Why would a priest or seminarian not report sexual harassment by a superior?

Why does this happen?

The most basic reason is a desire to avoid “scandal” in an institution to which people have committed themselves and in which they take great pride. (This is the case not only in the Catholic Church but in other religious organizations as well as secular organizations that have faced abuse cases, for example, Penn State.)

Any case of abuse and harassment, particularly when made public, worsens the reputation of the church, diocese, seminary or religious order and diminishes a person’s positive feelings about belonging to the institution. There is, therefore, a reflexive desire to protect the reputation of the institution to which one belongs. This reflex may be intensified in a person in any official capacity, who, in a sense, represents the institution to the outside world. Those in authority are therefore sometimes especially resistant to hearing bad news about the institution.

Taken together, it is easy to see why some seminarians, priests and members of religious orders may be reluctant to come forward about harassment or even abuse at the hands of their diocesan or religious superiors, or other clerics in power. Most of this, as we see, is based on fear—fear within the institution and fear within the person.

Today, I am glad that many are beginning overcome that fear out of love for the church. Because, as the New Testament reminds us, perfect love drives out fear.


Father Desmond Rossi says he first met Cardinal Theodore McCarrick when he was a seminarian in Newark in 1986. He says that he had heard rumors that then-Archbishop McCarrick cultivated inappropriate relationships with young men, murmurings that appeared to be confirmed following a visit by the archbishop to the Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University.

Father Rossi says that unwanted touching and harassment from the archbishop, along with an alleged sexual assault by two seminarians, left him shaken and prompted him to transfer to a different diocese before he was ordained. Years later, he says, those experiences contributed to a deep depression that required a years-long leave from active ministry.

A priest in active ministry in the Diocese of Albany today, Father Rossi says he recently shared his story with his bishop, who supports his decision to speak out, and with his parish.

During the newly installed Archbishop McCarrick’s first visit to the seminary, he made a point to greet each seminarian, including Father Rossi and another seminarian who was a friend. A few days later, that seminarian received a phone call from someone in the archbishop’s office asking if he would be interested in spending a night at a beach house with the archbishop. It would be decades before it was revealed that Archbishop McCarrick allegedly used those weekend getaways to sexually harass and assault seminarians and young priests.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis]

The seminarian, who verified Father’s Rossi’s account of his experience with then-Archbishop McCarrick, asked to remain anonymous, and he is now a priest in a diocese in New York. He told America he was not aware of rumors about the archbishop and agreed to go. But the trip was canceled a few days later. (He and Father Rossi said they later deduced that the archbishop would cancel the getaways if there were not enough men committed to going that they would exceed the number of available beds, thus necessitating one guest to share a bed with the archbishop.)

Father Rossi says that unwanted touching and harassment from the archbishop, along with an alleged sexual assault by two seminarians, left him shaken and prompted him to transfer to a different diocese before he was ordained.

Father Rossi said when he learned from his friend about the invitation, alarm bells went off in his head.

“It confirmed for us the other stuff we had heard was true,” Father Rossi told America.

In the months following the archbishop’s visit to the seminary, Father Rossi said, he interacted with the archbishop a number of times, though always in large gatherings. But he said he had decided in the meantime that he would take a leave of absence from preparation for priesthood to discern his vocation. That is when he received a note from Archbishop McCarrick, handwritten on Archdiocese of Newark stationary, telling him that he hoped he returned to the seminary.

Though Father Rossi had been concerned about the invitation his friend received to the archbishop’s beach house, he said he did not initially find the note sent to him troublesome; in fact, he said he was “enamored” by the attention, even if he found it “unusual.” Years later, he came to interpret the note as part of a grooming process. Father Rossi shared a copy of the letter, which does not contain any overt sexual suggestions. But Father Rossi says he now views the letter as an archbishop trying to impress a young seminarian and making an effort to establish a more personal relationship.

The archbishop began the note saying he was on his way back to Newark from Miami, where he had visited in conjunction with Pope John Paul II’s September 1987 apostolic visit to the United States. Commenting on the rainy weather, Archbishop McCarrick wrote, “I’m still soaking wet three hours later! Everytime I walk in my shoes, I squish!”

Turning to then-Mr. Rossi’s pending leave, the archbishop wrote that he hoped the Lord “tells you that he needs you as a priest in Newark” and that as “a servant of this local church” that he would “be happy to have you back on the journey to the altar again.”

“You felt special,” Father Rossi said of the attention from the archbishop. “He’s very captivating, charming, personable. He laughs, listens closely.”

“If you need anything, let me know. You’re still very much part of the family. If you have a minute, drop me a line,” reads the note, which Father Rossi shared with America. Archbishop McCarrick also wrote that he hoped the pair would “have a chance to visit when next you get back East.”

“Now why is a prelate of the church reaching out to a 25-year-old kid in a personal letter?” Father Rossi asked. He said he found the attention from Archbishop McCarrick odd, especially in light of how he had interacted with the archbishop’s predecessor, Archbishop Peter Gerety, who, he said, was not as personable with the seminarians.

Following a nine-month leave spent in Arizona helping his mother renovate and sell her home, Mr. Rossi returned to Newark and decided to continue preparing for the priesthood. Over the next several months, Father Rossi said, Archbishop McCarrick made a number of overtures toward him that made him so uncomfortable that he eventually decided to transfer to another diocese to finish his studies.

Those interactions took place at St. Benedict’s Parish in Newark, where Father Rossi was completing pastoral fieldwork. Archbishop McCarrick visited the parish at least twice during Mr. Rossi’s placement, he said, including during a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass.

