After reading David Larson’s two-part series in Crisis on the horrific abuse that members of the clergy enacted on vulnerable adults, I became aware, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, of a troubling experience of sexual misconduct that occurred over ten years ago that I had completely forgotten and buried out of shame.
In my last Crisis article, I described explaining to my coworkers my decision to enter religious life. In 2009, I began my application to the Society of Jesus.
One of my hesitations in considering a vocation to the Jesuits were the stories I heard of conservative entrants who received harsh treatment in the novitiate and throughout formation, some of whom were even denied ordination as well as dismissed from the congregation.
At the time I decided to enter the Jesuits, I was living in Los Angeles, but I was particularly afraid to apply to the California Province of the Society of Jesus (now known as “Jesuits West”) because I did not want to be met with such persecution.
On the other hand, the New Orleans Province (also referred to as the “Southern Province” at that time, now known as the “Central and Southern Province”) attracted several vocations among conservative Catholic men interested in the priesthood, some of whom were graduates of Franciscan University of Steubenville. During six-plus years of considering the Jesuits, I became acquainted with many conservative Jesuit priests and men in formation, all of whom encouraged me to consider the Southern Province.
Since I was born in Louisiana, minutes away from the Southern Province’s novitiate in Grand Coteau, and I had spent time getting to know the Jesuits while I was briefly living in Houston as an adult, I used these as reasons as to why I applied to a province outside of where I was residing.
During my nearly three-and-a-half years as a Jesuit in the Southern Province, I was never once challenged or attacked for my conservative beliefs, even when I lived outside the province and interacted with Jesuits from other provinces.
But the one area I was often challenged on was my decision to enter the Southern Province rather than the province where I had applied from.
My application process to the Society of Jesus included interviews with a psychologist, as well as four Jesuits. The vocation director arranged all of these interviews, except the one with him, to be conducted locally in California to accommodate the distance.
One of the Jesuits I interviewed with was from the California Province, and while this Jesuit does not fully represent the views and beliefs of the Province, my disgusting experience from this interview confirmed in retrospect that my instincts were correct to enter the Southern Province.
The applicant’s sexual history is one of the areas of inquiry both for the psychological evaluation and the Jesuit interviews. I knew this going into the application process and appreciated its importance, particularly in light of the Church sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s. I also knew this would be a detailed area of inquiry given the applicant’s commitment to celibacy and exposure to vulnerable populations should the applicant be accepted.
Typically (though not exclusively), the Jesuit interviewer who delves into sexual history is the vocation director. However, this California Province Jesuit primarily handled these questions. I am not aware if the vocation director delegated this responsibility to the California Jesuit or if he took this upon himself. However, the manner in which these questions were asked were unbecoming of a member of the clergy.
The questions began innocuously, as I expected:
- What do you identify as your sexuality?
- Have you engaged in any sexual practices, and if so with what regularity?
But it seemed to me this Jesuit went off script, asking me to describe in detail my first sexual experience: who was the woman, what nationality, where did we first meet, what type of sexual positions and acts did I enjoy with her, what attracted me sexually to her, and how did it feel to lose my virginity to her.
Something within me signaled that this level of detail and interest were off-base.
Additionally, the Jesuit appeared to ask these questions not to satisfy my suitability for religious life but to satisfy his own interest in obtaining more personal information about my sexual history. He probed beyond my comfort, and the more he probed, the more delight he appeared to generate at my expense.
There was a strong level of creepiness in the way and manner that he asked about information that ought to be treated with great care and sensitivity. This was not the language of a priest but a predator.
This Jesuit further asked about others I engaged with sexually, and he made it a point to note that I seemed attracted to an exotic group of women. This statement was inappropriate and unnecessary in this context.
When the sexual language from the Jesuit interviewer went beyond the scope of the interview and delved into unwanted looks, gestures, and comments, he committed sexual harassment against me. This experience left me feeling violated and ashamed.
Later in the interview, the California Jesuit indicated that in Jesuit communities there are often sexual jokes about men and women stated in the recreation room and around the dining table, and he wanted to ensure that I would be okay with this.
In other words, this Jesuit implied that language that would normally be prohibited in the workplace—and deemed as sexual harassment and a toxic environment—is normal, acceptable, and possibly even encouraged in Jesuit communities.
Needless to say, I was shocked. Additionally, this was further evidence of sexual misconduct.
But what could I do? I wanted to enter the Jesuits, and I believed if I pushed back in the interview or reported this Jesuit for sexual misconduct, I might have jeopardized my application.
