News that their pastor was charged with sex trafficking has devastated members of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in ways that could cause some to leave the church.
Scandals occur in other church denominations, to be sure, and they all are painful. But experts point out that for Catholics, a scandal involving a priest — in Catholic tradition the mediator between people and their God — is even more devastating.
“They feel betrayed. They feel embarrassed,” said William Payne, professor of evangelism and world missions and director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary. “That embarrassment is going to go down to your soul. It’s also going to make you angry that this happened, because this shouldn’t happen.”
Church members will be dealing with the pain for a long time, said Marcos Ghali, assistant professor of counseling at Ashland Theological Seminary Counseling Program. Members are experiencing something like the stages of grief.
“When you hear this sort of news, you go in denial. You maybe go in, like, anger, resentment, and maybe you will distance yourself for a while from church, from even everything that is relating to God and faith, because now you’re not really standing on solid ground — especially when these cases of abuse have been persistent now for some time,” Ghali said. “When you hear one after the other, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, like when you tell yourself, ‘See, I told you. It is all fake’ or ‘You can’t trust religion anymore.’”
“So, yes, the person will go through many phases of anger, denial, shock, resentment, sometimes despair, especially if the individual is not solid in their faith,” he said.
For any Catholic, the pain can be deeper than for those of other denominations facing a clergy scandal.
“In the Roman Catholic tradition, the relationship between the person and the church is mediated by the priest and the sacramental office. So that’s very essential, because the priest is the gateway into the church and the church is the mother of salvation,” Payne said. “So normally, you’re not going to say ‘I have my own faith in Jesus Christ, and the church is important, but it’s not necessary to me.’ That’s not going to happen with Catholics. That will happen with nondenominational people, with some Protestants and (others) who are spiritual but not religious. You’re not going to hear that in Catholicism, because of the relationship between the sacramental community, the priest and the people.”
“So when they lose faith in the priest, that’s the face of the denomination. That’s the face of the church, and it’s going to affect your ability to hold onto, and manage your own sense of spiritual orientation and identity,” Payne said. “You’d have to say, ‘What am I going to do when my anchor, my spiritual rock, the person that I looked to, to provide me that connection with God, to give me the sacraments, to listen to my confession, to promise me the grace of God, now is himself a fallen — and what appears to be corrupted — person who never merited that respect to begin with. It’s going to have a relational, spiritual fallout in the person’s life.”
Payne compared the situation to a marriage in which one partner had an affair.
“Even if you make up, there’s always going to be a sour taste in your mouth. There is always going to be a sense of mistrust,” he said. “’Is this person still cheating on me?’ and ‘Is this person going to cheat on me again?’”
“So it is a problem because Roman Catholics, theologically, they need the church for salvation. You have to have it. That makes it a problem,” Payne said. “What are you going to do? You can’t turn away from the church because the church is the keeper of the sacraments. It’s the keeper of the truth. It’s the mediator of God.”
Ghali said people struggling with the priest scandal can benefit from understanding that priests, like other leaders, are human.
Still, that’s easier said than done, he said: “The enormity of sexual abuse can overshadow any understanding of the human nature of the priest.”
But the church can also play a role in helping people cope.
“There must be a lot of talking and education of the congregation about the priestly order, about the nature of leadership and how leaders can become very lonely,” Ghali said.
Parents also need to talk to their children.
“If the church has a problem, it doesn’t mean God has a problem. We need to also separate between the person and the mistake and God and the church,” Ghali said. “This is hard, but we need to understand that the church also has an earthly component which is human beings, and the human being is broken.”
The Catholic Church needs to give the members of St. Michael’s time, space and help for healing, he said. Unity in the church must be restored.
“Not that it will be around a priest or a certain figure, but just the church as the body of Christ,” Ghali said. “Restoration may be through just mere social events, little gatherings here and there. Prayer time, healing time.”
People in these circumstances need crisis counseling.
“If (the church) can provide pro bono counselors or free counselors just to have people talk and find someone to listen. It’s hard. I can’t imagine the things they are going through currently,” he said. “It is exactly as in crisis counseling. … They don’t try to fix the problem, but you should just try to address the immediate needs of the person in crisis, which is to feel safety, to feel that you are listened to. To have a voice, to talk about what you are going through without judgment, without even taking actions. Just space to talk, feel listened to and that you are safe.”
“They need to give the people a place to express their emotions and dismays, and it needs to be done in a way in which nobody’s trying to protect the Catholic Church,” he said. “The Catholic Church has a long history of dealing with its problems by blaming victims for it.”
St. Michael parishioners “are going to have to find some constructive way to vent, to let off the steam, to process the crisis so that they come to resolution, and that resolution is going to allow them to pick up their ball and continue their life of faithfulness to the church and to God,” Payne said. “If you don’t allow them to go through a process, many of them will just cut and run. That’s what happens all over the place.”