Published: Saturday, August 18, 2012, 9:00 AM Updated: Saturday, August 18, 2012, 6:36 PM
By Nancy Haught, The Oregonian
The sound of men chanting early Friday morning drifted across the grounds of Mount Angel Abbey, where monks gathered for morning Mass as they have on this hilltop near Silverton for 130 years.
Mount Angel Seminary, housed in a half-dozen buildings clustered around the abbey, was waiting. On Aug. 19, new students will arrive as Oregon’s only Catholic seminary grapples with a dark accusation about a prominent alumnus: the Rev. Angel Armando Perez, the pastor at St. Luke Parish in Woodburn, who now faces a charge of sex abuse involving a child.
The seminary, which has trained 80 percent of the 150 current and retired parish priests in western Oregon, has drastically altered the way it accepts and trains candidates for the priesthood since Perez was ordained near the height of the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal a decade ago.
People at Mount Angel, which enrolls about 200 students annually, say they have wracked their brains in the past week over whether they did all they could when preparing Perez for the priesthood. But they also say that they have gone to great lengths to ensure new priests emerging from the seminary are on solid ground, both spiritually and psychologically.
“Child abuse is horrific,” says the Rev. Joseph V. Betschart, the current president rector of Mount Angel Seminary. “Our policies, procedures and training do everything that we can to prevent it from happening. When it does, it’s tragic and unacceptable. We need to keep redoubling our efforts. And we will.”
When Perez entered Mount Angel Seminary in 1996, a screening process was in place. But it was not as rigorous as it has become in the years since he was ordained in 2002.
The Rev. Patrick Brennan, pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral and president-rector of the seminary from 1990 to 2000, says that as early as the mid-1980s, seminary administrators had explored ways to screen applicants and monitor students, looking for signs of unhealthy or harmful sexual attitudes or behavior.
In the 1990s, the seminary required that the organization recommending an applicant to the seminary — either a diocese or a religious community — order a psychological evaluation of the candidate.
The sponsor was required to submit the evaluation along with an applicant’s autobiographical essay, letters of recommendation, transcripts and other documents. The psychological test most often used asked a candidate to respond “true” or “false” to more than 500 statements such as, “I like children,” “People often disappoint me” and “I am easily embarrassed.”
A seminary admissions committee read the application and made a decision. Brennan said he made it a point to read the psychological evaluations himself.
“If there was any indication that something was inappropriate, that person was not admitted,” he said.
But Monsignor Richard Paperini, who became president-rector of the seminary in 2001, wanted to do more.
At a time when priest abuse was beginning to gain national publicity, Paperini asked diocese and religious orders to pay for an additional type of psychological test beyond the one instituted by Brennan. Paperini recommended tests that posed open-ended questions.
For example, a candidate could be asked to describe his thoughts about an abstract inkblot, or to make up a story when shown a picture of a child holding a violin, or to finish an incomplete sentence, “My mother always ….”
Paperini instituted criminal background checks for applicants in 2005 and says that at least twice he asked students to leave the seminary because of information that the background checks revealed.
In his 12-year tenure, Paperini says, he dismissed students “numerous times for a number of reasons; most often for inappropriate conduct, but sometimes for sexual issues.”
Sometimes, he says, he’s taken heat from students or their supporters.
“I tried to make decisions based on the church’s best interests,” he says.
His approach was supported by Vatican officials who visited Mount Angel and other U.S. seminaries in 2006 to review policies and practices in light of the clergy abuse scandal. They recommended roughly 20, mostly minor, changes Mount Angel might make, Paperini recalls.
“‘When you dismiss students, do so for the best interests of the church, lest they be an embarrassment,'” Paperini remembers the Vatican inspectors advising him. “That made sense to me.”
For many years, seminaries emphasized theological knowledge, canon law and preaching skills. Paperini tried to create a system that would develop other facets of students’ characters — and keep more eyes on them.
Where a student previously had one adviser, for spiritual concerns, the seminary began assigning four. These advisers, priests on the faculty or monks from the abbey, would assist and assess students in the following areas: spirituality; intellectual growth; pastoral skills; and “human formation,” the building of a whole, mature person. Under the new system, a student must meet with each of his advisers every few weeks during the school year.
“Issues regarding sexuality could easily come up and did,” Paperini said.
Although communications with spiritual advisers are confidential, other student advisers could share what they had heard and seen with Paperini.
“What students said could and did get relayed to me,” he said. “All serious concerns went to their bishops.”
Paperini had three meetings a week with the advisers as a group. Each meeting focused intensively on the progress of four students. All nine priests who served as advisers to candidates for the priesthood could weigh in.
“Our role is to confront everything we see that is serious in a candidate,” Paperini said, “especially their character flaws.”
The changes that Paperini instituted at Mount Angel reflect a national shift in thinking about how seminaries should operate.
Margaret Smith, a criminologist at New York’s John Jay College, says seminaries are paying more attention to what it takes to live an adult life “as a chaste and celibate man.”
“Our understanding as a culture has changed,” said Smith, whose field of study is sexual abuse. “In the 1950s and 1960s, there was very little talk about sexuality in seminary. Now we see things differently, recognize things in advance and try to prevent situations where sexual abuse can occur.
“We are making some progress, but sexual deviance is notoriously difficult to predict,” she says. “The boundary between human intimacy and human sexuality is thin and porous.”
Fernando Ortiz, a psychologist who has consulted with Mount Angel and other seminaries, agrees.
“It’s a human reality that in society there are psychopaths, sociopaths, people with severe psychopathology who can manipulate and navigate the system,” said Ortiz, who is head of the Counseling Center at Gonzaga University in Spokane. “Even with rigorous tools, it could happen. It has happened.”
For Paperini, who left Mount Angel in June, last week’s events in Woodburn hit especially hard.
He has known Perez since 1995, after the younger man arrived in Oregon considering the priesthood. In fact, Paperini said, Perez lived with him and another priest, the Rev. David Zegar, for a year while the two pastors were assigned to St. Luke Parish. Paperini was on the faculty of Mount Angel when Perez became a student and was president when Perez graduated.
“He was a delight,” Paperini remembers. “I even told him I was glad he wanted to be a priest.”
— Nancy Haught