Avoiding Another Abuse Crisis
Interview with Psychologist Phil Scrofani

By Karna Swanson
June 4, 2008

The best approach to avoiding another sexual abuse crisis in the Church is to prevent candidates with tendencies toward pedophilia from becoming priests, says psychologist Phil Scrofani.

Scrofani, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is an assistant professor and director of clinical training at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a Catholic graduate school of psychology in Arlington, Virginia.

He will be a speaker at the seminar "Psychology Serving Pastoral Ministry," organized by the Institute for the Psychology Sciences, and sponsored in collaboration with the Sacerdos Institute.

The Aug. 11-15 seminar, to take place in Bethesda, Maryland, will address the need for psychological expertise when working with candidates for the priesthood. Scrofani will conduct a daylong conference titled "Discerning Psychological Problems: A Seminar for Priests."

In this interview with ZENIT, Scrofani discusses the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, as well as the role of psychology in the process of screening applicants for the priesthood.

Q: During Benedict XVI's trip to the United States in April, the Pope addressed the sexual abuse crisis in which more than 4,000 U.S. priests have been accused of abusing minors since the 1950s. The Holy Father made a pledge to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood, and added that it was more important to have good priests, than many priests. What can the Church do to make this happen?

Scrofani: Most seminaries have already made major strides in this regard by instituting formal procedures for doing psychological screens on seminary applicants. Of course, screens were done in the past to identify individuals who might have psychological impediments that would curtail their capacity to complete seminary and to later fulfill the very complex demands of the priesthood. Unfortunately, the screening process was in many cases not very thorough and less effort was made to identify people who might be prone toward a distorted view of human sexuality.

Currently, many seminaries are utilizing psychologists who have greater expertise in psychological screening for the priesthood. The screeners tend to use a more complete battery of psychological tests and they are more focused on issues in the applicant's history and presentation that address psychosexual maturity. The role of a carefully compiled developmental history cannot be overemphasized and it is also important to get other impressions about the applicant from people who know them well.

Seminaries also need to continually revise their impressions of a seminarian as they move through the preparatory process, addressing any issue that might be of concern involving one's ability to relate to others and one's character traits.

Of paramount importance for all concerned is the need for a clear understanding of the human person that is consistent with the Church teachings, particularly with respect to the role of sexuality. There is no room for compromise in this respect, since a lax attitude regarding chastity and sexual inclinations in the past has partially contributed to the crisis.

Q: What are the main elements of treating a priest who has sexually abused minors?

Scrofani: Treating people who have a history of sexually abusing minors is difficult and often ineffective. The recidivism rate is quite high in this population and the perpetrators also tend to be burdened with other, co-morbid psychological conditions such as substance abuse, alcoholism, depression and various personality disorders. The best approach is careful screening and prevention in the first place.

Q: The Pope said that in many cases the crisis was "badly handled." From a psychological standpoint, what should the Church have done and what can it do in the future to help the victims trust the Church and its clergy again?

Scrofani: The Church is now attempting to take aggressive measures in dealing with this major problem. Many of the past tragedies could have been avoided or at least curtailed if more aggressive action was taken. The Church must now follow a zero tolerance posture toward any form of exploitation of young people.

There should be formal training for both clergy and adult parishioners on a regular basis that is based upon the principles advocated by the Church. "At-risk" behavior, or behavior that even creates the impression of impropriety, should be carefully outlined along with clear reporting lines.

Former victims who are willing to join the effort in making the Church a safe place for children once again can be an invaluable source of information about how their vulnerability was exploited. Research-oriented clinicians should be tapped to help organize information gathering. Clergy, parishioners and former victims should collaborate in developing prevention procedures.

Church hierarchy should be visibly and abundantly involved in the process and the Holy Father's presence should be felt throughout the Church on this issue.

Q: How much did the Pope accomplish in the process of healing for the victims and the Church in the United States? Is the Church ready to move past this crisis?

Scrofani: It appears that this Pope and Pope John Paul II made courageous first strides toward correcting this tragedy. The work needs to be continued to the point where victims and their organizations feel more satisfied with the measures.

As indicated, those victims who want to have a genuinely positive impact on these efforts can be a valuable source of information and understanding.

Q: In a conference this summer on the role of psychology in the formation of priests and religious, you speak of how to discern psychological problems. What is the difference between a personality disorder and a mental illness? Can priests and religious with personality orders be successful in their vocation?

Scrofani: Technically, personality disorders are classified as bona fide diagnostic categories and therefore qualify as formal psychology conditions, or more traditionally, forms of mental illness. They are more difficult to identify than other mental conditions like anxiety disorders, depression or major mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. This is because they usually involve how people deal with relationships to a large extent and this takes time.

Any personality disorder in its more severe form would be a problem for a person confronted with the challenges of seminary life and the priesthood. Certain types of personality disorders are very problematic even in a mild or moderate form and represent cause for immediately screening out an applicant. These would include conditions such as an antisocial personality, paranoid personality, schizoid and schizotypal personality. Other personality disorders in the dramatic category, like narcissistic personality and histrionic personality are likely to represent major problems.

It is possible that persons with very mild forms of avoidant personality, dependent personality and obsessive compulsive personality could adjust to the rigors of certain religious orders or even diocesan life, but the community or hierarchy would have to make a commitment to support treatment for these persons and to supplement for their areas of vulnerability or compromised performance. This is often not possible.

Although the Church must be prudent in its selection of people for religious life, we are not in any way implying that people with mental illnesses or psychological conditions cannot as laypersons be remarkably holy followers of Christ, and even saintly.

Q: What is the role of psychologists in vocational evaluations? What kind of psychological profile would tend to be associated with later problems?

Scrofani: Psychologists are critical to the screening process. They bring interview skills and psychological testing skills to the table when evaluating applicants.

Generally speaking, any major psychological condition is a problem in selection. Traits that are consistent with categories of personality disorder require more deliberation and judgment.


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