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June 16, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Cover story: The people's priest Cover story: The people's priest (June 16, 2004)

Praised for his approachable style and willingness to tackle tough issues, Father Gerald Coleman steps down after 16 years as president and rector of St. Patrick's Seminary

By Rebecca Wallace

Almanac Staff Writer

The hallowed halls of St. Patrick's Seminary are lined with imposing prints of cathedrals, bought by an archbishop around the turn of the last century.

Walking by, Father Gerald Coleman quickly loses interest in Chartres, his attention caught by the festively patterned red carpet below. It turns out the rug is the same kind used in some casinos, as seminarians from Reno and Las Vegas once laughingly told Father Coleman.

Which begs the inquiry: How do good students training to be Catholic priests know how dens of gambling are decorated?

Father Coleman chuckles. "That's a good question."

With its brick arches, stacks of books, and tranquil trees and benches, St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park has always seemed like a quiet island on the bustling Peninsula. Many residents live in the area their whole lives and never venture down the seminary's long driveway.

One might picture a school for priests as its own sacred space, separate from the rest of society. But, like sunlight, the world has a way of streaming in through the window.

At the end of this month, Father Coleman, 61, steps down as president and rector after 16 years in that position and 10 years on the teaching faculty. Although the 106-year-old seminary retains a stately air, life within its walls has changed greatly since Father Coleman, a 1968 St. Patrick's graduate, was a student.

The world has indeed streamed in. Women joined the faculty, and the student body went from white to multicultural. Dire financial straits forced the seminary to sell half of its 88 acres. And the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted in the Catholic Church, leading Father Coleman to institute courses on human sexuality and celibacy.

"When I was a student, we learned out of classical textbooks," Father Coleman says from a couch in his office as his little dog, Bentley, stares out the window. "Books don't answer all the questions anymore."
Life lessons

Unlike today's less cloistered seminary life, Father Coleman remembers his student days as a time when "we were kind of distant from the world -- we lived our own life right here."

With most of their time spent together on campus, seminarians developed strong friendships. Their days of prayer and study were also marked by sports and even theater. The students launched productions of "Oklahoma!" and "The Sound of Music," undaunted by the fact that their casts were all-male.

"It radically changes the plot, let me tell you," Father Coleman says, grinning.

After being ordained as a priest in 1968, Father Coleman continued his education, eventually earning a doctorate in moral theology from the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto. He taught at St. Patrick's, and served as president and rector at St. Joseph's College in Mountain View from 1986 to 1988, when he took over that position back at St. Patrick's.

Taking the helm, Father Coleman faced one of the biggest challenges of his career: the seminary swayed on the edge of financial disaster, and officials had to sell 43 acres of St. Patrick's land to survive.

After a struggle with neighbors who wanted the land to remain vacant, a 1995 court ruling allowed the seminary to sell it for $22 million. That property now holds the Vintage Oaks housing development, and the money helped finance sweeping renovations, bringing the seminary up to modern seismic standards.

The tussle was a hard lesson in civics that Father Coleman says he never wants to experience again.

"When I was named rector, I was told I had to diversify the faculty with more women, bring a more familial feeling to the seminary community, and sell the property. The third was the hardest," he says.

Russell Brown, who just finished his seminary studies after having served as a Dominican friar, says Father Coleman has indeed succeeded in setting a welcoming tone.

"He's good at treating adult seminarians as adults," he says. "He has a willingness to engage seminarians in small talk; he's collegial and willing to listen."

Father Coleman has also drawn praise at St. Pius Church in Redwood City, where he has conducted Sunday Mass, weddings, baptisms and funerals for years.

Longtime St. Pius member Pam Olson says: "He's got a wonderful sense of humor. Those people who are getting teased unmercifully, you know that Father Coleman loves you."
Tackling the modern world

The world didn't just stream into the seminary in 2000 -- it exploded with one phone call.

While on sabbatical, Father Coleman got a call telling him that the Rev. Carl Anthony Schipper, academic dean at St. Patrick's, had been arrested. Police said the Rev. Schipper had been having "explicit" sexual discussions over the Internet with an undercover police officer posing as a 13-year-old boy.

