Rev Anne F C Richards. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. Volume 5, Issue 2. 2004.
If the shepherd is not fed, he will eat the sheep.
From 1995 until 2001, I served as a member of the senior staff of the Episcopal Bishop of New York. As Canon for Ministry Development, I had responsibilities in a few main areas: I administered the ordination selection process and mentored seminarians and newly ordained clergy; led the “clergy wholeness” initiatives sponsored by the diocese for its ordained clergy; and coordinated misconduct cases involving clergy of the diocese. These roles afforded me an interesting vantage point from which to reflect on the possible causes and meanings of sexual misconduct by ordained persons.
What follows are some thoughts about the current sexual misconduct crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, a crisis that is not limited to that branch of Christianity. It is important to bear in mind that my experience is limited, that I bring my own (largely positive) history as a former Roman Catholic to it, and-most important-that generalizations in this area are almost always misleading. Despite outward appearances, every misconduct case is unique, and close examination of the people involved yields unique circumstances, unique motives, unique truths.
I have been ordained for 16 years and have been involved in the ordination selection process for 13 of those years. Persons are selected for ordination in the Episcopal Church in a very different way than they are in the Roman Catholic Church. In the latter, a man can offer himself for ordination largely “under his own steam”-that is, being motivated solely by his own sense of “call” to the ordained ministry. Although particular Roman Catholic dioceses may have more or less rigorous screening processes once a man has put himself forward, the initial impulse for ordination rests, ordinarily, with the person who wishes to be ordained.
Now, as in the past, it is not unusual for a Roman priest to “recruit” a young (or not so young) man for the priesthood on the basis of his perception of the young man’s potential and gifts. Although this kind of mentoring approach to attracting candidates to the priesthood has its merits, clergy rarely recruit for ordination candidates who differ from themselves-candidates who espouse different (or new) theological views, different views about the church, and so forth. Rather, it has long been acknowledged that clergy who recruit persons for ordination are usually putting forth some aspect of their own character and personal history, in the sense that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” There is a powerful dynamic within any church (as in any institution) to maintain the status quo. Even with the best of intentions, when a priest, on his own, recruits a man for ordination, he is saying, “This person could be like me.” If the recruitment of new clergy were left solely to already ordained clergy, the result would be a body of clergy homogeneous in its ability to challenge a closed hierarchical system that is at least partly corrupted.
This notion of individual “call” as the basis for priesthood has a long history in the church, and its misuse may be one of the reasons that the Roman Church finds itself in the troubling situation it is in. In the early Church (that is, the Church of the first several centuries of the Common Era), there was no operative sense of “call” to ordination. (Bear in mind, also, that in the first 10 centuries of the Church’s life, there was no celibacy requirement attached to priesthood.) In fact, men had to be recruited for ordination. They were recruited on the basis of their having emerged as leaders of their congregations and were thus seen by the lay community as a whole as “naturals” for ordination. Apparently, not many were anxious to be ordained, ordination not being an especially coveted role.
In the monastic orders in the early Church, however, the situation was different. Being a monk or a friar has always meant being celibate, that is, refraining for life from genital sexual expression with anyone. (Celibacy is to be distinguished from “chastity,” which is sexual wholesomeness or virtue broadly conceived and which is asked of all, including married persons.) To live a celibate life successfully, one has to have a true “call” to celibacy; one has to have the sense that celibacy fulfills one as a human being and allows for a full expression of one’s gifts and relationship with God; otherwise, one’s life will be only misery and struggle. The call must be there if the life is to be lived well. In the 11th century, when the Roman Church determined that its institutional life would be best consolidated by having its priests’ loyalties tied solely to the Church, it imposed the celibacy requirement on its clergy. No longer would a priest’s family and property exert influence on him; he would be “married to the church.” From the 11th century onward, then, the sense of “call” from monasticism was artificially imposed on the understanding of priesthood in the Roman Church.
