragic betrayal," he says. "I am so disappointed because just a few priests have created this tragedy".

Garvin Augustin from Trinidad agrees.

"Some of us in the Church have been dysfunctional and it is very sad," he says. "But I am still convinced this is the life for me."

Anthony Wood, from Argyllshire in Scotland, says the Church has been "tarnished" by the sex abuse cases.

Monsignor Roderick Strange at the Pontifical Beda College, Rome
We want someone who can pray, someone who shows intellectual flair and who has a sense of pastoral care - but also someone who has a grounded, solid, integrated, mature, personality
Pontifical Beda College Rector Monsignor Roderick Strange

"But strangely," he says, "this has confirmed my calling, as I now know God wants me to serve even more, despite the scandal."

The college, founded in 1852, has seen an increase in numbers this year.

Twenty-one men have joined, when normally the intake would be anywhere between eight and 15.

Other seminaries in Rome have reported similar rises.

Official figures, just released by the Vatican, have shown a worldwide increase in the number of priests over the past decade of just less than 1%, though the numbers of priests in Europe has dropped by about 7%.

At the Pontifical Beda College, formation is about spiritual, intellectual and biblical instruction.

Mornings consist of lectures. When we were there, the philosopher John Locke was being discussed.

Afternoons can be less structured, with some set aside for contemplation.

Evenings are spent in the college bar, playing pool or watching TV.

'Tide of emotion'

The Pontifical Beda specialises in people with late vocations, so the atmosphere is one of a senior common room at a well-heeled Oxford or Cambridge college.

Open-neck shirts - not dog collars - are the signature dress style of the seminarians.

PRIEST NUMBERS 2000-2008
Worldwide: down 0.98%
Europe: down 7.63%
Africa: up 33.1%
Asia: up 23.8%

For the past 12 years, the college has been run by Monsignor Roderick Strange, a genial, thoughtful, rector who has made the study of the theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman one of his life's works.

But when it comes to the abuse, he sets aside his academic pursuits to spell out his sense of disgust.

"It sometimes feels like I have been sucked into a swamp by this scandal," he says. "Terrible things have been done and it has been a tide of emotion."

Monsignor Strange says priests now go through careful selection before being admitted. They are questioned about their sexuality and, once accepted, take part in courses by child care experts and others.

"We've had such safeguards for about a decade," says Monsignor Strange, "but it's just part of a wider process of formation."

Celibacy 'red herring'

He adds that priesthood is about more than just prayer, flair and care, as he puts it.

"Of course, we want someone who can pray, someone who shows intellectual flair and who has a sense of pastoral care, but also someone who has a grounded, solid, integrated, mature, personality."

Soon, the conversation with the seminarians turns to celibacy, and each, in turn, rejects the idea that it played a role in the sex abuse scandal.

"I don't see it," says Mr Augustin. "Celibacy is all about giving one's life to the Church, it is not about sex, as such. The problem is with the individual."

Garvin Augustin at the Pontifical Beda College, Rome
I am saddened and disappointed by the Church hierarchy, they have let us down
Garvin Augustin

"Celibacy is a red herring," argues Mr Wood. "There are plenty of non-religious people who lead celibate lives and who do not abuse children. No, the real question for the Catholic Church is a lack of openness."

This response leads our discussion in a different direction.

All three were prepared to be critical of the Church they are about to join, each blaming bishops and other senior figures for not getting a grip on the abuse.

"Someone should have acted," says Mr Augustin. "I am saddened and disappointed by the Church hierarchy, they have let us down."

Interestingly, none will directly blame Pope Benedict XVI.

Asked if the Church and colleges like this one will stop abusive priests in the future, all three say they believe that effective selection and training can make a difference.

"There will always be bad priests, good priests and others in the middle," says Mr Wood.

Monsignor Strange is equally pragmatic.

"There is a dark side to some people, those who will camouflage themselves and use the system," he says.

"All the security in the world cannot stop a determined terrorist who wants to destroy a plane.

"It's the same for the Church. Can we be 100% per cent confident abuse won't happen again? No, all we can do is try to screen it out."



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