Church Deficit, Changing Times Force Camarillo Seminary to Close

By Paul Wilborn
San Francisco Chronicle [Camarillo CA]
Downloaded February 7, 2003

(02-07) 10:08 PST CAMARILLO, Calif. (AP) -- Cloistered atop a tranquil hill behind a locked electronic gate, St. John's Seminary seems a world away from the financial troubles and sexual scandals of the country's largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in Los Angeles.

But faced with an estimated $13.4 million budget deficit, archdiocese cost-cutters decided last week to close the college where 82 future priests are being trained.

The decision comes as undergraduate Catholic seminaries around the country struggle to fill classes, and church officials search for ways to underwrite the growing cost of the training.

"Economics are closing down the college seminaries," said Father Tom Reese, a Jesuit priest and editor of America, a national Catholic magazine. "You can't afford to run a college with so few students."

Completion of graduate-level seminary training is required for ordination, but high school and college seminary training is not mandatory, church officials said.

Since 1967, overall enrollment in college seminaries in the nation has declined from 13,401 students to 1,594. Only 17 seminary college campuses remain in the country, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Eight dioceses around the country, including New York and Boston, continue to operate college seminaries. But keeping them open is becoming more difficult as budgets are strained by declining tuition fees, loss of investment income and financial awards in priest sex abuse claims.

In announcing the closure of St. John's, Cardinal Roger Mahony cited "changing pastoral needs and realities."

"Financial considerations also played a major role in the board's decision," said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese. Since the archdiocese's deficit was made public in October, 65 of the roughly 400 clergy and lay employees have been laid off or resigned from jobs at archdiocese headquarters.

St. John's college opened in 1961 on a campus about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Its student body is a mix of mostly Asian and Hispanic students, some from as far away as the Philippines and Samoa.

After the end of the college term in May, only the graduate seminary -- founded in 1939 -- will remain. Mahony earned his graduate degree from St. John's.

The seminary has been draining cash from the archdiocese for years. The college charged just under $15,000 a year for tuition and room and board, but the actual cost per student was $35,000, said Rector Ken Rudnick.

Closing the college will reduce the archdiocese's overall deficit by $2 million a year, Tamberg said.

Rumors last fall of the possible closure disturbed many students, who wrote a joint letter to Mahony in December expressing "shock, anger, disbelief, sadness and disappointment." Students said Mahony had promised during his annual visits that the college would remain open as long as he ran the archdiocese.

Faculty members also wrote to Mahony complaining that they had not been consulted by the committee he appointed to consider the future of the college.

Tamberg said Mahony made the decision after consulting with a number of priests and lay leaders.

"Their overwhelming response was that the four-year, freestanding college seminary was obsolete," Tamberg said.

Most of the 20 full- and part-time faculty are now looking for work. Among them is Rudnick, who said he is finding the job market tight.

Despite the uncertainly, Rudnick said some of the tension has eased in recent weeks at the school where matters of the spirit take precedence over more secular concerns.

"We're trying to proceed with civility and dignity," he said.


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