Confessions of an Ex-Seminarian

“It’s hard to be a priest,” says Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk

“It’s hard to be a priest,” says Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk

I used to be afraid the photos would one day surface, pictures of me drunk, pissing on the floor as I stumbled down the hallway of the dormitory.

In most colleges, that might not be unusual behavior for a freshman on his first drinking binge. But this was St. Gregory Seminary, a college for men striving to become priests. Problem is, I wasn’t a man striving to become a priest. I wasn’t a man at all. I was a boy on my 16th birthday.

By law, the seminarians who supplied the pint bottles of fortified wine could have been arrested. The booze was horrid stuff called Red Rocket, Thunderbird and Mad Dog. But the real offense consisted of adults getting a juvenile drunk.

St. Gregory Seminary, then on Beechmont Avenue in Cincinnati, was so loose in September, 1974 that no one got in trouble over the incident, even after I vomited on the theology professor in the first period of class the next day.

I have seen crimes against children, vice behind the walls of a powerful institution and the betrayal of ancient ideals. The information is timely and might help illuminate a complex crisis playing out in pews and archbishops’ mansions across the country. But telling secrets always feels dirty, and the feeling doesn’t diminish simply because some secrets deserve to be told.

Before I go further, however, I must make confession: Gay and lesbian activists have cause to distrust me. In 1993, I wrote an article outing a Roman Catholic priest, the Reverend Michael Paraniuk, who had been secretly marrying gay and lesbian couples in Cincinnati. As a result of the coverage, Paraniuk was rebuked by his superiors, presumably ending this covert practice of compassion toward gays and lesbians.

Obedient Catholics have cause to distrust me. In 1994, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk wrote a private letter to a physician, complaining I had “written a series of articles denigrating the Catholic Church.”

Adherents of non-traditional religions also have cause to distrust me. In 1991, I wrote an article exposing the “other life” of the psychologist who screened candidates for the priesthood in Cincinnati. He was worshipful master of the nearby Masonic lodge — even though Catholicism forbids Masonic membership — and a practitioner of past-life regression, something incompatible with church teaching.

I either have so many conflicts of interest that I’m unqualified to write this story, or I have such familiarity with the issues that I must write it. I love the Catholic Church; it’s been the vehicle of my salvation. But I also know it is one of the most oppressive and perverse institutions in the world. This story, therefore, won’t be fair. It is, however, true.


Someone would be arrested if this happened today: A group of men take a 16-year-old boy to a room to show him a hardcore film featuring a woman copulating with a German shepherd dog. It happened in 1975 at St. Gregory. It was the first stag film I ever saw.

It was in the seminary that I first saw marijuana — it was growing in the school’s biology lab. It was in the seminary that I witnessed devil worship — granted, only once, and performed as a joke, but with the calculated appearance of earnestness. In 18 months as a college seminarian for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, I saw too much debauchery and vice to be shocked by the revelations of clerical sexual abuse now rocking the Catholic Church. What is surprising, however, is the intransigence of the men responsible for doing something about the scandals.

In statements meant to mollify the damage, my archbishop, Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, continually makes clear his lack of understanding of both the nature and the urgency of the problem. “Obviously one case per century is too much,” he said last month. “But sexual abuse of children is not a rampant moral disease that afflicts large numbers of clergy.”

After so many priests in so many places have hurt so many children, arguing percentages shows more than defensiveness; it displays a cold disrespect for the suffering people have endured.

Time and again, when trying to signal compassion and sorrow for the kids, Pilarczyk can’t stop himself from defending his operation. His most recent offering is a letter in The Catholic Telegraph, official organ of the archdiocese.

“Needless attacks have been launched against the church,” he writes. “Rash accusations have been made.” Pilarczyk even argues the church’s sex-abuse scandal doesn’t really have anything to do with the church at all. “It is not the case that something is wrong with the structure of basic law of the church and that, once that’s fixed, everything will be all right,” he writes. “What is wrong is our human nature, infected with sinfulness and weakness and disability.”

