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‘Ripe for abuse’: How Catholic sex scandal convinced one seminarian to go public

Stephen Szutenbach, was a seminarian in Denver when he says he was abused by an administrator. He said he complained to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput who only removed the priest from ministry after Szutenbach threatened to go public with his story.

Stephen Szutenbach, shown here in his home in Orlando, Florida, says he was abused by a top administrator, while a seminarian in Denver.
Stephen Szutenbach, shown here in his home in Orlando, Florida, says he was abused by a top administrator, while a seminarian in Denver.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN/ Staff Photographer

DENVER — Stephen Szutenbach had never kissed anyone when, he says, a priest he had befriended in the late 1990s started making sexual advances. Szutenbach was 18, a devout Catholic teenager interested in the seminary; the Rev. Kent Drotar was a 39-year-old ranking administrator at St. John Vianney Seminary.

"I was so sheltered and I was very uncomfortable because … he's in charge," Szutenbach said. "He's the person who could say, 'I don't think he's fit to be in the seminary.' "

But the young man did get into the seminary. And in the ensuing four years, he experienced repeated unwanted sexual contact with Drotar, he said.

In 2007, Szutenbach reported the allegations to one of his former seminary teachers. The Denver Diocese, led by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput before he came to Philadelphia, sent Drotar to counseling and then reassigned him to another parish. The priest was later removed permanently from ministry after Szutenbach said he warned Chaput he would take his claims to the media.

Szutenbach didn't disclose his story at the time but reached out to the Inquirer and Daily News this year after a wave of high-profile reports of sexual misconduct in Catholic seminaries or against young priests in training. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington resigned in July after allegations that he abused minors and seminarians as the church leader in Newark and Metuchen, N.J. Four dioceses — Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, and Lincoln, Neb. — are investigating claims about misconduct in their seminaries.

The issue is likely to emerge when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Baltimore this week, amid new questions over their handling of sex-abuse claims. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, conference president, has proposed establishing an independent hotline for reporting abuse by bishops against minors as well as  "vulnerable adults," a group that includes church clergy, staff, and seminarians.

"From a legal standpoint, people often think a 19-year-old should be able to say no and walk away. It's not that easy," said Kathleen McChesney, former executive director of the bishops' Office of Child Protection. "Because of the power differential between clerics and seminarians, these people, in essence, should be treated as vulnerable adults."

Church officials in Philadelphia and Boston launched their seminary investigations this year after former seminarian John Monaco alleged harassment and sexual advances by classmates at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood and at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Mass.

"The fact is, every single priest who committed abuse throughout history had to go through seminary," Monaco said in an interview. "So the question is how are seminaries either hiding this stuff or how are they preparing men for priesthood?"

‘He was grooming me’

The spotlight on seminary misconduct stirred Szutenbach to break his silence.

After the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, he read Denver's vicar general publicly claim that the archdiocese had no incidents of abuse against a minor since 2002.

"And I'm like OK, OK. … He said juvenile, but it's mincing words," Szutenbach recalled. "And it's another slap in the face, like my story didn't count."

He was a high school junior in 1998 when he met Drotar, a charismatic cleric who had served in the Air Force before becoming a priest. Szutenbach's parents were also Air Force veterans; the family bonded with the priest, inviting him to family dinners and events. By Szutenbach's senior year, he said, Drotar began attending the teen's swim meets and accompanied him on Catholic youth retreats in the Rockies, an account confirmed by Dick Swain, the retreat leader.At that time, Drotar was vocations director for the Denver Archdiocese, responsible for public outreach and recruiting prospective seminarians.

"Back then I didn't think anything of it," Szutenbach said. "Now I see that he was grooming me."

Szutenbach was 18 when he took a summer job in 2000 doing yardwork at the seminary. Often, he'd lunch with Drotar.

During a fishing trip that summer, Szutenbach said, he woke up to the priest in his bed, fondling him. He told Drotar he was uncomfortable with that. The priest offered to hear his confession in the motel room that morning.

"I remember the drive back: I felt so bad," Szutenbach said. "I felt gross. I felt guilty."

But he wasn't about to abandon his vocation. Raised in a staunchly Catholic family, Szutenbach grew up reciting the rosary in the car. He saw the priesthood as a way to help people through faith. On some level, he said, he knew he was gay and knew that wasn't accepted in the church. But he saw the seminary as a safe place. "No one's going to ask you why you're not dating a woman if you're in the priesthood," Szutenbach said.

In his four years of study — first at the Immaculate Heart of Mary seminary in Minnesota and then in Denver — he hid his relationship with Drotar, who by 2003 had been promoted to vice rector, the seminary's second-highest administrator. Drotar's bedroom was just a few doors down from Szutenbach's.

"He would ask me to come to his apartment after evening prayer," and then climb into his bed beside him and grope him, Szutenbach said. "I was scared to [tell anyone] because it's my word against his."

Drotar declined to comment for this article. The Denver Archdiocese confirmed they received Szutenbach's accusations. They acknowledged that Drotar had engaged in "inappropriate physical conduct with an adult seminarian" but said the allegations were "not criminal in nature."

