Today it was announced that the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge will get a new bishop. He is Michael Duca, who is at present the bishop of the Diocese of Shreveport. He just held a short press conference, which was televised locally. In it, he came across as very human, very likable, in a genuine way, not in an ingratiating backslappy style. I know some local Catholics who are eager for him to start, as the retiring bishop has been, um, retiring for a very long time.

The first two questions were from local Catholic media, and they were predictably terrible. The very first one: “Do you think this transition [from Shreveport] will be hard?” The second one wasn’t much better. That was a great example of why the last place you want to go to learn what’s really happening in the Catholic Church is the official Catholic media.

The Baton Rouge Advocate reporter asked Bishop Duca to address a recent report about the Archdiocese of New Orleans’s handling of abuse cases, as well as Cardinal McCarrick being removed from ministry. Duca gave a general answer, saying that he will follow a policy of being “open and transparent.” They all say that. I hope he means it.

Bishop Michael Duca

When I was in Dallas, then-Monsignor Duca was rector of Holy Trinity Seminary, having been installed by the scandal-plagued Bishop Charles Grahmann. Duca, a Dallas native, attended that seminary from 1970 to 1978. A 1998 article in D Magazine, the city magazine of Dallas, went in-depth into the atmosphere at that seminary during the time when Duca was a student there, and afterward. When the article was published, Grahmann had just installed Duca as rector, in an attempt to clean up the godawful mess there that turned Dallas into one of the epicenters of the abuse crisis. You readers who believe the “lavender mafia” concept is nothing but an invention of homophobes need to read this. Excerpts:

“You bitch!” The boy’s screams echoed down the dormitory hallway, punctuated by the crash of furniture splintering against the concrete walls.

“You lying bitch!”

Startled Holy Trinity seminarians poked their heads from doorways. Moments later, dean of students Father Tom Cloherty appeared in his burgundy slippers, black pants, and untucked white undershirt, marching aggressively from his suite toward the commotion. “Everybody, go back in your rooms,” he commanded, as he strode down the hall. Next morning, two chairs were empty at Mass. One had belonged to the young man who pitched the tirade, an 18-year-old freshman from a strict Catholic family in Louisiana. The other seat belonged to the boy’s “particular friend,” a seminary graduate student.

The chapel buzzed with whispers about the latest “midnight retreat,” as such dismissals were known. The problem, everyone knew, was that the freshman believed it was love, while the older student knew it was just sex.

That was 18 years ago [1980] at Holy Trinity Seminary, where the Catholic Diocese of Dallas makes its priests.

Once a citadel of Catholic orthodoxy. Holy Trinity mislaid its moral compass in the mid 1970s. The House, as seminarians call the isolated beige brick structure at the University of Dallas, became a magnet for sexually confused youths, or self-professed gays. The infamous Rudy Kos, a sexual predator, also called The House his home in those days.

“The seminary attracted some really strange people,” Kos unself-consciously acknowledged to me in a letter from jail in February as he awaited his criminal trial for molesting four young men. “Most of me time, they were filtered out in the application process…. Still, some flakes slipped through.”

As Kos begins the rest of his life in prison, other former seminarians are speaking-most on condition of anonymity-of (heir own sexual adventures at The House. These men tell a consistent story of forbidden urges that were more often expressed than suppressed at Holy Trinity. Gay and straight alike, they say that what began as occasional, isolated moments of sexual contact among the students degenerated into obvious promiscuity that the diocese did little but ignore, as long as the sexual shenanigans stayed quiet.

To these men, many of whom never reached the priesthood, the irony was thick at Rudy Kos’ sentencing this spring when Dallas County Prosecutor Howard Blackmon, seeking a maximum sentence for the rogue cleric, argued, “He should have known better (after) four years in the seminary, immersed with the word of God.”

Indeed.

Monsignor Michael Sheehan was named rector of Holy Trinity in 1976, succeeding a no-nonsense rector, a Monsignor Hughes, who, as one of his last acts, recommended that the seminary hold off on accepting Rudy Kos. When Sheehan (later to become a bishop) took over, he liberalized the seminary, and reversed his predecessor’s decision on Kos. As this more recent story from WFAA TV in Dallas says, that would be an extremely costly decision. Faced with a $119 million civil trial judgment against it, the Dallas diocese eventually settled for $23 million with ten of Father Kos’s victims (an 11th committed suicide prior to trial).

More from D Magazine‘s 1998 piece:

A year later [1986], the Vatican’s Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger published a “Letter on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” an altogether different document from the American bishops’ 1976 letter. Ratzinger denounced “the intrinsic evil of homosexual activity,” which he called the result of a “disordered sexual inclination.”

