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How Rudy Kos Happened

Twenty years ago, Dallas' Catholic seminary spun out of control.
By Dan Michalski |

“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 die 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 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 their 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.”


WHEN HOLY TRINITY opened in 1967, a Vatican official declared it the finest seminary he had ever seen. At its center is the main chapel, a circular sanctuary topped by an understated dome of stained glass. A pair of two-story dormitory wings spoke off at right angles. Plans called for two more identical wings, a hundred beds in each, to complete the architect’s Greek-cross design. However, not enough students have ever been accepted to the seminary to fill even the completed dorms, so the cross has remained unfinished.

Deep beneath it is an isolated comer of the basement where the infirmary once was located. The 10-by-10-foot room, outfitted with a bed and bathroom, was easily accessible to the outside via a nearby door. It was called the sick room.

Several former seminarians speak of how students sneaked out at night and headed for the gay bars along Cedar Springs Road about 6 miles away, where they’d meet other young men and arrange to rendezvous with them in the infirmary’s seclusion. Other students were known to rise from their dorm rooms and discreetly pad down half a flight of stairs to a carpeted hallway that curved around the chapel, past portraits of popes and cardinals, down a full flight of stairs, past the rec room, then down yet another stairway to an uncarpeted hallway that led, finally, to the infirmary. An hour or so later, the young men would return just as quietly to their rooms as their anonymous callers drove away, headlights off.

Rudy Kos served as infirmarian at Holy Trinity from 1977 to 1981. There in the sick room he took care of ill and injured students, treating them for everything from the flu to twisted ankles, even the occasional case of gonorrhea.

Unlike most seminarians, who entered as undergraduates at age 20 or younger, Kos came to The House at age 32 after a career as a registered nurse, with a failed marriage behind him. He arrived at a time of significant change in the seminary’s leadership. Monsignor Michael Sheehan had just replaced Monsignor Gerald Hughes, the seminary’s longtime rector. Hughes, who died in January of this year, was an old-fashioned cleric, known for his French cuffs, tonicked hair, and severe, authoritarian demeanor.

He also ran a tight ship. When boys were not in class or praying or studying, they did their chores. The students kept the football field manicured and the basketball courts swept clear of leaves. They also made sure the wall portraits inside hung perfectly straight.

But at the time of Monsignor Sheehan’s advent as rector in 1976, the U.S. Church — and thus many of its seminaries — was being rocked by radical change. Strict Catholicism of the sort Hughes practiced was engulfed in a post-Vatican II tidal wave that swept away centuries of accumulated observances and verities. While the Church tried to steer a steady course through the storm, it was hit by an unexpected gale: a collapse of vocations.

In Dallas, Monsignor Robert Rehkemper was named vicar general in 1975. As the diocese’s second-in-command — and, considering Bishop Thomas Tshoepe’s perceived weakness as an executive, eventually a very powerful second — one of Rehkempers primary duties was to oversee Holy Trinity, and that meant addressing a serious problem.

More and more dioceses around the Southwest were choosing not to send their shrinking numbers of prospective priests to conservative Holy Trinity. They opted instead to train the boys at Houston’s St. Mary’s Seminary, which was considered more progressive.

The Catholic Community Appeal, a lay fund-raising organization that financed more than half of Holy Trinity’s operating budget, was grumbling. So, as several priests who trained at Holy Trinity recall today, Rehkemper ousted Hughes and installed Sheehan, a theological moderate, as rector. The vicar also moved into The House himself, and lived at Holy Trinity for the next 11 years.

One of the last things Monsignor Hughes did before leaving his post in April 1976 was to place a memo in the file of Rudy Kos, whose application to join Holy Trinity he had just rejected.

“I would suggest that the Seminary hold off accepting this man at least for a year or two years — and perhaps not at all” he wrote. “There is a certain amount of instability here I do not like.”

When Monsignor Sheehan arrived at Holy Trinity, he immediately relaxed the dress code. Black clerical shirts and white collars no longer were mandatory for class. The traditional cassock, a floor-length black robe, henceforth was reserved for Sunday Mass. Students still were bound by curfews, but generally they all had a lot more unsupervised time off-campus.

Sheehan, who declined requests for an interview, also reversed Hughes’ rejection of Rudy Kos. The student-hungry seminary would welcome Kos the next year.

Bobby (a pseudonym) was the only boy headed to Holy Trinity in 1980 from his West Texas diocese. He remembers attending, with 15 other would-be seminarians, a retreat where the San Angelo vocations director issued the boys a vague but memorable warning.

