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Budding priests in a time of crisis: Seminarians enter scandal-scarred vocation

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; A01

From behind his desk and wire-rimmed glasses, Monsignor Steven Rohlfs surveyed the class of 24 men. For almost six years, he had led them on the long, difficult path to priesthood, and now, as they stood on the cusp of reaching that goal, he worried.

He knew his seminarians would be entering an institution under fire over clergy sex abuse cases around the world. And he had seen the devastation a single bad priest could cause.

He had often told them about the job he'd held before becoming the seminary's rector -- the one that sent him to bed many nights a broken man. For seven years, he had investigated priests accused of sex abuse in Illinois.

And it was a darkness he was determined to keep out of their lives.

So, as Rohlfs began his last class with them at his rural seminary in Western Maryland, the 59-year-old monsignor raced through his notes, cramming in a long list of last-minute advice. In quick succession, he reviewed everything from the nitty-gritty of administering the holy sacraments to the common pitfalls of first-year priests.

At the end of the hour-long lecture, he paused and looked up from his notes.

He had come to know and love each of the students graduating from his class: the aspiring park ranger, the former Starbucks manager, the Air Force veteran, the newcomer from Nigeria. Many of them had confided their deepest doubts to him.

And in return, Rohlfs had shared the lessons he'd learned from 34 years as a priest. From the outside world, he warned them, they would encounter suspicion and, at times, outright disdain. From within, they would encounter something even more sinister: temptation.

"If you remember nothing else from today, I would boil down all this advice to one thing," he said as the class came to an end. "Fall in love with the Lord, and it will change everything. Fall out of love with Him, and it will change everything."

Sacrifices and suspicion

This year, 440 men will be ordained in the United States. They will enter the Catholic Church at a time of need, amid a decades-long shortage of priests. Two dozen of them will come from Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, a town so rural it only recently acquired a second stoplight.

Six years ago, when most of this year's class arrived, the church was reeling from hundreds of abuse cases emerging across the United States. Now, just as they were preparing to leave for ordination, the church was once again mired in scandal.

They'd already experienced some of the far-reaching consequences of the sex abuse crisis. Getting into seminary had required a battery of psychological tests, long interviews and background checks.

"In the last six years alone, I've been fingerprinted four times," said Mick Kelly, a 32-year-old former philosophy student who will be ordained next month in the Arlington Diocese. "That's more than some criminals out there get."

After he entered the seminary, one of Kelly's friends asked him: "How can you join an institution as corrupt as the Catholic Church?"

When he began wearing a clerical black robe and white collar four years ago, he noticed the stares he'd get from people. Some would look away.

"You try not to be defensive, to explain as best you can," he said. "It hurts. The world sees these abuse cases and judges the church as a whole, all its priests and all its work by the action of these few people. But it's not the priesthood I grew up with. The one I know and love."

For some seminarians, the abuse crisis only made them want to be priests more.

"It invoked that almost boyhood drive to be a hero," said Matt Rolling, 27, a soft-spoken student from Nebraska. "You want to help the church restore its name. You want to be an example of what the priesthood really represents."

To be a priest, Rolling said, means sacrifice. For him, answering God's call meant abandoning all his careful plans -- a career as a forest ranger, the girlfriend he'd been dating for three years at the University of Nebraska, the prospect of marriage and children.

Even now, he said, there are times when he feels a desire for a wife and family. And, of course, there is the issue of sex.

"It's not like when you become a deacon or priest, the hormones somehow shut off," he said. "There are temptations. There are doubts. How do you deal with that? You try to realize that temptation comes from the devil and salvation comes from God. You pray for that salvation. You build up the spiritual strength to look past the distraction. . . . When I see a girl, I try to think, 'If this were my daughter, how would I feel if someone looked at her that way, if someone mistreated her?' You try to move into that role of a father, which is what you're supposed to be, in a sense, as a priest."

Embracing celibacy at Mount St. Mary's is complicated by the fact that the seminary is housed on the same campus as a college, with a student body that includes plenty of young women.

Strolling through a lush garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Dave Wells, one of Rolling's close friends, put it this way: "I don't want to sound like it's the only thing we think about, but, yes, it can be tough."

Midway through the conversation, two girls in tight running clothes jogged by. Wells's eyes, however, remained fixed on a statue of Mary.

"It's good practice for us," he said later, "because in the parishes, we'll be surrounded and ministering to women, too. You may as well get used to it now."

Not everyone, however, can. About 15 percent of the seminarians leave without finishing. In the past year alone, Wells has attended two weddings for former seminarians in his class.

"Some of us are called to be fathers in the natural sense," he said. "Some are called in the spiritual sense."

Loving God

Such open talk of sex and the official dissection of temptations are things that have changed in the wake of the abuse scandals. Since Rohlfs arrived at Mount St. Mary's five years ago, he has made extensive teaching on celibacy a priority. Seminarians spend an entire year examining its history, theological roots and practical challenges. And they pore over reports on the abuse scandals, looking for clues.

It is a deliberately open approach for a man who, when asked to talk about the problem of abusive priests, takes off his glasses and rubs his face. A weariness creeps into Rohlfs' voice.

From 1998 to 2005, he was responsible for investigating accused priests as vicar general of the Peoria diocese. He was the one who had to hear the heart-wrenching accounts from abuse victims, who had to delve into the private lives of more than a dozen accused priests and confront them with his findings.

"It was the most painful time of my life," he said. "I had known a lot of these same priests growing up. But even worse was meeting the victims. You don't know what to say to them. The pain they've felt. There's nothing you can say that will change that."

He likened himself to a garbage man and woke up depressed every morning. It got so bad that he eventually made a new vow -- to watch a half-hour sitcom every night before he fell asleep just to make himself laugh. "I Love Lucy." "Everybody Loves Raymond." "Frasier."

Most of the priests he investigated had come from an era when celibacy was not taught at seminaries in a pragmatic, thorough way. Another thing the fallen priests had in common, he said, was that not one had kept up his daily prayers.

So at Mount St. Mary's, he has urged seminarians to pray at least one hour every day. If they don't, he demands to know what they could possibly be doing that's more important than talking to God?

But not even prayer can substitute for love. That's what stuck out most to Rohlfs in the wreckage of the fallen priests' lives. "We can teach them everything we know, but, in the end, duty cannot do it," he said. "It must be love -- loving God more than you love sin."

The crucial lesson

In his last class with them, Rohlfs watched as his seminarians dutifully wrote down this last piece of advice on love. But did they understand how crucial it was, he wondered. Would they remember?

The Class of 2010 is the first he has overseen from start to finish, and he confessed that he felt at times like a nervous parent on the first day of kindergarten -- eager to see his children succeed but, having seen the dangers in this world, scared of what they will encounter.

Sitting in his office last week -- with the year officially over and his seminarians packing up -- Rohlfs couldn't help picking through all the lessons he had given during the past six years. He asked himself whether he should have done anything different, whether he had missed something important.

He had taught them everything he knew, he said at last with a sigh. Now it was up to God.

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