Father Rossi said the archbishop had a habit of getting physically close to him during those visits, including touching his chest or elbow. He would comment on Mr. Rossi’s physical appearance, telling him he looked good and making comments about his weight.

“You felt special,” Father Rossi said of the attention from the archbishop. “He’s very captivating, charming, personable. He laughs, listens closely.”

During his time at St. Benedict’s, Father Rossi said, he hosted two friends from the seminary, who by that time were transitional deacons, a step in the ordination process. Following a night of drinking, Father Rossi said, the three men returned to the rectory. There, he said, one of the men threw him onto the bed and began kissing him while the other tried performing oral sex on him.

“It was at this moment I said to myself, ‘I’m leaving this diocese,’” Father Rossi said.

He said he did not report the assault out of a “strange sense of loyalty,” fearful that it would derail his friends’ careers.

“Part of the problem was, I think, [Archbishop McCarrick] kind of gave license to others by his own behavior,” Father Rossi said. “When you have that kind of corrupted morality at the top, it gives permission to others.”

But he said he was traumatized by the evening and began thinking he had made a mistake in returning to seminary life.

On a later occasion, Father Rossi said, he met with then-Archbishop McCarrick at the cathedral rectory in Newark. Though he cannot remember the occasion for the meeting, he said the archbishop sat very close to him, letting his hand linger on his knee. He said what made the gesture so troubling to him was the power imbalance between the two.

“When I’m in that office with him, I know that he’s touching me because he has power over me,” Father Rossi said. “And I’m allowing him to touch me because he has power over me.”

Father Rossi said the rumors he had heard about Archbishop McCarrick, the invitation his friend received to join the archbishop at his beach house and the archbishop’s visits to St. Benedict’s, combined with the rectory meeting, compelled him to a difficult decision.

“It was at this moment I said to myself, ‘I’m leaving this diocese,’” Father Rossi said.

To do that, however, he would need Archbishop McCarrick to sign off, which he said highlights the dangerous power dynamic prevalent in Catholic seminaries.

“There was no mechanism to go outside of the structure to warn someone that this was happening,” he said. “You had to go through the structure. And if you went through the structure, you put yourself at grave risk.”

Archbishop McCarrick signed off on Mr. Rossi’s request to leave the Archdiocese of Newark and move to the Diocese of Albany in 1988.

A former spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington who is close to Cardinal McCarrick said the cardinal would not be responding to specific allegations but following instructions from Rome, he has withdrawn from public ministry and will be cooperating with the Vatican in whatever process is initiated.

Last month, Cardinal McCarrick was removed from public ministry after a review board in the Archdiocese of New York determined that a decades-old allegation of sexual misconduct involving a minor was credible. Since then, other men have alleged that they were also victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including former seminarians. The 88-year-old cardinal denies the allegations but says he is cooperating with the investigation.

“Father Rossi has made it clear that he hopes his willingness to speak about his experience will encourage others who are afraid to come forward to share their stories and create conditions whereby this will not occur again.”

Cardinal McCarrick had cultivated an image as a reformer when it came to the church’s sexual abuse scandal, often serving as the public face of the hierarchy’s efforts to address the crisis. In a 2005 profile of him published in The Washington Post, the D.C. archbishop was described as “perhaps the most sympathetic face of the U.S. episcopate, expressing anguish and embarrassment when other prelates were still moored in denial.”

In 2003, Father Rossi brought his allegations about the 1988 incident with the two seminarians to the Archdiocese of Newark’s Review Board. He was told in a letter from the archdiocese, which he shared with America, that the allegations were deemed “credible” but that they could not be substantiated. A spokesman from the archdiocese did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Father Rossi said he agreed to a settlement with the archdiocese in 2004, for about $35,000, to cover the cost of counseling. He said he did not raise his concerns with Newark officials at the time about Archbishop McCarrick, who by then was head of the Archdiocese of Washington and a cardinal, for fear of retribution.

In a lawsuit brought by a former priest against several Catholic entities, including the Archdiocese of Newark, Father Rossi’s experience with the two seminarians is listed as evidence of a culture of abuse and coverup. (Father Rossi confirmed to America that he is the unnamed victim in the lawsuit but cautions that he does not believe all the other allegations detailed in the suit. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark said in 2009that the former priest, Robert M. Hoatson, who filed the lawsuit is “a troubled man.”)

Father Rossi returned to active priestly ministry in the Diocese of Albany about a year ago following a roughly 15-year leave, which he said was due to developing “major depression and P.T.S.D. related to the abuse I experienced in Newark.” He said the sexual abuse crisis in the church, which was coming to light in 2002, triggered his depression.

Today, Father Rossi is the associate pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in Glen Falls, N.Y., about 50 miles north of Albany. When the news about Cardinal McCarrick’s alleged behavior surfaced last month, he said he wanted to go public with his story. So he approached his bishop, Edward Scharfenberger, and told him his plans.

In a statement, Bishop Scharfenberger said he stands by Father Rossi.

“I support Father Rossi’s decision to share his story, which is what he feels he needs to do to bring about his own healing and to stand in solidarity with other victims of abuse,” the bishop said. “During our conversations, Father Rossi has made it clear that he hopes his willingness to speak about his experience will encourage others who are afraid to come forward to share their stories and create conditions whereby this will not occur again.”

For his part, Father Rossi said he wants his story to be made public to help others come forward. To that end, he said he told parishioners during Mass last weekend about what he experienced, which he said was met with applause. He said he wants a “total inquiry” to discover “who knew what” about Archbishop McCarrick and to discover why steps were not taken to protect seminarians from harassment.

“I hope that this gets cleaned up,” Father Rossi said. “I hope we’re starting now to be honest.”


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