“Certain activities,” the priest said, hesitantly, “can happen in these closed confines. The environment you’ll be entering is a communal experience, and it can breed this type of activity.”

Bobby, then 17, says today that he was both excited and worried by the admonition — excited because he was gay, worried because someone might find out.

Two months after arriving at Holy Trinity, on a “day of reflection” when the seminarians were supposed to remain silent, Bobby went for a walk with an upperclassman along the woody paths of nearby Nob Hill, one of the highest points in Dallas County.

“You need to stay away from certain people because they will use you,” warned the older student.

“What do you mean?” Bobby replied.

“They will take advantage of you — sexually.”

Bobby recalls that a silence ensued as they walked amid the live oaks and occasionally stopped to gaze at the view of Las Colinas.

“Like who?” he asked.

The upperclassman listed about six fellow students, headed by Rudy Kos. He told Bobby of how Kos would call the younger guys to his room, where he’d greet them lying naked on the floor.

“He’ll make you jack him off, and he’ll tell you it’s not a sin if you use your feet,” Bobby recalls being told. A few weeks later, another freshman confided in Bobby that he’d gone “all the way” with Rudy.

IN 1961, THE Catholic Church issued what seemed an unequivocal statement on homosexual seminarians: “Advancement to religious vows and ordination should be barred to those who are inflicted with evil tendencies toward homosexuality or pederasty for whom the common life and priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers.” Fifteen years later, however, U.S. bishops wrote to the Vatican of their new outlook toward those “who through no fault of their own … have a homosexual orientation.”

The bishops argued in their letter that gays still had the right to “an active role in the Christian community.” Active homosexuality, of course, was still a “moral evil,” but as far as sins were concerned, for the laity it now was on par with the “impure deeds” — for instance, masturbation.

Still, the celibacy standards for priests remained unchanged. No sex of any sort was permitted.

Hughes had employed a system for screening homosexual applicants, whose sexual orientation, he believed, made gays inappropriate candidates for inclusion in a close-knit, all-male institution.

“Are you leaving many broken hearts behind you?” Hughes would ask. It was his trick question to see if the guy had dated girls, or at least wanted to.

Sheehan did things differently. The new rector invited the previously rejected Kos back to Holy Trinity for an interview and began a standard evaluation. Part of this process was a psychological examination. A University of Dallas psychologist met with Kos for three hours to look for anything that would be an impediment to becoming a priest, including signs of sexual uncertainty.

But Kos didn’t want to talk about his marriage, so they didn’t. He also didn’t want to talk about leaving home at age 17, so the psychologist didn’t learn that the applicant was sent to a youth detention facility after fondling a neighborhood boy.

Before officially accepting Kos, Holy Trinity had to check the validity of his marriage annulment. Tucked into his Dallas chancery file was an interesting report from the diocese’s marriage tribunal, who had spoken with Kos’ ex-wife just before his acceptance to Holy Trinity.

“She implies the petitioner has some problems,” it reads. “Something is fishy.” The diocesan official made a note to investigate further. As it turned out, she had lived with Kos for five years in an unhappy, unconsummated marriage before kicking him out upon discovering a trunkload of love letters from several teenage boys. But she was never recontacted after the initial interview.

In that telephone conversation, she said specifically that he should not be a priest. Unfamiliar with the term “pedophile,” the former Mrs. Kos told the tribunal in 1975, “I think they call it ‘gay.’”

During the civil case filed by Kos’ victims against the diocese, Monsignor Sheehan testified that he never heard any of this information or read the report. “If I became aware that someone had been involved in a homosexual act, homosexual lifestyle, I would not allow them to come into the seminary,” Sheehan said. All he knew was that the annulment was granted in 1976.

In March 1977, Kos received a letter from the Dallas vocations director, inviting him to a dinner for incoming seminarians. “Both myself and Father Sheehan are looking forward to your coming to Holy Trinity this fall,” the note read.

Four years later, the diocese deemed Kos ready for ordination — despite a troublesome incident rumored to have occurred in his final days at the seminary. It was Holy Saturday. A former Holy Trinity student visiting friends told fellow seminarian James Harris that Kos made sexual advances at him in the seminary swimming pool.

Harris, now a priest in Laredo, says he was particularly distraught at the information because Kos was only a month away from becoming a priest. Harris discussed the accusation with Robert Dunn, also a Holy Trinity graduate, who today is a priest in Corpus Christi.

