Interview with Fr. Tom Berg: 3 Ways the Abuse Crisis has Changed Seminary Formation

Fr. Tom Berg has particular insight into the crisis of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. He spent 23 years of religious life, including nine years as an ordained priest, as a member of the Legionaries of Christ. The legion’s founder and director general Marcial Maciel Degollado was forced to step down in 2005, eight years after public allegations by nine former Legionaries that Maciel had sexually abused them as children and young adults.

Berg described his process of learning about Maciel’s crimes and grappling with the deception and lack of transparency in the Legion in his book, Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor 2017). “There was this tremendous experience of betrayal,” Berg explained in a recent phone interview. “It came not so much from the figure of Maciel, but from the figures of those who we learned over time knew more than they said they knew and went along with fostering the cult of personality around the founder.”

When the order’s major superiors finally began to share publicly in January 2009 that the allegations against Maciel were true, and that some in the order had known the truth, Berg made the decision to leave the Legionaries. “It was just so evident to me that I could not remain part of this thing,” he recalled. “It was just so corrupt.” He did wonder if he was being called by God to stay and help heal and rebuild the order. But prayer, spiritual direction, and conversation with friends led him to discern a different path, and at age 44 he chose to become a priest in the Archdiocese of New York.

Today Berg (pictured above) is professor of moral theology and director of seminarian admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, where he helps prepare seminarians for ordination. He is also coauthor with psychologist Timothy Lock of a new book, Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God’s Grace (Our Sunday Visitor, 2022).  He spoke with Awake about how the growing understanding of sexual abuse in the Church has influenced the way the best Catholic seminaries prepare men for the priesthood. Here we highlight three of the changes he shared.

An important note: Berg acknowledged that all seminaries in the United States operate independently. What is happening in one seminary is not necessarily happening at all others, “but there is a great deal of sharing best practices,” he said.

Change #1: Greater Attention to Emotional Health

Berg explained that new seminarians are welcomed into seminary with increased attention to their emotions and mental health. “I often say that if we were to visualize our emotional selves, they would look something like the surface of the moon, pitted with big impacts, small impacts, and ginormous impacts,” he said. “That’s the way life is. So it’s absolutely necessary for the young men coming in to deal with those impacts.”

“We are kind of hell-bent on guys dealing with any issues that they have with great transparency, even if that means that it becomes apparent that they’re not suitable for the priesthood,” Berg stressed. “So that in the end, instead of becoming wounded wounders, they become wounded healers.”  He added that the screening process is more rigorous than it once was. “It’s not foolproof,” Berg acknowledged. “But by and large, we’ve acted on what we’ve learned, enough that I hope Catholics would have a lot of confidence that we’re working hard to offer the Church young men who are … emotionally mature and whose sexuality is well-integrated.”

Some seminaries, including St. Joseph’s, also include a psychologist on staff. Berg called this “a huge positive development” and says that he often encourages seminarians and his brother priests to seek out mental health counseling when needed.

Change #2: Greater Awareness of Clericalism and Power Dynamics

In his work with seminarians, Berg said, he aims to promote awareness of clericalism, which he writes in Hurting in the Church, is not easy to define, but most priests know it when they see it.

“In my mind, a clericalist is a priest who, once ordained, indulges in the pursuit of power, pride, and perks,” Berg explains in his book. “He does not seek to serve, but to be served. Consumed by an entitlement mentality, he lives absorbed in his pitiable self.” Berg continues: “He is a priest by ordination yes, but no longer in spirit, whose personality exudes a lust for power —and not infrequently lusts for other things.” Berg also explains that clericalist priests can be found “at both extremes of a conservative–progressive spectrum as well as dead center.”

“Historically clericalism is one of the conditions that has led to abuse, and it still does,” Berg said in the conversation with Awake. One of his goals is to teach seminarians to recognize clericalism and “the power differential between ministers and the laity they’re called to serve,” he said. Power can be tempting, Berg explained. “We’re trying to help the guys withstand the temptation of this kind of entitlement and power and discover the beauty of interior simplicity.” He described interior simplicity as “a constellation of things,” including a sense of “genuine humility” as well as detachment from the desire for material things.  

“Interior simplicity is understanding that this priesthood is not about me,” Berg said. “It’s an incredible gift that I’m given for the service of others. That’s the opposite of clericalism.” 

Change #3: More Opportunities to Listen to Survivor Stories

As part of this education about power dynamics, Berg said many seminaries periodically invite victim-survivors of abuse to visit with seminarians and to even help present workshops on the abuse crisis. “It’s happening at the best seminaries,” Berg added. “That can be extraordinarily powerful for the guys. Having a person who has suffered this unspeakable thing in front of them, talking to them, really focuses their attention.”

Berg added that in the aftermath of the Vatican’s own investigation of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick—which detailed McCarrick’s history of sexually abusing seminarians—many seminarians became aware of their own vulnerability to abuse, increasing the power of survivors’ stories.

Berg said he wishes more survivors and concerned Catholics knew how deeply some priests are affected by survivors’ suffering, including “the ways that representatives of the institutional church have failed to respond in charity, and have treated victims like litigants.”

He and his fellow faculty members are working to form “happy, healthy, holy priests,” Berg explained. “That’s what we want our guys in the seminary to be. That’s who we want to be. That’s what the Church needs.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

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