Clergy Suicides Tip of Depression Iceberg: Clergy Mental Health Long Neglected

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1993 | Go to article overview
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Clergy Suicides Tip of Depression Iceberg: Clergy Mental Health Long Neglected


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


Clergy mental health long neglected

The highly publicized suicides of two priests in recent months have raised questions of just how serious the fallout on clerical sexual abuse has become. Both deaths would have gone almost unnoticed were it not for the fact that each priest had a record of alleged sexual abuse of at least one minor. Both were older men with good clerical records.

The first, from the Arlington, Va., diocese, had been a chancery official; the second was a popular, effective Baltimore pastor. Each used a shotgun. Neither had been formally charged, but there were hints of a history of episodic abuse.

Are there others? Are offenders being driven to suicide? Not according to knowledgeable sources contacted by NCR.

John Keenan, priest-psychologist, said the primary cause of suicide among priests is the same as among laypeople: depression. Keenan is founder and director of Trinity House, a Chicago-based, institutionally independent treatment center for priests and religious, some of whom are sexual abusers.

"Cases like those are aberrations," Keenan said. "I don't know the statistics on clerical suicides," he added. "They would be hard to uncover, and you still wouldn't uncover the men who committed suicide slowly by drinking themselves to death. But we can say that the primary cause is depression."

One major Catholic university had three clerical suicides in a single summer session. Such a statistic suggests an epidemic, but it would be misleading. Often, priests suffering from depression are farmed out to universities - sometimes at their own request - for higher studies. Not long ago, a Chicago priest died of "liver failure." He had a record of sexual abuse and of only partial success in treatment. One observer said: "He just wanted to die. There was a pill addiction, but it was depression that killed him."

While these priests may be involved in sexual abuse, this observer continued, they need not be pedopbiles. "Instead, we should be looking at their depression and possible alcohol or drug addiction that is often part of the picture," he said.

Any discussion of sexual abuse involving minors can readily get emotionally charged. Church officials still pick their words carefully, as if searching for unexploded land mines in Kuwait. Impatient observers want abusers to be punished to the full extent of the law and then driven from the priesthood. Priests grow increasingly discouraged at the prospect that their clerical files are being searched for any evidence of misconduct.

The climate of suspicion is clearly keeping young men from entering the priesthood and may be causing others to leave the seminary and active ministry. One priest observed simply: "Maybe this is God's way of bringing us to our knees."

Although it is clearly not a way God would have chosen, there is evidence the church has been brought kicking and screaming to its knees. Interviews for this story found people far more open than they had been in the past. It is as if they had reached Step Five in the 12-step program made famous by Alcoholies Anonymous: "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Further, out of the morass of conflicts that have come from the scandals, a kind of institutional 12-step program is emerging.

The sexual abuse crisis is changing the way priests are recruited and trained. It is making mental health care respectable among a previously pseudo-macho corps of men who could once admit only to hernias or bad backs without losing face. It has caused a growing number of bishops to apologize and ask forgiveness on the part of the institution. It is gradually changing the way priests live. It is having an impact - not always a positive one - on how clergy approach their ministry. It is bringing clergy up to speed - and beyond those in other professions who have yet to admit that they suffer, even from zits.

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Clergy Suicides Tip of Depression Iceberg: Clergy Mental Health Long Neglected
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