Harris and Dunn, part of a group of conservative seminarians who protested the liberalized dress code by wearing their cassocks every day, decided to report the story. Since Sheehan was out of town, they went to Rehkemper.

“It’s awfully late for this, you know, for this to come up,” Harris recalls the diocesan vicar general saying. “I will take it up with Monsignor Sheehan as soon as he returns.”

Rehkemper later testified that Father Sheehan told him he knew about the incident and was investigating it. Sheehan, also under oath, swore he knew nothing of it.

Rudy Kos’ first assignment as a priest was in a parish in Texarkana, Father Sheehan’s home diocese.

JOHN (A PSEUDONYM) entered Holy Trinity the following fall. His new cassock didn’t look much different from the one he wore as an altar boy at St. Pius in East Dallas, except that it had that ever-so-significant strip of white around the neck. That reminded John how close he was to becoming a priest. Only now he was wondering if he really was fit to wear the Roman Catholic collar.

He says that on his second night at the seminary, during the sacramental rite of reconciliation, he made a confession to his spiritual director, Father Charles Elmer, that he feared might derail his pursuit of the priesthood. John, 18 years old, told Elmer that he possibly, maybe, probably was gay. Elmer didn’t flinch. The priest just talked calmly about sublimating desires and resisting temptation, says John.

Elmer’s nonchalance stunned John — who was relieved to learn that staying celibate was all that mattered. John’s vocation was safe until his junior year, when Miguel (another pseudonym) entered the seminary. Both were philosophy majors, so John and Miguel attended several classes together. They soon began working out together, too, in the seminary’s makeshift basement gym. During free time, the two would catch a movie, go out to eat, or take a walk around campus together. By happenstance, they also were assigned seats next to each other in chapel.

Miguel was an outspoken liberal who loved to stir up trouble. During Mass, when an older seminarian asked for prayers for the American armed forces, Miguel would add, “and for the innocent people of Guatemala being bombed unjustly by the United States, Lord, hear our prayer.” The other seminarians would snicker, John would glance up at Miguel and smile.

They developed what is called a “particular friendship” in seminary vernacular, meaning it was widely speculated that the two were physically intimate. They weren’t — yet.

Just before Christmas break of 1982, Miguel attended a workshop on homosexuality led by Father Michael Jamail, the vicar general of Beaumont, who regularly visited Holy Trinity to give presentations on complicated, usually sexual, topics.

A psychologist and canon lawyer, Jamail told the gathered seminarians, “You who are gay among us, we need you.” At least that’s what Miguel reported to John, who guessed — but wasn’t sure — that Miguel might be gay, too.

John discussed his latent longings with his new spiritual director. Father Bob Keane, a soft-spoken Jesuit who wore tortoise-shell glasses and no clerical collar and asked the seminarians to call him Bob.

John remembers telling Keane that he and Miguel had planned a spring-break trip to Abilene with two other seminarians. It would be their first time alone together away from campus, and there was a possibility the two would be sharing a bed.

“If there is a chance for something,” John told Keane, “I know I’m going to grab it.”

All that Keane said in response, John recalls, was, “I’ll be here to listen when you get back.”

John and Miguel did share a bed, in which they kissed and caressed each other, and for weeks afterward were virtually inseparable around The House. John says he and Miguel often sneaked into each other’s rooms after “total silence” at 11 p.m. to talk and hug and kiss.

But the relationship ended abruptly one morning when the impetuous Miguel arose during Mass to ask for prayers “for greater understanding and compassion from the Church for gays and lesbians.” An uneasy silence hovered in the chapel. Eyes darted. John was mortified to think that the entire seminary was in on his secret.

He went to Father Keane.

“If I have the possibility of loving someone so much,” John asked his advisor, crying, “do I have any right to be a priest?”

John says he will never forget Keane’s answer.

“If you didn’t have the capacity to love so much,” Keane replied, “you would have no right to be a priest.”

(Father Keane declined to comment on the conversation.)

MIGUEL DIDN’T MAKE it to ordination, but John did, after which he was assigned to a parish in Tyler. He says he was celibate for seven years before succumbing to his urges in three homosexual liaisons. He has since been released from active ministry.

Bobby, the gay student from West Texas, reports a handful of his own homosexual encounters in the seminary.

He says he first danced with another male when a group of upperclassmen got him tipsy at a bar called The Frat House. There also was a Saturday night when a drunk older student approached Bobby in the TV room, he says, and whispered in his ear to come upstairs. Bobby followed the upperclassman to his dorm room, where he answered yes when asked if he was gay. His drunken companion professed to be straight and subjected Bobby to a stern antigay lecture before unzipping Bobby’s pants and fellating him.

