Scandal Reverberates in U.S. Priests' Lives

By Huet-Vaughn, Emiliano | National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2007 | Go to article overview

Scandal Reverberates in U.S. Priests' Lives


Huet-Vaughn, Emiliano, National Catholic Reporter


Five years after cases of child sex abuse in the Catholic church broke in the national media, priests across the country report that their public image still suffers because of it and ramifications from both the abuse and the church's handling of it continue to be felt today.

Priests are angry with church leaders for what they perceive to be a shirking of responsibility by the hierarchy for its part in perpetuating past sex abuse through cover-ups and reassignments of pedophile priests. But priests also express concern about their own rights, fearing a church practice of sheltering guilty priests has been replaced by one that inadvertently punishes the innocent along with the guilty.

Priests also say fear of accusation has created an overcautious climate, leading them to pull back from youth ministry, jeopardizing priests' role as a provider of spiritual guidance to young Catholics.

"A priest talked to me last week and said he used to have a pretty dynamic relationship with minors and a good ministry to minors," said psychologist Fr. Stephen J. Rossetti of St. Luke's Institute in Washington. "He said, 'I'd never do that again.'"

Rossetti's words were echoed by many other priests interviewed, who collectively painted a portrait of a clergy engaging in a self-imposed scaling back of their youth ministry. The interviewees represent Catholic populations in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and the District of Columbia. They came both from dioceses hit hard by the sex abuse scandal, such as Boston; Davenport, Iowa; San Diego; and Tucson, Ariz.--the later three having sought bankruptcy protection because of lawsuits related to sex abuse --and from other places where documented abuse was less pervasive.

The consensus gleaned from the conversations is that after the sex abuse crisis, most priests, regardless of diocesan location, are now loath to let themselves be unsupervised with children or teenagers.

Priests see this caution as a prudent move both for their own protection and for the protection of minors. Some among them welcome the sea change in priestly behavior as indicative of an overdue recognition by fellow priests that they are not invulnerable.

But while the heightened caution in dealing with minors helps minimize risks for all involved, it also impedes the success of youth ministry, priests report.

"I know of one parish in Chicago where one pastor said that neither he nor the younger associates could possibly organize teenagers because that would get them in trouble," said Fr. Andrew Greeley, who splits his time between Chicago and a parish in Tucson.

Such reluctance is a problem, said Fr. Robert Silva, until last year president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, which represents approximately 25,000 priests in the United States through 123 councils. "The ability of the priest to be a spiritual director," Silva said, and for priest and parishioner to be "close and revealing with one another--that's at the heart of the relationship, and yet it can't be anymore."

Recent research by sociologist Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame's National Study of Youth and Religion leads him to conclude that the Catholic church ranks lowest of all major American denominations in devoting money and personnel to teenagers. Greeley, a sociologist affiliated with the University of Arizona at Tucson and the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, speculates that "one of the reasons for that finding is that priests are backing away from young people" since 2002, which Greeley calls "a terrible mistake."

The decision to step away from the young has far-reaching consequences, not only for the spiritual health of Catholic youth but also for the viability of the church in the United States, priests warn.

Rossetti noted that the connection between priests and young people encourages vocations. …

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