Seminarian Arrested Attempting to Buy Infants As Sex Slaves

It's all over the news; Washington Post, New York Times, even the tabloids have picked it up. Joel Wright, a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Steubenville was arrested by federal agents in San Diego after a sting operation in which he told what he thought was a Tijuana tour guide that he wanted to purchase infant girls, film himself raping them, and then sell the film for profit. 

Joel A.Wright, second from left, was arrested at the San Diego airport on Friday. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, via Associated Press

Joel A.Wright, second from left, was arrested at the San Diego airport on Friday. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, via Associated Press

After seeing an article I wrote for Commonweal in 2015, an investigative reporter from WBNS10TV  reached out for background information and comment regarding the application process,  psychological evaluations, and human and sexual formation inside seminaries today. He interviewed me via skype yesterday.

I can't (and didn't) speak to the particulars in the case (which are strange as hell) . I did have contact with the Diocese of Steubenville (more on that below), but I'm obviously not close enough to this investigation to make judgments about the details of the case, or to assess the potential culpability of any involved (including, for instance, the Vocations Director, the Bishop, the Josephenum Pontifical College where Wright was studying). I can, however speak about my experience as a man who recently applied, was accepted, entered, and then left a Catholic seminary. My experience is not confidence inspiring.

Many don't realize that Catholic priests don't commit more sex crimes against children per capita than the general population (or most other professions, like, say, elementary school teachers). This misperception leads many (inside and outside of the Church) to fundamentally misunderstand that priestly sex abuse crisis. Inside the Church, the crisis is seen as the work of a secular culture hellbent on destroying Catholicism ("If there aren't more priests than average offending, why the excessive negative press and attention?"). Outside the Church, mandatory celibacy and a patriarchical and hierarchical culture are blamed for attracting (or perhaps creating) sexual monsters to the priesthood. Our best evidence suggests that both of these views are wrong.

The priestly sex abuse crisis is particularly heinous for several reasons. First, while there isn't a higher percentage of prists abusing than in other professions, priest abusers do tend to have many more victims. Probably this is partly due to the position of trust and authority that they are in with respect to their local communities. More troubling, however, has been the tendency of bishops, in the US and abroad, to shuffle abusive priests around from parish to parish without warning parishioners, send priests to ineffective and pyschologically suspect "treatment centers," and the extreme resistence within the leadership of the Church to even admit that there's a problem or take the necessary steps to address it.

This perspective, I think, sheds some light on the Joel Wright case.

First off, Wright was in his first year of studies for the Diocese of Steubenville. He had apparently wanted to be a priest for a long time, but had had trouble finding a diocese or order that would accept him. His mother told reporters he'd be rejected from "40 or 50" religious orders or dioceses. Though surely an exaggeration, and though the reason she gave for his rejections was that Joel was legally blind (a plausible explanation as to why one or two such entities may have rejected him), this raises serious red flags in my mind. As a first-year, though, he had only undergone one semester of formation and study. It's plausible -- to me at least -- that one semester isn't enough time to expect his formators to have fully uncovered his perverse sexual proclivites (and willingness to act on them).

This doesn't mean the Josephenum is inculpable, of course. The dioceses and seminaries all have their own admittance procedures, and some of those are explicitly designed (in accord with the PPF) to identify and weed out such candidates. According to the Diocese of Steubenville (a representative of which I spoke with yesterday), the psychological evaluations gave no reason to suspect sexual deviance, and the state and federal background checks came back totally clear. Given what followed less than a six months later, this begs a serious question: was Wright a total anomaly -- an undetectable pedophile who would have made it through any such system -- or does this implicate the Diocesan and seminary-level admittance procedure.

According to my contact at the Diocese, the bishop and his staff are considering both possibilities. Though she offered no concrete steps that the Diocese would be taking in this regard, she said the bishop was currently considering a review an possible overhaul of these procedures.

My opinion on this: Steubenville needs to move more quickly. It's never to early to publicly commit to figuring out what the problem was, and how to fix it. It's been more than a month since Wright's arrest, and that's plenty of time to set in motion a mechanism to make sure this doesn't happen again (and announce that such a mechanism has been set in motion, even if the details are not released for another couple of months). 

Secondly, even if Wright had no criminal record (something I'm unclear about), he did have a history of bizarre and unacceptable behavior. According to WBNS, Wright reportedly took an ad out on Craigslist during the time he spent studying at Franciscan University in Steubenville offering parents $150 to let him watch their children. A concerned party notified FU, but FU has said that they never followed up on this since Wright was no longer a student by the time they acted on the tip. It'll be key in the coming days to find out: (1) how this complaint was handled, (2) what the involvement of the police was (and why this wouldn't have shown up on the background check later), (3) why FU saw no reason to follow up on Wright to make sure that he wasn't, I don't know, applying to a seminary. This is another structural feature that you'll find in many cases of priestly abuse: a communications break-down between institutions that purport to work together to keep children safe.

Finally, at a more general level, I want to reaffirm what I said in last year's Commonweal article. I think we have very strong reasons to think that these issues are not being adequately dealt with at the level of seminary recruitment and formation. The Church is in a seriously vulnerable position. The applicant pool for seminarians is at an all-time low, and standards for admittance to seminaries have dropped and will continue to do so. If we can't trust dioceses, orders, Catholic Universities (with formation programs), and other entities to communicate, and if we don't have sufficient safeguards in place as part of the application and admittance process, then we're likely to see more Joel Wright's in the future...