"I was stunned. I just absolutely couldn't believe it. He had been a classmate of mine. I came back that morning and I bailed him out," Father Coleman says. The Rev. Schipper was sentenced to a year in jail, three years' probation, and counseling, and retired from the priesthood.

Although furor over clergy sexual abuse had been burgeoning for years, this incident put a disturbing face on the issue for Father Coleman. The matter boiled over in 2002, when the Boston Globe ran a major series about the scandal. Father Coleman worried about the effects on the seminary.

"How do you keep student morale up when the morale of priests in the country was way down?" he asks. He says he feared enrollment would slip this year, but says for some reason it hasn't; the school currently has 87 students, on par with recent years.

St. Patrick's Seminary has reacted to clergy sexual abuse by expanding its educational programs, which it started doing about 10 years ago, Father Coleman says. He and other officials realized that the seminary wasn't adequately helping students deal with their emotional and sexual issues, particularly their celibacy, he says.

"When I was here as a student, I don't remember anyone talking to me about chastity. Academically, we knew what it was, but there was a presumption that as long as you were doing well in the (seminary) program you would do well as a priest. Now we're in a different world," he says.

Now the seminary has a mandatory course on human sexuality, as well as workshops on celibacy and Internet pornography. The latter helps students realize that people involved with on-line pornography are "abusing themselves," and that it can be dangerously easy to get pulled in, Father Coleman says.

He hopes the openness of the discussion will encourage seminarians to seek help if they feel they are "sliding down," adding, "If they feel alone, they won't talk to anyone about it."

Many in the community have praised Father Coleman for his willingness to tackle difficult issues. For years, he has written articles for Catholic publications on matters that have been thorny for the church, such as homosexuality, euthanasia, sexual morality and divorce.

Recently, he contributed a chapter to Santa Clara University psychology professor Thomas Plante's 2004 book, "Sin Against The Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church." The chapter seeks to dispel the notion that clergy sexual abuse is always linked to homosexuality, and states that gay men should be allowed to be considered for the priesthood.

St. Patrick's Seminary is open to accepting gay students, asking many of the same questions that are asked about heterosexual students, Father Coleman says: "How mature is he? Does he have the capacity to live celibately?"

Mr. Plante says Father Coleman should serve as a model of open discussion in the Catholic church.

"There's nothing that's off the table. I think the church needs more of that," says Mr. Plante, a Menlo Park psychologist who treats clergy abuse perpetrators and victims. "He's impressed me as being thoughtful, very scholarly, but also very pastoral and realistic and practical. Having those combinations can be refreshing."

Other worldly issues have been mixed into the seminary's curriculum as well. Students now learn about current scientific topics such as stem-cell research. Father Coleman says he tries to give students a broad factual background before bringing in the church's stance.
Students from around the globe

Some seminarians, though, might be able to teach the classes.

The modern St. Patrick's student is no longer a white man in his 20s; now students must have bachelor's degrees, and some are former doctors, lawyers, or businessmen. The average age is mid-30s.

One statistic is striking: last year, 52 percent of the students came from outside the United States, Father Coleman says. Most are from the Philippines, while many other students are Hispanic or Vietnamese.

All students are studying to become priests in the States, which means that language will be an ongoing issue at the seminary, he says. Some students have a great need to improve their English skills before heading to their diocese, Father Coleman says. The seminary also offers more education on American culture for these students.

The diversity, though, has added a rich multicultural layer to seminary life. There are celebrations for the feast day of Our Lady Guadalupe, an important religious holiday for Mexican Catholics. Filipino food highlights the annual festivities to honor the first Filipino saint, Lorenzo Ruiz.

A group of nuns from Mexico do the cooking at the seminary and add to the religious and cultural life, Father Coleman says.

"They enter into the whole spiritual process, praying for students," he says. "They're models of goodness."

After years of growth and change, it's fitting that Father Coleman is headed for a sabbatical year removed from the world.

He has moved to a Carmelite monastery of cloistered nuns south of Carmel, where he will serve as chaplain, saying Mass and being available for guidance. He's been offered a teaching job back at St. Patrick's, which he's considering, but he says he'll let that decision come when it will, after this time of quiet reflection.

"It will be peaceful, good for reading and writing. Simple duties," Father Coleman says with a serene smile.

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