One hesitates to question a bishop’s analysis, especially a man of Pilarczyk’s elevated reputation for scholarship. But c’mon already. By now so many priests have been identified as child abusers that we risk being desensitized to the horror kids have been subjected to by Christ’s representatives. The Reverend Earl Bierman, for example, pronounced wedding vows upon Richie, a 13-year-old boy, while sodomizing him in a motel. Bierman is now serving a 20-year prison term.

“He said, ‘I, Earl, take you, Richie, to be my lawful, wedded wife,’ ” Richie says. “Then he treated me like his wife. He was always buying me clothes and taking me to restaurants.”

I was a student at Covington Latin School in 1970-74, when Bierman was the school counselor. He also taught religion. His class featured a kind of madness so blatant that the faculty could have ignored it only by choice. Bierman told us that women sometimes don’t achieve orgasm during intercourse; in such cases, masturbation was permissible, with the blessing of the church. This was, in fact, a misrepresentation. Holy Mother Church doesn’t condone masturbation — at no time, no how. Even so, Bierman’s lecture on the art of pleasuring one’s spouse might have been useful information for men closer to marriageable age. But we were 12 years old. He told us priests wore cassocks during confession in order to conceal their erections. This was back when priests still wore cassocks — essentially, black gowns — and when Catholics still went to confession. He told us, “Seventy percent of all boys have homosexual experiences. When it happens to you, don’t be upset.”

When I was 15, Bierman took a friend and me to see The Exorcist. Although the movie was restricted to adults, he had no trouble getting us in. That night we stayed at his rectory, and he took my friend into his room for “private counseling.” And touching.

One of Bierman’s victims, a fellow priest named Reverend Will Doll, committed suicide. Eventually more than 50 men told the Kentucky State Police that Bierman had molested them as boys. Although allegations against him spanned a career of nearly three decades, none of the teachers, priests and bishops who knew what he was doing ever informed police. What they did instead was this: They claimed God helped them cover it up.

The late Bishop Richard Ackerman sent Bierman to New Mexico after he’d been caught molesting boys, the first of many moves intended to conceal his crimes. “It is unfortunate that he (Bierman) made it necessary for me to send him from the diocese,” Ackerman wrote a New Mexico cleric in 1961. “I did so only to prevent harm to souls, especially the young men at the high school at which he was a professor.”

Five days later the bishop wrote Bierman himself, assuring him that his secret was safe. Ackerman suggested the priest thank heaven for concealing his crimes. “Very few priests know of your trouble and those that do will not reveal their thoughts to others,” Ackerman wrote. “For this, you have reason to give an extra ‘thank you’ to God.”

Ackerman’s correspondence, made public as the result of lawsuits against his diocese, shows how thoroughly inculcated was the view that concealment of sex crimes by a priest was not only acceptable as church practice, but was seen as a good thing.

It wasn’t until 30 years later that Bierman was finally prosecuted.

What is unfolding in the Catholic Church now isn’t a matter of freak cases. Too many priests have been caught to let Archbishop Pilarczyk get away with claiming that no institutional faults have been exposed.

But it’s at this point that most analyses of the problem of sexual abuse by priests go wrong. The latest theory holds that gays have taken over the priesthood in the United States. Promulgated by conservative Catholics still clinging to hopes of restoring the old order of the Latin Mass, plentiful supplies of new nuns and none of those infernal guitar liturgies, the theory that gays are to blame for clerical sex abuse has appeal even for those outside the church.

Peter Bronson, a columnist in my local paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer picked up the theme in a recent column, blaming “predatory homosexuality” in the priesthood — not pedophilia — as the cause of clerical sexual abuse. Bronson is at his smarmy best touting a provocative new book, Goodbye! Good Men: How Catholic Seminaries Turned Away Two Generations of Vocations from the Priesthood. At long last, Bronson crows, somebody is talking about the homos in the priesthood — a problem he argues is beyond the realm of political correctness and thus long unspoken. “The media won’t touch it,” Bronson writes. “The Catholic Church won’t admit it. But thanks to Cincinnati author Michael S. Rose, dozens of priests and former seminary students are telling the truth about sexual abuse by priests.”

