Priests and their bishops: In wake of clergy abuse scandal, tensions remain

Catholic World Report [San Francisco CA]

October 25, 2022

By Kathy Schiffer

The Catholic Project, an initiative at The Catholic University of America, recently conducted the largest study of Catholic priests in over 50 years. What emerges is a picture of a priesthood that is fraught with distrust.

Twenty years after the U.S. Bishops implemented the Dallas Charter, a nationwide policy for handling accusations of clerical abuse, priests still feel the effects. One of the most compelling problems identified in a landmark survey is the sense on the part of priests that they cannot trust their bishops.

The Catholic Project, an initiative at The Catholic University of America, recently conducted the largest study of Catholic priests in over 50 years. A survey was distributed to 10,000 priests, 3,516 of whom responded. Of those, interviewers conducted in-depth interviews with more than 100 priests. In addition, The Catholic Project surveyed U.S. Bishops, and received responses from 131 of them.

What emerges is a picture of a priesthood that is fraught with distrust. The survey showed that while most priests are happy in their vocation and support the Church’s strict sexual abuse policies as delineated in the Dallas Charter, they also fear being falsely accused, and they do not feel confident that their bishops would support them if a fraudulent claim was submitted. “Most priests agree with the Church’s response to the abuse crisis,” said Brandon Vaidyanathan, researcher for The Catholic Project, “but also fear that their bishops wouldn’t have their backs if they were falsely accused.”

The study, published under the title “Well-being, Trust and Policy in a Time of Crisis,” points to a gap between priests’ and bishops’ awareness of the problem. Asked how well they would help their priests with personal struggles if they asked for assistance, 92% of bishops said yes, they would gladly step in to help. The perception of priests was sharply different, with only 36% expressing confidence that their bishop would help if approached.

While only 4% of priests reported that they are considering leaving the priesthood, 45% of priests reported at least one symptom of burnout, ranging from feelings of cynicism, to being emotionally drained, to feeling worn out after ministry work.

And where can priests turn for emotional, spiritual, and social support? Again, research by The Catholic Project painted a gloomy picture of priests’ confidence in their leadership. Ninety-two percent of the respondents said that they would turn to lay friends for support, with almost as many (88%) relying on their family, and 87% naming parishioners as a major source of support. Only 60% said that they would turn to their own bishop.

Priests’ comments on the study revealed a widespread discouragement. “Life-ending accusation doesn’t have to be based in any reality,” one respondent said. “…It can just come out of somebody’s three years of recovered memory, therapy, and have no ground in anything that ever really happened, but you’re still doomed when it happens.”

Another respondent spoke for all priests when he said, “Among the priests, there is this general sense, first, that the bishops don’t have our backs…. There’s this sense…that the bishops are against a priest who’s been accused, rather than doing what the bishop must do but still supporting the priest.”

A personal friend of mine, a priest, said candidly, “Off the record? Generally speaking, I would not trust a bishop as far as I could throw him.”

When a wound becomes infected, the effective treatment is to open the wound, exposing the infected tissue to the air and allowing it to drain. So, too, with personal relationships – to begin the healing process, the barrier between the clergy and the hierarchy must identified and exposed before healing can begin. And bishops with the best of intentions may have, until now, been unaware of how their episcopal leadership has left their priests nervously avoiding interpersonal contact. One bishop interviewed by The Pillar called last week’s report “a wake-up call.”

The report by The Catholic Project is the painful yet necessary scraping of a wound – a wound which has kept the Church from being all that it can be to its priests and its people. Now that the problem has been identified, it will fall to the bishops to seek new ways of relating to their priests.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops convenes for their Fall General Assembly next month (November 14-17), they will certainly consider the synthesis published at the conclusion of the Diocesan Phase of the 2021-2023 Synod. That report, too, focused on enduring wounds caused by the sexual abuse scandal. That report, too, cited the problem of trust:

“Trust in the hierarchy of the Church is weak and needs to be strengthened. The sex abuse scandals and the way the Church leadership handled the situation are seen as one of the strongest causes of a lack of trust and credibility on the part of the faithful. Feedback revealed the strong, lingering wound caused by the abuse of power and the physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse of the most innocent in our community. There was a recognition that this pain has had a compounding effect on priests and lay ministers’ willingness to develop closer relationships with the people they serve due to a fear of being misinterpreted or falsely accused.”

But with the problem exposed by The Catholic Project, the bishops will need to look, too, at how to heal their personal relationships with the priests who are their hands and their voices, and who carry the Church’s message to the people of God. Let the work begin, and let us join with them in prayer – prayer that clergy and hierarchy, with their shared love of God and shared commitment to His will, might be able to foster deeper relationships based on mutual respect and trust.