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Cost cutting targets seminary

Los Angeles

The cost cutters of the deficit-ridden Los Angeles archdiocese have arrived on the upper slopes of the 100-acre St. John’s Seminary complex in Camarillo, Calif.

There are two seminaries on the site, the four-year undergraduate college and the postgraduate theologate. Each has its own rector, separate buildings, faculty and staff.

Both are degree-granting bodies. There are a total of 90 students, about 30 of those in the theologate. Both institutions serve as regional centers to a wider church.

The seminary college -- its graduating class of 2004 has 30 students -- draws men from at least 10 dioceses and religious orders. These are men discerning whether they have a vocation. Of the 2004 class, seven are from the Los Angeles archdiocese.

The theologate, lower on the slopes, is referred to as “down the hill.”

The cost cutters’ target is the seminary college, which will either be closed or partially absorbed into the theologate.

Faced with these ultimatums, the college faculty, staff and students have expressed “dismay” and much else at the lack of consultation and collaboration in making the curtailment or closure decisions.

The Camarillo complaints echo those of many diocesan employees axed at the chancery two months ago, who similarly were not invited to collaborate on action steps or long-term planning that might have ameliorated the impact of shutting down diocesan departments.

NCR discussed the situation with some faculty and staff, who agreed to talk on condition that they would not be identified. One participant, academic dean Erik Mansager, did not have those reservations.

In September, they reported, Cardinal Roger Mahony called in both rectors, Msgr. Helmut Hefner of the theologate and Fr. Ken Rudnick of the college, to inform them he had established three task forces to examine archdiocesan finances, one of them to specifically look at the seminary.

There apparently was no consultation with the rectors.

Two-and-a-half months later the task force report was released to faculty, staff and students following a Nov. 22 seminary board of trustees meeting.

Breaking with tradition, NCR was told, representatives from the faculty, staff and student bodies who normally attend the board meeting as observers were excluded.

Three options considered

Mahony presided at a Dec. 6 annual meeting of vocations directors and bishops. The vocations directors and their organizations that send students to the college were not consulted in advance of the three options being formulated. The three options discussed were:

Option 1 would be to roll the two upper college divisions (seniors and juniors) into the theologate without undergraduate degree-granting ability.

Option 2, which faculty, staff and students generally favor, is to combine the top two years of the college with the theologate into a six-year program that would continue to have graduate degree-granting ability under the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the accrediting commission for senior colleges and universities. Option 2 would mothball the college buildings and terminate the employees.

Option 3 was to close both seminaries, mothball the buildings or sell the estate, and create university-model formation houses (similar to the Graduate Theological Union in San Francisco) probably close to Loyola Marymount University. The estimated cost of mothballing the site was $600,000-plus a year.

Option 3 was quickly scuttled, NCR was told, when it became apparent that under the terms of the will that bequeathed the land to the archdiocese Mahony apparently could neither mothball the buildings nor sell the multi-million dollar site.

(NCR asked the archdiocese to illustrate where the Camarillo cost savings would come from, and for other information. The public relations office responded by sending NCR a copy of the Report of the Seminary Task Force, which did not contain any such information. Camarillo college rector Rudnick did not return NCR’s call.)

Another area, apparently not fully explored, it was said, is the fact that the archdiocese is not a free agent in these college-combining decisions. The archdiocese first has to meet the procedures mandated by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges if an educational institution is to be closed or its major academic structure amended.

Students write their cardinal

On Dec. 2 the students themselves wrote to the cardinal. They explained how their initial “uncertainty, confusion and curiosity” -- when they heard of the task force -- had turned to “shock, anger, disbelief, sadness and disappointment. You, Cardinal Mahony, had told us two years ago on your yearly visit, ‘As long as I am cardinal of this archdiocese the seminary college will remain open.’ ”

The students said the most pain came from Mahony’s comments to the Los Angeles Times: “We’re not getting large numbers of high school seniors, and, frankly, that’s not the group we’re looking for.”

In Mahony’s response to the students, he did not say he hadn’t used the words. He said: “I would certainly urge you not to take seriously the things that you read in the paper, especially quotations. I often speak to reporters who are not all that familiar with the language or culture of the Catholic church. One always ends up with various quotations that you just marvel at. They have the ability of jotting down bits and pieces of your responses and putting those together as a longer quote.”

The students told Mahony, “Not one person from our administration, faculty, staff or student body was asked for any comment, input, idea or proposal by your task force. Our very dedicated faculty came up with their own wonderful ideas and proposals in regard to the future; nonetheless they were never asked to present their proposals.

“How can any clear, definitive decision be made without asking the people who experience the seminary college on a daily basis?” the students asked.

(Among the early faculty and staff proposals in response to the task force announcement was to have summer sessions to rapidly graduate all students so they would not, in the words of one, “be left high and dry.”)

The students expressed their support for Option 2.

On Dec. 12 faculty and staff who met with NCR contended the seminary college could be economically viable if other options were explored.

One suggestion was that, given the demand for college placements in overcrowded California institutions, St. John’s College, which already has two full-time lay students and some 20 part-time lay students, could open to the broader public of the surrounding cities to offer liberal arts degrees.

That way, it was said, there would be continuity for those students in discernment regarding the priesthood, a continuation of the apostolic works in the region and an economically sound base.

Those present praised both seminary rectors and their willingness to share task force information as they received it.

They told of an earlier task force, eight years ago, that had recommended closing the college, but Mahony had ignored the recommendation. One member present said the issue today was less the closing of seminary college than the way in which it was being done.

Those talking to NCR returned repeatedly to the “lack of collaboration, actual exclusion from the process,” that is determining the college’s fate. “Ironically, in the [Dec. 6] meeting with faculty, vocation directors and bishops,” NCR was told, “the cardinal talked about the importance of collaboration in the new governance of the church. There’s such dissonance.”

‘We’ve done our best’

Another speaker mentioned a recent faculty meeting at which a faculty member said: “We’ve done our best at times to deal with the onslaught of the [clerical sex abuse] scandal. In the midst of that, we understand that the scandal of abusing a child is one thing, but we all know now that the handling of that abuse is a real problem on our hands. And [on this college closure] we sit here, kept in the same milieu in handling this -- kept in the dark, no kind of collaboration, no openness.”

One person said that financial problems included the fact that many dioceses sending students -- some from economically deprived areas -- did not pay their bills. Said another, given there are 30 potential priests just in the 2004 class, “are they being finance wise and vocations foolish?”

Ideas and options poured out. One staff member wondered why a plan to find a benefactor for the college was scuttled as long ago as last March.

They said the cardinal would make a final decision on the college mid-January.

For Mahony, the Camarillo cutbacks will round-out five months of archdiocesan stress. The year closed with the prospect of a raft of new sexual abuse suits, but tensions started building earlier.

On Sept. 2 the cardinal opened his cost-overrun $187 million cathedral; and 10 days later announced a $4.3 million deficit.

That was followed by 60 firings at the chancery office, and the wholesale curtailment of outreach programs covering pro-life and ecumenical and interfaith relations, and missions to ethnic Catholics, Catholics with disabilities, lesbians and gays, college students, and a 50 percent cut in staff doing detention ministry. Many of Mahony’s department heads resigned.

Mahony has blamed the Wall Street collapse for the archdiocese’s predicament.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003