Another time, according to Bobby, he found himself in the room of an upset, vulnerable freshman, wanting to take advantage of the boy — sexually.

Convinced by these experiences that he could not in good conscience become a priest, Bobby eventually went to Monsignor Elmer to say he wanted out of Holy Trinity.

Elmer had become rector in 1982 when Monsignor Sheehan was reassigned to the National Council of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. Bobby says Elmer greeted him in his living room, seated in a baby-blue chair, legs crossed, hands folded, illuminated by dim lamplight.

Bobby says he did not explicitly tell Elmer that homosexuality was his reason for wanting to leave, but Bobby nevertheless was certain the rector understood his dilemma. He remembers Elmer speaking calmly. “I am disappointed you are leaving,” the rector said. “You do not have a valid reason to leave.”

Elmer, who was also famously tight-fisted, also reminded Bobby of the expenses involved in quitting.

“You will be costing your diocese a great deal of money,” the rector rebuked him.

(Elmer did not respond to a telephone request for comment.)

By 1985, the increasing openness of gay seminarians at Holy Trinity and other seminaries around the country led William Cardinal Baum of Washington, D.C., to issue an instruction that clarified the Church’s position on homosexuality.

“A homosexual lifestyle, whether one is actively gay or not, is unacceptable,” Baum wrote.
The limits of tolerance had been reached.

That same year, telephones at the Dallas chancery began to ring with reports of seminarians disporting themselves at local gay bars. During Thanksgiving break of 1985, 10 students were notified via Holy Trinity message boards that the rector wished to see them at once. The students quickly figured out that the urgent summonses had something to do with the bars on Cedar Springs. Soon thereafter, five students departed The House.

A year later, 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.

Vice rector at the time was Father Mike Hartwig, a onetime classmate of Monsignor Elmer, who had recruited Hartwig as his academic dean. Tall, thin, young, and athletic, Hartwig was well-liked by students and priests, and was regarded as a fast-track possibility for a bishop’s mitre.

In December 1987, however, Hartwig left the active ministry and subsequently was suspended from the priesthood. Almost everyone at The House knew why. Those who didn’t would figure it out when a select few at Holy Trinity were invited to a housewarming for Hartwig and Don Baker, founder of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance. The two now live together in Boston.

IN THE WAKE of the scandals, Michael Sheehan has continued his ascent in the Catholic hierarchy. At present, he is Archbishop of Santa Fe. Sheehan’s successor, Monsignor Elmer, is now studying canon law in Rome. Also in Rome is Monsignor Rehkemper, who was fired from his position as pastor of All Saints Church after he suggested that the parents of Kos’ victims share much of the blame for what happened to their sons. Father Bob Keane now serves as a chaplain on a U.S. Navy warship.

Kos’ permanent home is now the Texas prison system, where he is serving four life sentences for molesting children. His attorneys are appealing his case, while Kos waits for word from Rome whether or not he is still a priest, albeit a suspended one.

Two other Holy Trinity graduates who admitted to having sex with children have settled civil suits against them out of court. No criminal charges were filed in connection with their cases.

“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, I 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.”

Duca occupies the same office where he sat for an admissions interview with Gerald Hughes in 1970. The same wooden sculpture hangs on the same faux-leather wall: a depiction of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, with Judas hanging in shame in the lower right-hand comer.

Duca is just beginning to formulate his improvement plans.

“I’d like to see these lawns greener,” he says on a stroll around the grounds. “And the basketball court has kind of fallen out of use.” He already has repainted the rafters in the chapel. Noticing a gray spot on an outside wall, he pauses and frowns. “That means we have a leak somewhere,” he says.

The House’s latest rector has all sorts of other redecoration ideas, but “everything has been on hold since the trial,” he says of Kos and the $119 million, sex-abuse judgment that 11 of his victims won in their suit against the Dallas Diocese.

The dining room at Holy Trinity has 14 tables, but only five are usually set. There are still only two wings — the cross remains unfinished — and there are plenty of empty bedrooms.

But this is certainly not the same House that produced many Dallas priests, including Rudy Kos, in the 1970s and ’80s. The 34 seminarians who wander the halls have never heard of the sick room or any of its scandals. The 10-by-10-foot cranny at the far end of a basement corridor is nothing but a large laundry closet — with a distinctly antiseptic scent.

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