I’m one of the dozens of former seminarians Rose interviewed for Goodbye! Good Men. His book, detailing grotesque behavior in seminaries in Cincinnati and elsewhere in the United States, will seem fantastical to most readers. I saw some of the things he reports.
But while Rose does an important service in detailing the moral and doctrinal abuses that have proliferated in Catholic institutions, his interpretation of the cause of the current sex scandal ultimately fails the test of logic.

Rose, and Bronson after him, claims a gay subculture is responsible for the epidemic of priests molesting kids. On the surface, the argument might seem reasonable. Most cases of clerical sexual abuse involve boys and therefore are by definition homosexual acts. But Rose commits an error any traditional Catholic will know by heart; in Latin, it’s called “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” — or, “after something, therefore because of it.” The fact that it rained after you went on a picnic doesn’t mean the picnic caused the rain. The fact that most sexual assaults on women are committed by men doesn’t mean heterosexuality is the cause of rape. Similarly, the fact that most victims of offending priests are boys doesn’t mean homosexuality is the cause.

Blaming homosexuality is the error of conservatives. Blaming celibacy is the error of liberals. The same logical error applies: If celibacy causes priests to molest kids, what are we to make of the rapes and sexual assaults committed by non-priests? Did not being celibate cause them to act out?

But Rose and Bronson have an even bigger hurdle than logic. Their argument is that liberal attitudes in the 1970s let many gays enter the seminaries, which in their view means men who are both promiscuous and willing to have sex with kids. But the sex scandal didn’t start in the liberal 1970s. The bishop’s letter about Bierman, after all, was written in 1961, before Vatican II had even changed Mass to English, let alone encouraged liberals and gays to take over. Some of the most notorious cases of clerical sex abuse have involved men ordained under the old regime, refuting the spurious notion that liberal priests — rather than criminals in Roman collars — are the cause.

“The whole idea of looking for a cause is absurd,” says one priest, a pastor at a rural church in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who asked not to be identified. “Priests sin. Sometimes they even break the law, just like the rest of the population. It’s not about being a priest. It’s about being a human being.”

But the scandal facing the Catholic Church is institutional, not individual. The shock isn’t that some priests have molested kids; some police officers, Boy Scout leaders and public-school teachers have done the same. The shock is the lengths to which Catholic prelates have gone to cover up sex crimes.

Now comes Archbishop Pilarczyk with the audacity to suggest that perhaps all the depravity and covering-up being described in lawsuits will somehow be for the best. “Maybe our present tribulations will make it easier for victims to come forward and get healing,” Pilarczyk says in his letter in The Catholic Telegraph.

What we’re witnessing is the Catholic Church’s Watergate. Even more damning than the crime itself — the original sin, if you will — is the deceit that’s protected and thus enabled it.


St. Gregory Seminary used to occupy a magnificent structure on Beechmont Avenue in Cincinnati now known as Mt. St. Mary Seminary. When St. Greg’s closed in 1980 because of a dwindling student body, the archdiocese closed Mt. St. Mary Seminary in nearby Norwood and moved it to its current location. St. Greg’s was an undergraduate college seminary; Mt. St. Mary is a graduate seminary, the final training before priesthood.

Rose’s book describes a party at Mt. St. Mary “attended by faculty members such as the rector and the seminary dean. One particular seminarian that night was giving out ‘big public, juicy kisses — pretty obviously and lasciviously.’ ”

To be fair, one must remember that to Rose and his intended audience, big kisses between consenting adult men isn’t a happy prospect — even if given discretely and with the juice kept to a minimum. Throughout his book, Rose shows repulsion for any behavior that deviates from stereotypically masculine. He makes frequent reference to “unmanly priests” and “priests who … seemed effeminate if not homosexual” and calls for the return of something he calls “manly recreation.”

“We’re not talking here about the presence of a few homosexually-oriented men who conduct themselves with perfect chastity,” Rose writes. “Rather, there exists an intense and often threatening atmosphere.”

