Most U.S. Catholic Priests Fear False Abuse Allegations, Study Finds

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

October 19, 2022

By Francis X. Rocca

Eighty-two percent of Catholic priests in the U.S. fear being falsely accused of sex abuse, according to a study released Wednesday by researchers at the Catholic University of America.

The survey, which the university says is the largest of its kind in more than 50 years, also found that only 51% of diocesan priests in the U.S. think their bishops would support them if they were falsely accused of abuse, and only 36% think their diocese would provide them with sufficient resources to defend themselves in court.

Only 24% of all U.S. priests surveyed expressed confidence in the decision-making and leadership of the U.S. bishops in general. 

The study comes 20 years after U.S. bishops adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy in response to sex abuse, requiring permanent removal of a priest from ministry after a single act of sex abuse of a minor. The study found that 40% of priests think the policy—which doesn’t apply to the bishops themselves—is harsher than necessary.

“Many priests fear that in the present climate, it has become all too easy to falsely accuse priests of abuse. A single allegation, even if proven false, can destroy a priest’s reputation permanently,” said a summary report of the study released by the Washington, D.C., university. “Many priests told us in the interviews they did not have a clear understanding of the process in their diocese for how allegations against a priest would be handled.”

Michael Mazza, a Wisconsin-based lawyer who has represented priests accused of abuse, said he wasn’t surprised at the percentage of clergy who said they feared false allegations. “In my experience, it’s a nearly universal phenomenon where they’re frightened of being falsely accused,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear right now of liability and of bad press. … Years ago we didn’t care about the victim, and now we don’t care about the accused priests.”

In 2020, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reported 4,250 allegations of abuse; all but 22 of those were historical allegations from previous decades. From 2004 to 2020, Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. spent $4.3 billion on costs related to abuse allegations, mostly in payments to victims and attorneys’ fees, according to the bishops conference.

Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, N.J., chairman of the bishops conference’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, said the study underscored “the importance of being always attentive to the care of our priests with the ever-growing stressors they experience in ministry, while we strive to address any issues that have damaged the unique relationship we enjoy.”

The survey also found that 45% of priests reported experiencing at least one symptom of “ministry burnout”: cynicism, feeling emotionally drained or feeling worn out after ministry work. But it determined that answers to a set of questions on well-being showed that 77% of the priests could be described as “flourishing.”

Bishop Checchio said he was “heartened that the results report priests have such a high level of vocational fulfillment and that they remain positive about their priestly ministry.”

Priests who belong to religious orders, who made up about a third of the sample, feel more supported by their superiors than diocesan priests, the study found. Eighty-six percent of priests in religious orders said they thought their superiors would support them in the face of false accusations of abuse. 

The study surveyed 10,000 of 26,807 Catholic priests in the U.S., and received responses from 3,516. It was conducted by researchers in the university’s department of sociology and its Catholic Project, which is dedicated to research, teaching and communication focused on the church’s abuse crisis.  Write to Francis X. Rocca at