The recent news story out of Canada about a man who extorted money from a priest under the threat of a false allegation of sexual abuse reminds me of how vulnerable priests have become in today’s culture. This seems to be true in both secular and ecclesiastical culture.
Ever since the sexual abuse scandal broke over ten years ago, good priests have complained that they frequently do not get the kind of support from their bishop that they would expect when faced with allegations of misconduct. The attitude of many bishops seems to have changed from an assumption of innocence to a desire to distance oneself as quickly as possible from anyone who is accused. While guilty priests must be promptly removed from priestly service, not all who are accused are guilty.
In a new climate in which the very rumor of abuse can destroy a priest’s reputation, his ministry and even his psychological equilibrium, priests often cannot rely on the episcopal support necessary to preserve order in the chaos. In some ways, at least for more orthodox and outspoken priests, this situation is not entirely new. In many—probably most—dioceses in the United States and many other Western countries since at least 1970, those priests who have been most devoted to the doctrine and discipline of the Church have frequently found themselves unwelcome in the chancery, farmed out to the provinces, and even sent for psychological evaluation or theological retraining.
In some very real ways, therefore, the situation has gone from living under a cloud because of episcopal sins to living under an even bigger cloud because of the failure of bishops to deal decisively with the sins of other priests. In such circumstances, surely, it must take considerable courage to continue. Moreover, priests who are sent into parishes that have been badly served in the past often face exceptional trials, including active hostility in their own flocks.
But there are other factors as well. First, whenever money is to be made—and there is big money in claims of sexual abuse against the Catholic Church—those who wish to profit from false accusations come forward. Sometimes they are led by lawyers who know they themselves can reap the lion’s share of the settlements. I’m not claiming that the majority of accusations are false. That is something I have no way of knowing, and I certainly have no desire to diminish respect for those that are true. But in today’s “bare your soul” culture of instant celebrity—and you need only to listen to radio talk shows or watch “Reality TV” to grasp this—many people are eager to say things about themselves that they would have yearned to keep secret a generation ago. It follows logically that what they do say will sometimes be invented to produce that coveted moment of fame. Apparently, any attention is good attention.
Second, the surrounding culture where most of our readers live is by no means as favorable to the Church and the priesthood as it was, say, in the first half of the twentieth century, though there have certainly been periods in history when the dominant culture despised priestly ministry more than it does now. Between the breakdown in social decorum, increasing secularism, and the rise of typically anti-Catholic movements such as the movements in favor of sexual license, abortion and the gay lifestyle, it is no longer uncommon for priests to be mocked or even intimidated, sometimes even by angry parishioners or random groups they may encounter when they are out and about.
Finally, the sharp recent decline in the number of priests available to serve a relatively stable Catholic population ensures that the vast majority of priests are overworked. All things considered, then, it takes more than ordinary strength and courage to serve as a priest today: to continue year after year, to avoid anxiety and depression, to keep one’s temper, to remain not only effective but cheerful.
A good priest is always vulnerable in precisely the same way that anyone who opens himself in love is vulnerable. When we keep expectations low and don’t risk much, it is hard to get hurt. But to love is to lower our defenses, to enter into the life of another and let him respond as he wills, for better or for worse. This is a way of life for the priest, just as it was for the great priestly prototype, Jesus Christ. And with today’s full combination of pressures, priests are perhaps more vulnerable than ever.
Unlike many problems in the Church and the world, this is one problem we can do something about. We can pray for priests in general, and particularly those priests who serve us. We can also make a point of providing moral support, assuring priests by our actions and words that we deeply appreciate their ministry and place a supreme value on their presence in our midst. To me, this is at once so natural and so important a response that I have difficulty understanding those who, because of the sins of a few, withdraw their support and encouragement from the many.
Does this seem trite? It shouldn’t. In addition to everything else they may do—teaching, counseling, encouraging, organizing, administering—priests are individually and as a group the sacramental dynamo that makes the Church go—indeed, the sacramental dynamo that makes our very lives go now and forever. Catholics who love Christ and care about the Church must, as a matter of deep personal obligation, show love and support for priests. Again, at the very least this means daily prayer. But it also means attending to their other needs as they may manifest themselves; and, simple as it may seem, it means expressing encouragement and gratitude at every reasonable opportunity for the good that they do.
If we have not yet done so, it is time to make support of priests a trademark of our Catholic identity.
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Posted by: 30 year priest -
Aug. 25, 2011 1:34 PM ET USA
As one who was "reported" to DCFS (and summarily evicted from his rectory) by my archbishop solely on the basis of an anonymous tip of "child endangerment"--His Eminence never bothering to question either the adolescent or his family beforehand, nor bothering even to apologize after the whole matter was proven to be caused by animus against me as pastor--I have never found words as consoling as yours. They make me weep each time I read them. Thank you so much!
Posted by: -
Aug. 24, 2011 8:48 AM ET USA
After reading this I am reminded of the verses written by Catherine Doherty, foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate: See http://www.madonnahouse.org/programs/priests.html