It is impossible to underestimate how profoundly this shift in the understanding of a priest’s sexuality and his relationship to God and the Church has affected the character of the priesthood in the Roman Church. At the very least, it has resulted in a body of priests whose aptitude for priesthood has been evaluated not solely on gifts for priesthood, but on a willingness to attempt the celibate life, most often as an individual heroic “sacrifice” rather than as a true call to celibacy. This elimination of the possibility of marriage or a committed relationship for Roman priests, a decision made often in adolescence or very early in adulthood, can essentially isolate, put aside, or shut down a man’s emotional life in ways that eventually prove unhealthy for him and for the institution.
Thus, in the context of the current crisis in the Roman Church, the first question that must be asked is not, “Why have these men become abusers?” but rather, “Why have these men been ordained?” It cannot be underscored too strongly that, if a man enters the priesthood as a narcissist, he will remain a narcissist. He will be a narcissistic priest, and he will behave as such. There is nothing in the institution of the priesthood, or of the Church, that is by its nature designed to change that, just as there is not in any other profession.
A true call to celibacy is no guarantee that the vow of celibacy will be kept. Some (not all) members of monastic orders are also ordained-that is, they have taken both monastic vows and priestly vows. These “order priests” are responsible only to the head of their monastic order, and they are to be distinguished from “diocesan priests,” who are responsible to the diocesan Bishop and who minister, generally, in parishes, hospitals, and other diocesan jurisdictions. (It is mainly diocesan priests who have captured the headlines recently.)
Many of these monks and “order priests” find the vow of celibacy to which they thought they were called impossible to maintain. There is no way to determine with complete certainty if there is any difference in the rates of their sexual transgression, because all the judicatories have to deal with are the transgressions that are reported, not the transgressions that actually occur. The rates of reporting, however, are comparable, especially when one takes into account that there are far fewer order priests than diocesan priests in both the Roman and the Episcopal Churches. The public impression that there is a lower incidence of sexual transgression among order priests probably results from the fact that monks and order priests generally (not always) lead a more circumscribed life than diocesan priests; the former have less access to people outside the community, which also means that their sexual relationships are often with each other and thus sometimes remain secret.
That the public hears less about the transgressions of order priests is also probably a result of the extra layer of institutional protection afforded by the structure of their order and the fact that the Bishop is not closely overseeing their internal affairs. The religious literature from the Middle Ages onward contains strong innuendos about the sexual lives of monastics, including a stream of “spiritual friendship” literature that speaks fairly explicitly of sexual or sexualized relationships among monks living together in community. These relationships become especially problematical when the men involved are in an unequal power relationship-for example, a novice master and a novice. Such a relationship not only can jeopardize the order legally, it will also destroy the possibility of, say, a novice being able truly to discern his call.
Also, generally speaking, the monastic orders have no more thorough screening processes than does the larger church itself. Sometimes their screening process consists simply of the MMPI and an interview with an “in-house” psychologist (often another monk). This process is sufficient for only the rare candidate, especially given the highly romanticized image of the monk. A “flight from the world” may cover a highly repressed and unexamined sexuality that will not permanently be restrained by the bonds of a religious vow. In my experience, these comments hold for both Roman Catholic and Episcopal monastic orders.
What follows are some remarks about how the priesthood is seen in the Episcopal Church. I offer them not to draw comparisons that are unflattering to the Roman Church, but to point out some measures that may minimize the likelihood of misconduct (or, more properly, the breakdown of healthy functioning, of which misconduct is but a symptom) among Episcopal clergy. In the Episcopal Church, which ordains both men and women to the priesthood, one cannot put oneself forward for ordination on one’s own. One must be officially sponsored by one’s parish leadership (clergy and lay) as having shown, over time, within the give-and-take of parish life, the kind of character and personal attributes necessary for ordination. Among these attributes are an interest in the spiritual life that manifests itself in the desire to help people grow and develop as Christians, stability of life, moral wholesomeness, leadership ability, and a willingness to serve. Though not foolproof (especially with regard to the more subtle character disorders and other factors that would speak against the advisability of ordination), this initial “screen” significantly decreases the number of those who come forth for vocational scrutiny at the diocesan level.
It is impossible to underestimate the “correcting” influence of having many different people, clergy and lay, those who know the candidate and those who do not, interview and scrutinize him or her for ordination at every stage of the selection process, especially at the initial stage, when the candidate is being considered for sponsorship by his or her parish. This variety puts the process on an entirely different footing than the “individual call” or “mentor” systems, as it puts in proper context the individual aspects of a person’s desire for ordination. It shifts the process from “This is what I want” or “This is what I think God wants for me to do” (the “personal completion” model of vocation) to “This is what I and the community of faith think I should do so as to best use my gifts to serve the community.”