At Holy Trinity, where Ratzinger’s letter was read in the lounge after a Sunday Mass, at least one distressed student was heard to complain, “They don’t understand!” Another shook his head. “Rome is being heavy-handed,” he said.

Loren Swearingen, then a first-year seminarian who agreed with Ratzinger’s point of view, stood in the doorway, listening to his fellow students in disbelief, wondering what he had gotten into.

Swearingen also had been troubled by scenes he’d witnessed at the seminary swimming pool. “I thought it was kind of weird,” he recalls, “seeing all these boys out there in bikini bathing suits, wrestling and chasing each other with water hoses. It kind of grossed me out. But that was the culture. It was not a very spiritual place.”

Swearingen asked his spiritual director, “is it true there are homosexuals here?” The priest smiled and answered, “There may be a few young men in the .seminary who are uncertain about their sexuality.”

The more Swearingen discovered about sex at Holy Trinity, the more uncomfortable he became, He says that over time he was unable to distinguish a friendly gesture from a homosexual advance. Eventually, he dropped out, abandoning his vocation for a career in engineering.

A decade later, Duca was installed as rector at the seminary. He told D, in the wake of the Kos civil judgment:

“I know there’s a history we have to confront,” says Father Michael Duca, the current rector at Holy Trinity, “in my two years as rector, 1 have not admitted as a student anyone I knew to be homosexual. Nevertheless, during a student’s time here, concerns can emerge in this regard. If they do, we intend to deal with the issue in an appropriate way.”

Read the whole thing. 

By the way, Monsignor Robert Rehkemper became the Dallas diocese’s vicar general in 1975. Given the weakness of the then-bishop, he was widely perceived to be running the diocese. In 1997, after the Kos verdict, he gave a memorable interview:

Two weeks after a Dallas jury awarded a record $120 million in finding that the Roman Catholic diocese in that city failed to stop a priest from sexually abusing parish boys, a former top church official who supervised the priest set off an uproar today by suggesting that the boys’ parents were at least as much to blame as the church.

”No one ever says anything about what the role of the parents was in all this,” Msgr. Robert Rehkemper told The Dallas Morning News in an interview published today. ”They more properly should have known because they’re close to the kids.”

The 73-year-old monsignor, who is retired as the diocese’s No. 2 official but still heads a church attended by some of the victims and their parents, was also quoted as saying: ”Parents have prime responsibility to look after their kids. I don’t want to judge them one way or the other, but it doesn’t appear they were very concerned about their kids.”

… Monsignor Rehkemper was also quoted as saying that once victims reached the age of 6 or 7, they should have know what was being done to them was wrong and spoken up.

So that was the mindset of those in charge of the Dallas diocese at the time.

Anyway, Bishop Duca was there at Holy Trinity Seminary as a student at a time of hugely significant transition, in the 1970s. And he returned as its rector in 1996, as the diocese was reeling from scandal after scandal (Kos was only the beginning).

What did Bishop Duca learn from his time at Holy Trinity, both as student and rector? What did he learn serving in leadership (he was also vocations director) at one of the most scandal-ridden American dioceses? How does that inform and even define his own leadership as bishop?

This is important to know.

UPDATE: Reader Paul P.:

Reading this account was a trip down memory lane …

My sister’s abuse by Bill Hughes (Msgr Hughes’ nephew) was discovered (circa 1984) while still going on, and my parents went to the parish and the diocese to disclose the absue. Msgr Rehkemper’s first response was “well, a lot of girls have a crush on their priest, don’t be too concerned”. After being shown evidence – photos and letters describing the acts between a 27 year old priest and a 13 year old girl – he took them more seriously. He strongly advised them to turn over all the letters and pictures to Fr. Cloherty, that the diocese would take care of this, and that it would be best for everyone, especially “the child”, if the police were not involved. They … we … fell for that line.

The diocese did allow Bill to go to a youth conference that weekend. My dad called a week later with an ultimatum – remove Bill from the parish immediately, or my father (song leader) would announce at 9:30 Mass the opening song, and to keep your children away from Fr. Bill. The next day the diocese announced a swap of priests between parishes – Fr Bill for one Fr. Mike Duca – our new associate pastor.

I’d known Fr. Mike through some retreat work we did together. He was unusually grounded and joyful for a priest, a great homilist, and gave the homily at my wedding 30 years ago. Not sure if he knew at the time why he was asked to change parishes with zero notice, but he did know eventually. He always carried himself with integrity around issues involving “the Scandal”, including a pastoral approach with our family.

Bishop Duca is, or at least was, one of the “good guys”.