Australian bishop rejects calls to dismantle seminaries

shutterstock 10346464 St Mary's Catherdral, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Via Shutterstock.

A Catholic bishop in Australia has dismissed media reports that Church leaders are considering a radical overhaul of priestly formation.

Last week, reports appeared in several national newspapers suggesting that the bishops were considering a complete break with the traditional system for training seminarians in response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Calling seminaries "exclusive" and "male-dominated," The Age reported on Sept. 26 that the bishops were "discussing dismantling the seminary system altogether in favour of a broader model of priest apprenticeships with more interaction with the community."

In a response issued in the Oct. 8 edition of The Catholic Weekly, the official paper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Bishop Tony Randazzo called the reports "not only false, but based on a dangerous misunderstanding" of how men are currently trained for the priesthood in Australia.

Randazzo, currently auxiliary bishop of Sydney, is the former rector of the archdiocesan seminary Adelaide. He serves on a committee tasked with implementing the Vatican's updated program for priestly formation in the country's eight seminaries.

The media reports followed a joint investigation by the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald into the role of seminaries in clerical sexual abuse. It reported that "poor vetting, inadequate lessons in celibacy and ministry and a clerical culture that shunned women" all contributed to the abuse crisis.

Evidence presented during the royal commission investigation into abuse in institutions across the country characterized some seminaries as "places where repressed young men would experiment sexually with one another with little consequence, before some of them turned their attention to children in their parish," the Age said.

In its report, The Age quoted Francis Sullivan, former head of the Church in Australia's Truth Justice and Healing Council as saying there were "quite a lot of conversations about whether the seminary model is fit for purpose any more – that a revamp of the system is long overdue."

In response, Randazzo said that many commenting on the state of seminary formation were doing so with "a massive misunderstanding" based on conditions from previous decades.

"Seminarians are engaged in parish liturgies, in catechesis and in schools, in visitation to the sick and in prison ministry," he said. "They are accompanied by people who are mentors, women, men, priests, lay Christian faithful."

"For anyone to intimate that our seminarians live in a bubble is so far from reality that I'm gobsmacked" said Randazzo in The Catholic Weekly.

"The difficulty is that significant people are making commentary from the sidelines, and influencing public opinion and therefore public policy on the formation of men for the priesthood."

The bishop went on to say that seminary formation, like all parts of institutional Church life, is constantly in need of reform with the intention to purify its mentality and renew itself, but that "to simply abandon an institutional model of Church will not resolve the problems."

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