After news emerged in 2018 that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been accused of sexually abusing fellow students while studying to be a Catholic priest, John Cavadini came up with an idea.
"There were so many rumors about what's going on in seminary culture and was what happened with McCarrick the norm," said Cavadini, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and director of its McGrath Institute for Church Life. "People were scared. I decided to try to find some objective data."
Pope Francis defrocked McCarrick, 89, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a prominent figure in the U.S. Catholic Church, in February after a church investigation determined that he had sexually abused minors as well as adult seminarians over decades.
Cavadini, unable to find the "objective benchmark" data he was searching for, reached out to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to help him create an anonymous survey of U.S. seminarians to determine the prevalence of sexual abuse at seminaries.
"We thought of this as a first step," said Cavadini, who frequently has seminarians from neighboring Moreau Seminary in class.
He unveiled the results of the study, titled "Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture," on Sept. 21 at the Religion News Association conference in Las Vegas.
The study found that 10% of Catholic seminarians surveyed in the United States experienced or might have been subject to sexual harassment, abuse or misconduct. About 80% of those said that another seminary student was the perpetrator. Other times, it was a seminary authority or a church authority not associated with the seminary.
"The study tells us what's needed," including the need for someone outside the seminary to take abuse reports, Cavadini said.
Judy Jones, Midwest regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that so few seminarians might have reported being abused or mistreated because most abuse victims don't disclose that they've been victims until later in life, around age 50. Also, "sex is a forbidden topic in the Catholic Church," she said.
Cavadini hopes to create a national protocol for reporting and preventing sexual abuse in seminaries and to make it public to create "public accountability," he said.