Szutenbach said that he grew tired of hiding his homosexuality and that the abuse by Drotar weakened his already wavering interest in the priesthood. So in 2004, he dropped out of the seminary.

In a letter that June, Drotar apologized to Szutenbach for the discord between them after the seminarian said he was withdrawing. "Thank you, too, for putting up with me and my weaknesses and struggles as I try to love you as a father, brother and friend," the vice rector wrote. "I have been far from perfect in it."

Eager to get away, Szutenbach moved to Florida and enrolled in architecture school. For three years, he kept silent.

In 2007, while home for Christmas, Szutenbach visited his former Latin teacher, Marica Frank, and their talk turned to current seminarians. Frank mentioned one might not be ordained because the panel, which included Drotar, thought the young man "presented as too flamboyant."

Szutenbach got visibly upset, then blurted out: "That's really ironic given that Father Kent touched me sexually."

Frank was shocked. "Stephen, you were abused," she told him.

Frank and another faculty member, therapist Jeanie Engelbert, reported the information to the head of the seminary, who talked to Szutenbach.

"We all thought it would be taken care of," Frank told the Inquirer and Daily News in an interview. "We thought [Drotar] would be removed."

In a statement last week, the archdiocese said that Chaput followed diocesan policy when he removed Drotar after the accusations and then returned him to ministry after consulting with a psychiatrist and the diocesan panel that examined misconduct claims. Szutenbach, Engelbert, and Frank said they were unaware that  Drotar's conduct was ever scrutinized by the board; no one asked them to testify or submit statements.

Engelbert had worked at the seminary since 2001 as director of pastoral formation, helping to place seminarians in the community. Outraged to learn Drotar was returning to public ministry, she wrote to Chaput with her concerns, including that the priest had been reassigned to a parish with a school.

"Given the grave nature of Fr. Drotar's offense, and his apparent lack of understanding of the seriousness of it, I believe it is unwise to place him back into a situation where he will exercise authority over others," she wrote.

Chaput then summoned her to his office, she said.

"I remember he had the letter in his hand and he looked at me and he said, 'What do you want me to do with this?' " Engelbert said. "And I said, 'The right thing.' "

Weeks later, Chaput let her know he had consulted with the psychiatrist who determined that Drotar was suitable for parish ministry. The decision would stand, he said.

The next day, Engelbert said, she was informed she would not be hired back for the upcoming school year. She saw it as retaliation.

"I pushed back, I spoke out," Engelbert said. "… And so they just probably wanted to get rid of any potential problems."

Mark Haas, spokesperson for the Denver Archdiocese, said he would not comment on specific personnel matters but said: "Neither the archdiocese nor the seminary has terminated any employee, or caused any adverse employment consequences for any employee, who has raised an issue of sexual misconduct."

Five months after Englebert's inquiry, Szutenbach learned that Drotar had been returned to public ministry. He sought a meeting with Chaput. The archbishop agreed to meet at a coffee shop.

"I told him I was going to go to the press," Szutenbach said. "I remember him being very, very demure. I think he would have done anything I'd asked for."

(Chaput declined last week to discuss the Drotar case or Englebert's claims. Through a spokesperson, he referred all questions to the Denver Archdiocese.)

Szutenbach said the archbishop arranged to have him testify before Denver's conduct review team.

He did so that November and was told a few weeks later that the board recommended Drotar's permanent removal from ministry. The process is complicated and can take years; only the Vatican can laicize a priest. Still, Szutenbach assumed Drotar had been defrocked, never again able to call himself a priest.

A fresh dose of scandal

When the clergy sex-abuse scandal flared anew this summer, this time over seminarians, Szutenbach went online and searched Drotar's name.

Drotar is no longer in public ministry, but Szutenbach found several postings where the now-57-year-old refers to himself as "Father" or "Reverend." He asked the Denver Archdiocese and was told, in emails he shared with the Inquirer and Daily News, that officials there never followed through on their pledge to end Drotar's ties to the church.

"They were going to laicize him and they told me they had tried. Which they didn't, apparently … so I'm still being lied to," Szutenbach said.

The headlines this summer — including revelations that West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, a Philadelphia native, has been accused of sexually harassing younger priests — have convinced Szutenbach that his experience wasn't unique. He hopes the bishops who meet this week take his and similar stories to heart.

Szutenbach said he goes to counseling and still has the occasional nightmare where he's back in the seminary and there's a knock on his door at night.

"The thing is, you're in this situation where you have these young folks who have worshiped the priesthood and bishops for their whole lives," he said. "It's a place that's ripe for abuse, and to not acknowledge what happened for what it was, as with McCarrick or Drotar, it's kind of an abdication of the ickiness and awfulness of abuse. It's still abuse."

His homosexuality and contact with Drotar have largely estranged him from his parents, he said. Now 37,  Szutenbach lives in Orlando with his husband and designs hospitals for a living.

He doesn't attend Mass, he said, but on occasion steps inside churches as a photographer, still marveling at the intricate facades and stained glass.

"The abuse didn't destroy my faith," Szutenbach said. "The way they treated me when I told them what happened, the way they responded, destroyed my faith."

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Jeanie Engelbert's certification. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist.