A pattern of seemingly ongoing shambolic investigation into complaints by seminarians at St Patrick's College Maynooth is a disquieting feature of recent revelations from Ireland's national seminary.
It echoes an observation from the 2005 Ferns report which found, concerning another inquiry into complaints at the college by senior seminarians in the 1980s, that “by any standard the concerns as communicated by the seminarians and expressed by Fr McGinnity were inadequately investigated”.
This was a reference to the 1984 bishops' investigation which followed expressions of concern presented to the bishops by then senior dean Fr Gerard McGinnity, acting on behalf of senior seminarians, about conduct of then Maynooth vice president Msgr Michael Ledwith.
Subsequently Fr McGinnity was removed from Maynooth and Msgr Ledwith became president. He stood down in 1994 after making a confidential settlement with a minor who had claimed being sexually abused by him.
On the treatment of Fr McGinnity the Ferns report observed “punitive actions of that nature could only deter bone fide complaints to church authorities which should be valued as providing information for the control of those having access to young people.”
Maynooth might have learned from this, but what has emerged this week suggests otherwise.
“There seems to an atmosphere of strange goings-on there, it seems like a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around. I don’t think this is a good place for students,” Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin said about it this week.
He was explaining why he had decided to send seminarians from Dublin to The Irish College in Rome instead. The Archbishop spoke of gay sexual activity involving students at the seminary, and anonymous allegations of misconduct including that students there were using the gay dating app Grindr.
“Poisonous”, was a word he used to describe the atmosphere at Maynooth and all while authorities there were dismissing anyone who tried to make allegations in relation to any of this, he said.
These are the accounts of three former seminarians, as told by them to The Irish Times.
Seminarian A: Reported for bullying
An incident last May provides an example of how allegations are handled at St Patrick’s College. Three weeks before his exams, seminarian ‘A’ was called before authorities there as a result of complaints made against him by two other seminarians. They alleged ‘A’ had been bullying them and had been talking about them.
A short time beforehand ‘A’ claimed he had called around to one of the complainant’s rooms at the College, a man he was friendly with. He knocked on the door and entered to find both complainants in bed having sex. Both were startled, left hurriedly and in some embarrassment.
‘A’ was unsure what to do. He discussed it with a seminarian, also a friend, and both decided it was best not to report the incident to College authorities. Word began to spread. An anonymous letter was sent to the bishop of one of the two men caught in bed, detailing the incident. ‘A’ was accused by this man of sending the anonymous letter to his bishop, which ‘A’ insisted he had not done.
This man then reported ‘A’ to the College authorities for bullying, for telling lies and for writing anonymous letters about him.
A hearing was conducted by college president Msgr Hugh Connolly and Vice President Fr Michael Mullaney. It has been suggested that it was unusual for the President to take part in an inquiry at this stage, as normally it falls to him to hear appeals. Usual procedure involves either the two deans hearing a case at this stage or the vice president and a dean.
It was at this initial hearing that ‘A’ said he had found his accuser in bed having sex and that was what had given rise to the complaints. He was then told he was in trouble, even if he hadn’t been telling lies and writing anonymous letters about the complainants. He should have reported the men to the college authorities after he found them in bed.
It was put to him that if he had such disregard in that instance how would he behave when faced with an incident of child sex abuse in a parish or any serious sexual incident.
At a second meeting with Msgr Connolly and Fr Mullaney he was read a letter of dismissal and was told his bishop had been informed of the reasons. As his final exams were three weeks away 'A' asked to stay on in residence until they were over. This was refused. A friend arranged accommodation for him in Maynooth until the exams were over.
When ‘A’ went to his bishop to talk about what had happened, the bishop tried to put his mind at ease, and said that he shouldn’t worry. He was sure there had been a misunderstanding. The bishop promised his full support and said he would be back to him. But when he did come back to the seminarian later, it was to say he had to abide by the decision made at Maynooth. The seminarian is currently considering his options.
Asked by The Irish Times about this case the seminary authorities responded that "the College does not comment on the details of individual cases or students. In general, the Seminary Rule provides for a range of disciplinary measures that can be applied in cases of serious breaches of the College Rule or cases of inappropriate behaviour incompatible with preparing for priesthood. These include: suspension, dismissal or taking time out from seminary formation."
Seminarian B: Complained of harassment
By 2009 ‘B’, a 28-year-old seminarian at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, had had enough. He alleges that in his two years there he had suffered persistent sexual attention from a member of staff. He made a complaint of sexual harassment to the authorities. Procedures were not explained to him and he was asked to appear before a panel.
He brought his parents along for support, separately, when appearing before meetings with the panel. An internal inquiry was set up involving a layman and a nun. It found ‘B’s allegations unproven. He received no written report of this and, generally, felt his complaints were not taken seriously.
He said that at a subsequent meeting Msgr Connolly and Fr Mullaney urged him to forget about it and return to his studies. He felt he couldn’t and didn’t.
He attempted to pursue his vocation abroad but was so depressed and disillusioned by the Maynooth experience that he returned to Ireland and abandoned any aspiration to priesthood. He married three years ago and works in Dublin.
He also alleges bad treatment by Maynooth of five fellow seminarians there subsequently because of their friendship with him. One had been a witness to an alleged incident of sexual harassment of ‘B’ by the Maynooth staff member while four others had been good friends of ‘B’ in his time there.
He alleges these men were “interrogated” and that “very bad reports” were sent to their bishops. One was told he was not suitable for the priesthood. Within a short time after ‘B’ left Maynooth they too were gone. All but one went on to be ordained priests.
‘B’ also claimed that in his time at Maynooth there was “a lot of clandestine gay activity and very active heterosexuals who liked to be open about it”. Though seminarians make their promise of celibacy only in their sixth year of formation, sexual activity by seminarians is deemed inappropriate, not least as it contravenes Catholic teaching that sex should not occur outside marriage. Most seminarians however, whether gay or heterosexual, were genuine about their aspiration to priesthood and did not have sex, said ‘B’.
In reply to questions from The Irish Times about this case the authorities at Maynooth responded that “in relation to the 2009 case, the Independent Panel did not find any prima facie case to be answered”.
It also said: “The College never comments on the details of any individual cases or students. However, the seminary reports issued twice yearly are in all cases viewed, discussed and signed-off on by students before they are communicated to their bishops.”
Seminarian C: Secretly disciplined
Seminarian ‘C’ entered St Patrick’s College Maynooth in the mid-2000s. Two years into his time at Maynooth there was a row among seminarians, and he appeared on his own before the Seminary Council, which consisted of the then college president, vice president, and two deans.
He was told the facts of what happened were not in dispute and was asked whether he had anything to add. He admitted his role in the incident but that it was not all his fault.
He was asked to withdraw as they deliberated and was summoned back to be told that among his punishments was that he was to write a letter saying he intended leaving the College at the end of that year. Should he not do so he would be dismissed immediately. He was also told all of this was to be kept secret.
Speaking to The Irish Times about his time at Maynooth ‘C’ said its “complaints process is merely a method for victims to expose their thoughts and evidence so that the College might see what they will face in the event of a court action.”
In general his time at the seminary was miserable. “In my case I spent two years in Maynooth. They were stressful years full of anxiety where I lost almost 30 per cent of my weight. It began with a contract to not sue the trustees for anything that might happen.”
For two years he was told by staff members “that I was wrong in both every action I did and in my very existence”. He was told “that I wasn’t allowed friends outside Maynooth and must cease contact with my friends from before my time in Maynooth.”
A staff member “used to love mocking me in front of his priest friends and told me that if I wanted to get on in seminary I must obey him”.
The college, said ‘C’, “can only be understood as a place of psychological abuse. But when I told my bishop he said that Maynooth are experts in formation and it was not his place to question them.
“When I told the bishop’s secretary he stated that my real problem was that I’d not dealt with a priest outside of a pastoral role. A trustee may withdraw his students, but a key question is why no trustee is acting to clean up the seminary? The culture continues.”
* Note: When the printed version of this article went to press, St Patrick’s College had not responded to an Irish Times query relating to seminarian ‘C’. The college has since sent the following statement:
The College does not wish to comment on the details of any individual case or student. However some points of a general nature arise from your email which the College would like to respond to:
– On a human level it is always sad to learn of someone’s unhappy experience in Maynooth and especially so if they also feel isolated. Human support and counselling is available to all.
– The College strives to foster a positive living, studying, working and formation environment for the whole seminary community - staff and students, lay and cleric. Respect for the dignity of each member of the college community is paramount. The College promotes its Dignity at Work policy which applies to all staff and students. This policy explains the definitions of inappropriate behaviour and the internal and external remedies available to someone with a concern or allegation, including the existence of the designated person and support panel. Over the years this policy has proven to be valuable in addressing grievances and complaints. The College does not accept that the process is anything other than a model of what is considered to be best practice in complaints resolution.
– Seminarians are encouraged to maintain regular contact with their family, as well as having healthy and appropriate friendships both inside and outside of the seminary.
– Formation for the priesthood, while rewarding on a spiritual, pastoral, human and academic level, is nonetheless a demanding and a challenging undertaking.
– The only confidentiality agreement that seminarians are asked to sign is one which, in line with best practice, allows college formation personnel to report matters of safeguarding or risk of self-harm, to the appropriate civil authorities. It is not true that seminarians are prohibited from reporting misbehaviour or concerns.