How bad is the subversive gay subculture overtaking seminaries? Why, people are even called names!

“According to former seminarians and recently ordained priests, this ‘gay subculture’ is so prominent at certain seminaries that these institutions have earned nicknames such as Notre Flame (for Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans) and Theological Closet (for Theological College at the Catholic University in America in Washington, D.C.),” Rose writes. “St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore has received the nickname The Pink Palace.”

When the discussion devolves into whether or not leavened bread was used for Mass at a seminary, when the rules strictly require unleavened bread, Rose can sound silly. This is hardly the stuff of outrage.

Revelations of psychological abuses to which seminarians were subjected in Cincinnati and Covington, however, are compelling.

Yet one of the most significant revelations in Goodbye! Good Men will likely attract little attention outside clerical circles. Rose details the case of Aaron Milavec, a 12-year professor at Mt. St. Mary Seminary who lost his job after complaints to Rome from a conservative Catholic lawyer in Cincinnati. The Vatican and Archbishop Pilarczyk might respond slowly to sexual abuse by priests. But charges of heresy meet a swift response.

Archbishop Pilarczyk could have become the first pope from the United States. That it won’t happen is perhaps proof of God’s protection of the church, as Pilarczyk seems fated to finish his ecclesiastical career where it started, in Cincinnati.

Things could have been very different. Pilarczyk seemed almost destined to wear purple — that is, to become a cardinal, a Prince of the Church. He is, after all, a Polish-American during the reign of a Polish Pope. His scholarly credentials are breathtaking. Pilarczyk followed his predecessor, Joseph Bernardin — the previous American Pope wannabe — both as archbishop of Cincinnati and as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). Yet when Bernardin died of cancer six years ago, his protege didn’t succeed him as archbishop of Chicago — a post guaranteed to make Pilarczyk a cardinal and thus potential pope.

Pilarczyk was clearly the front-runner in the minds of observers around the world, as attested by a Nov. 15, 1996, report in Agence France Presse: “Cincinnati archbishop tops list of favorites to succeed Bernardin.” Pope John Paul II cannot have been ignorant of Pilarczyk’s qualifications. Pilarczyk was Bernardin’s auxiliary bishop when the future pope, then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, visited Cincinnati in 1976. But when Bernardin died, Pilarczyk stayed put. The ways of the Vatican are inscrutable, and Pilarczyk won’t grant me an interview. It is nonetheless remarkable that he’s still archbishop of Cincinnati and not cardinal archbishop of Chicago. The reason?

Possibilities abound. Complaints to Rome about Milavec weren’t the only unfavorable notice Pilarczyk received at the Vatican. Ruling on another complaint, Rome concluded Pilarczyk had improperly renamed St. Mary Church in Hamilton, giving it the name St. Julie Billiart Church. Such breaches of procedure might seem insignificant, but they’re big deals to some Catholics.

But perhaps Pilarczyk’s greatest downfall was a matter of timing. He had the misfortune — or suffered the poetic justice, depending on one’s perspective — of serving as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops at the same time a priest-sex scandal was breaking out in his own diocese.

To people familiar with the case of George Cooley, a thrice-jailed former priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, the tumult over revelations of cover-up in Boston and elsewhere must seem curious. Ten years ago, Cincinnati saw the very conduct that’s caused such a stir this year across the country: A priest molested kids, then his bishop secreted him away to another job, where he again molested kids.

The bishops who protected Cooley were none other than Bernardin, who had ascended to Chicago by the time of the priest’s first arrest, and Pilarczyk, who was NCCB president — the most prominent Catholic prelate in the nation — when the scandal broke. In a sworn statement in one of 10 lawsuits settled by the archdiocese over Cooley’s misconduct, Pilarczyk acknowledged Cooley had shown signs of sexual dysfunction even in the seminary. Pilarczyk was rector of St. Gregory Seminary when Cooley was a student.

