Opinion & Analysis

Addressing the roots of clergy sex abuse

7:26 PM, July 2, 2019

Philippines:Priests not capable of change or undergoing therapy are better dismissed from the priesthood.

This is the final part of a three-part series from Redemptorist Father Amado Picardal on the clerical sex abuse crisis.

At the root of clergy sex abuse is the "dark side" of leadership. To overcome the dark side, a priest must be aware of it and acknowledge its existence. This requires spending time in solitude, silence and prayerful reflection.

This is a time spent for examining his life and conscience. This should be done regularly and be part of the rhythm of his life. This is a time for introspection — to examine the lights and the shadows of his exercise of leadership.

This is the time to see the ulterior motives behind deeds and behavior. The question that one must constantly ask is: "Which temptation am I most vulnerable to? How far have I succumbed to the temptation of the dark side?"

Acknowledging that he is a sinner and have submitted to domination from the dark side is the first step. There is a need to recognize and struggle against his personal demons.

This requires going through a process of conversion (metanoia) — a conversion to Christ, a moral conversion — to change how he behaves and how he lives.

This means striving to become a better version of himself. Acknowledging that he is a sinner, he strives to be a saint. From being a hireling, he strives to become a good shepherd.

If the dark side has deep psychological roots, the priest must not hesitate to avail of professional help. This means going to a psychotherapist or to a center that can help him in facing and overcoming his dark side. There are already such renewal centers designed for the clergy and religious.

As the chief shepherd of a diocese and the spiritual father of its priests, this bishop has the primary responsibility to promote renewal and conversion among the clergy.

While he must be patient and compassionate, he should not abdicate his responsibility of admonishing and correcting erring priests. He does this by engaging in dialogue with them, reporting complaints he has received from lay people and fellow priests, including his own observation and getting their side. He should not tolerate any misconduct and scandal among his priests. Sanctions should be used when the erring priest remains incorrigible and unrepentant.

To be credible and above reproach, the bishop himself must constantly examine his own life, his behavior and actions. The bishop is not immune to the dark side. He can also, God forbid, be dominated by the drive for sensual pleasure, material possession and wealth, power and prestige.

The shepherd himself can also become lost. That is why he himself needs to be aware of his own weaknesses and sinfulness and his need for personal conversion and redemption.

Correcting erring priests should not only be the responsibility of the bishop. The presbyterium, the collegial body of priests in a diocese, must also be engaged in fraternal correction.

Priests should be able to mutually affirm and appreciate the good things that they are doing and to admonish those who fail to live up to the ideals of the priesthood whether informally or formally — during meetings and recollections.

There is a need to develop a corporate culture among the clergy where everyone is encouraged and inspired to live up to the high standards of the priesthood and those whose behavior is inappropriate or sinful can be corrected.

Such a clerical culture, while compassionate, should be intolerant of any wrongdoing. They should never cover up the misconduct and immoral deeds of their fellow priests.

Regular periods of communal examination of conscience and celebration of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation should be scheduled. This can be done not only during annual clergy retreats but also during Advent and Lent.

Professional intervention

The dark side, which has psychological origins, is very difficult to deal with and may require professional intervention. This means availing of counseling and other intensive programs that can help priests turn from the dark side.

Some priests afflicted with this dark side, whose origin is pathological, should not have been accepted into the formation program or should not have been ordained. If they are not capable of change or undergoing therapy it would be better to dismiss them from the priesthood.

Those with criminal liability should be held to account for their misdeeds before the civil authorities.

The responsibility to deal with the dark side of leadership should not only be left to each individual — whether it is the priest or the bishop. There should be a mechanism and protocol in place at parish and diocesan level.  

At parish level, a feedback mechanism can be introduced whereby parishioners can express their views on how the priest and parochial vicars are exercising their leadership role. This should include both appreciation (the bright side) and complaints (the dark side).

Suggestions and recommendations should also be included. Parishioners should feel free to approach their priests to give their feedback. This can also be done in writing. This feedback is important and the pastor should listen to them.

Parish pastoral council meetings and assemblies are venues to get feedback from parishioners. A pastoral visit is also an occasion for the bishop to hear feedback from parishioners regarding their priests.

At diocesan level, there should also be a mechanism for parish members to give feedback to the bishop regarding their priests — both positive and negative. This feedback can also be submitted to the diocesan personnel board.

Records should be kept at the chancery and be made available if there are investigations to be made. This can be made available to the nunciature in case a priest is considered for the episcopacy.

Protocols regarding clergy sexual abuse should be implemented. But this should be widened to include financial mismanagement and other forms of abuse of authority.

A thorough investigation should be made to check the veracity of the complaints. Appropriate intervention should be made and sanctions applied.

The feedback mechanism should also be applied to the bishop. The priests, religious and the faithful should also be able to express their positive appreciation as well as their complaints to the bishop. Without this, the bishop may feel that he is doing very well and fail to see that he has already succumbed to the temptation of the dark side.

He must be able to accept both praise and criticism. Failure to listen can lead to a crisis of leadership and loss of credibility. It will be very difficult for him to lead a diocese when the clergy and faithful turn against him. When this happens the only recourse for them is to appeal to a higher authority to whom the bishop is accountable.

The Church has been wracked with scandal and weakened due to her leaders who have been dominated by the dark side. This should never be allowed to happen again.

Ultimately, the only way to overcome the dark side of leadership is to live in the light, to undergo a constant process of conversion and to become humble, loving, compassionate good shepherds and servant-leaders, following the example of Jesus.

To read the first part of the series on the clerical sex abuse crisis click here and to read the second part click here.

Father Amado Picardal is a 64-year-old Filipino Redemptorist priest who holds a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He now lives a life of solitude, silence and writing as a hermit after an active life as missionary, professor, promoter of Basic Ecclesial Communities, peace and human rights advocate.

Source: UCAN

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