Moreover, this particular Jesuit had been in leadership for over twenty years. My word would not have had any weight against a Jesuit with this standing.
Thus, I buried my experience of harassment for the sake of my application.
How many have also suffered harm from this Jesuit in the application process? And how many might have also been harassed and/or abused by this Jesuit priest?
The imbalance of power between a priest and a layperson, compounded by the further imbalance between a Jesuit interviewer and an applicant, signify the deep and detrimental impact of this Jesuit’s sexual misconduct.
When I briefly shared my experience of sexual misconduct on social media, journalist Peter Jesserer Smith, who has written on clergy sexual abuse, revealed to me that this Jesuit priest’s behavior is a typical pattern of grooming that is generally preparatory to abuse.
After reviewing my experience as a Jesuit, I see that there is plausibility in this theory, particularly in normalizing the infringement of sexual boundaries.
In my first year as a Jesuit novice, I spent several weeks working in a L’Arche Community. I stayed in a L’Arche home in a room that was more generous than my accommodations in the novitiate, with a very large bedroom and a king-size bed.
At a neighboring Jesuit community, I was describing my surprise at how generous my living arrangements were in the L’Arche Community. One Jesuit priest responded, “And who are you sharing that large bed with?”
While there are those who would defend this Jesuit as simply stating a joke, there are profound implications with this form of speech. There is a possibility of an attempt at grooming as well as a covert sexual proposition. Additionally, there is a visible imbalance between a Jesuit priest with final vows and a first-year novice.
Further, going back to the Jesuit interviewer’s statement, I wouldn’t be a “company man” if I objected to such speech, and I therefore felt forced to succumb to a toxic environment.
In my final summer as a Jesuit, I lived in Kerala, India, studying the Malayalam language and the Syro-Malabar Rite.
One Sunday, I was visiting a different region in India. A young Indian Jesuit in formation (who is much taller and larger in stature than I am) pointed out a shrine at a parish and stated that if two people hold hands, God will grant whatever they ask in prayer. He asked if I would hold his hand, and I responded with surprise and confusion, walking away from him.
When I returned to the Jesuit community in Kerala, I mentioned this incident to another young Jesuit in formation. He was not surprised. He told me that when they were in the same house together, the taller Jesuit came into his room unannounced and lay in his bed uninvited.
While both of these advances were refused, there is a pattern of sexual impropriety by this Jesuit that persisted boldly and unimpeded. Back to the Jesuit interviewer’s statement, there is an implied expectation that sexual boundaries be forgone in Jesuit community, particularly in the ostensibly innocuous practice of sexual jokes. However, such an environment is fertile ground for sexual abuse.
Even though I observed sexual misconduct not just in the California Province but in multiple (and even global) regions of the Society of Jesus, I do not believe this is solely a Jesuit problem but an issue of individual bad actors.
For example, a friend who is a parish priest in the Midwest disclosed to me in his final year of seminary that he never encountered more vulgar people in his life than in his diocesan seminary.
I also do not believe this is solely an issue of homosexual priests and religious, even if my examples seem to suggest that. I know of multiple accounts of Jesuits, religious, and diocesan priests who violated boundaries with women.
Moreover, I do not believe this is solely an issue of liberal priests and religious. The late former Jesuit priest Donald McGuire, the famed spiritual director to Mother Teresa known for his orthodoxy and friendship with the late Fr. John Hardon, SJ, was convicted of sexually abusing underage boys over the course of decades, including harming one boy over 1,000 times.
But where the Jesuits do have culpability is in not offering avenues for an applicant, a novice, a man in formation, or a formed Jesuit to report such offenses and enact real consequences to the offenders. I certainly never believed I had an ability to report any or all of these incidents.
I now have the sad knowledge that I am among so many others who have been sexually harmed by members of the clergy. I share my story, with the potential of being discredited and attacked, to support the many who have been harassed and abused by clergy, especially those who have yet to report the incident or, like me, had subconsciously buried the shameful experience.
I also share my story mindful of the vulnerability of my two young sons, and how deeply indignant and vengeful I would become if they ever experienced sexual misconduct from the clergy. I also want to model for them that it is necessary and appropriate to speak up about such incidences and not to be afraid to do so.
Without my faith in Christ, I do not know how I could have processed such a traumatic experience. But, by the Blood of Christ, I offer my experience and myself as an instrument of healing to those who have been harmed by the clergy.
Additionally, my faith in Christ makes it ever more clear how important it is to tie the millstone (see Matthew 18:6) to those in power, particularly clergy, who are taking advantage of the vulnerable for their own selfish and abominable sexual gain.