“At some point I received a complaint that he had conducted himself in an inappropriate fashion with another seminarian,” Pilarczyk said. Cooley had allegedly fondled another student. “Bottom line of the conversation was I asked him to leave the seminary, which he did,” Pilarczyk said. But a year later Cooley returned to the seminary, with Pilarczyk’s approval.

George Cooley isn’t the only priest gone bad who was a student during Pilarczyk’s administration at the seminary. For example, Robert M. Burns, who studied philosophy at St. Gregory Seminary and graduated from Mt. St. Mary Seminary in 1975, is now a convicted child molester on parole in New Hampshire. Burns was sent to Cincinnati to study for the priesthood by the Diocese of Youngstown, which ordained him in 1975. Lest we think too harshly of Burns, we at least know he was a generous man, volunteering at St. Joseph Orphanage during his studies here.


I entered the seminary in August, 1974, just after Pilarczyk had been replaced as rector. I don’t know what kind of college administrator he was. I only saw what he left behind.

Some of the priests who are now administrators and pastors in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati attended the seminary while I was there, for example the Rev. Chris Armstrong, now chancellor of the archdiocese.

To my knowledge, none of the men I knew at St. Greg’s have ever sexually abused a child.
Attending a seminary when gross misconduct was underway does not impute guilt. But it is worth noting that the men who now lead the Catholic Church in Cincinnati came up through a system in which standards of personal behavior were less rigorous than most outsiders suppose. Is it such a stretch to see how men who used to get drunk together in the seminary and watch porn flicks would feel at least patient with, if not protective of, classmates who later go astray?

In my freshman year, new students were broken in by means of an elaborate ploy called The Weightlifting Contest, seemingly designed for the purpose of destroying new seminarians’ innocence.

It worked this way. Upperclassmen approached freshmen, soliciting bets for an annual weightlifting contest. This event was scheduled for the day of the All-Ath Party — an annual drunken bash for students and faculty of Cincinnati’s two seminaries, which are formally known as the Athenaeum of Ohio. The weights for the lifting contests were the bodies of nine freshmen, including myself, tied down, in groups of three, to wooden pallets.
As the date of the weightlifting contest approached, betting became more and more conspicuous. Then a terrible thing happened. A notice appeared on the bulletin board: Several students had been caught gambling and were immediately expelled. The tears in the dorm rooms that night were not just for the expelled students, among the most popular upperclassmen. Freshmen had another reason to despair; many had placed bets and now feared expulsion.

On the day of the All-Ath Party, freshmen were in no mood for fun. But the weightlifting contest went on. At the appointed moment, upperclassmen lifted the pallets to which we had been strapped — and from three stories above us, large trashcans full of water were dumped on us. Laughing as we were drenched, the seminarians yelled, “Welcome to the Ath!” Pouring the water on us were the very students who had been expelled. It was all a gag: the contest, the bets, the expulsions. The resulting worry and dismay were just good, clean fun.

Then all of us, seminarians and priests, got rip-shit drunk. It was that kind of place.

Humor at the seminary could be, well, devilish. I hesitate to say this, because it plays into the worst anti-Catholic prejudices. But it happened. I won’t name the people involved, because I don’t believe they acted in malice. Several of them are priests today; I hope they’re good priests.

I was a pretty idealistic kid at 15 and 16. I used to leave the seminary on Saturday nights to go to a prayer meeting. Some of my classmates thought this quaint; others thought it was a waste of a weekend that could better be used tripping on LSD on the expansive lawn on Beechmont Avenue.

I made the mistake of telling some fellow seminarians I feared the occult, a self-revelation meant to be part of my spiritual development. Instead it became the basis of another sick joke. One night I returned from a prayer meeting to find a mock satanic ritual underway in my dorm room. A group of classmates had converted the foot board of my upturned bed into a makeshift altar. By candlelight, they chanted from a book called Necronomicon and claimed to invoke the devil. I freaked out and ran from the dorm.

It was that kind of place.

Gregory Flannery is the news editor of Cincinnati CityBeat, where this article first appeared.