The emphasis on community continues throughout the selection process, as interviewers and others responsible for screening ask the same question in ever-broadening arenas: “Are this person’s gifts needed for the life of the diocese? For the larger church? The work of religious endeavor generally speaking-the work of spiritual awareness and practice, the furtherance of peace and social justice?” This emphasis on community is theologically sound because it locates the action and purpose of God within the whole church, not simply within an individual.
As in other Protestant denominations, in the Episcopal Church there is no celibacy requirement for clergy. Imposed clerical celibacy was abolished in the churches that grew out of the Reformation. A very small number of Episcopal priests take a vow of celibacy, but only privately and by their own choice.
The lack of a celibacy requirement does not, however, mean that priests are free to conduct their sexual lives simply as they wish. At ordination, an Episcopal priest takes a vow to be “a wholesome example” to the people he or she will serve. Episcopal priests also promise to obey the discipline of the church as articulated in the national canons, or church law, which explicitly state that sexual activity is to be confined to the marital relationship. Most dioceses have additional guidelines about what is and what is not permissible, sexually speaking, for priests. Included is guidance about “honorable courtship” (a single priest dating a single parishioner in such a way that the parishioner’s rights are respected and pastoral care is provided for) and about seeking the Bishop’s guidance when there are difficulties in a priest’s marriage. Since each priest is under the pastoral direction of his or her Bishop, a priest contemplating divorce (or marriage, for that matter) is expected to let the Bishop know what is transpiring. There is a general “no surprises” expectation for clergy in the Episcopal Church, which helps to keep a priest’s private life “in the light” and also builds in support and pastoral input.
How these canons and guidelines are applied varies from diocese to diocese. Certainly there is no active effort to invade priests’ privacy or to investigate their private lives unless there is a compelling reason to do so (as in the event of a serious transgression). Most bishops are extremely loathe to interfere in their clergy’s romantic/sexual lives and will do so only if a priest’s behavior is affecting the life of their congregation. (An exception is a conservative bishop who may make explicit his expectations for celibacy, and secrecy, for their gay clergy, since the Episcopal Church has not yet officially allowed the ordination of sexually active homosexual persons.) There is a trust built into the bishop-priest relationship that works, much of the time. “I don’t do bedrooms,” said the bishop I worked for.
It works-except when it doesn’t. A priest-male or female, married or single, straight or gay-attracts sexual energy and generates sexual energy in a unique way. This aspect of being a priest is rarely discussed in the formation process or in the seminaries. A priest is a numinous figure, representing God and all the energies associated with God in the religious tradition: creativity, openness, vulnerability, self-transcendence, desire, and union. Our culture is not proficient at helping people understand and integrate those energies, and thus, when they are experienced by a lay person who is on a spiritual search or in a personal crisis or growing in his or her faith, they tend to be directed at and focused on the person of the priest.
This is not ordinarily an intentional or deliberate decision on anyone’s part. It is simply a fact that the concept of priest holds great psychic power. He or she stands on the threshold between the human and the divine, representing God. The writings of the mystics in every religious tradition testify that spiritual energy and sexual energy are the same energy, and thus the priest is-by virtue of his or her vocation-a sexual icon. The priestly garb, the black clothing and white clerical collar, intensify this sexual mystique. Like the “uniform” of the firefighter or police officer, the collar invests the priest with an allure that has nothing to do with who he is as an individual. Although for most priests, the collar represents the most “spiritual” aspect of his vocation, for lay persons the collar represents a glamour that for some is extremely enticing. “What’s under there?” I recall a man once asking me, seemingly innocently, as he pointed at my black clergy shirt.
Intensifying this aura of charged sexuality is that priests do not simply draw sexual energy toward them; rather, sexual energy flows between lay persons and priests in a way that may never reach awareness. I am not here speaking of flirtation or provocative relationships; I speak, rather, of a basically healthy freeing up of life energy that, if handled respectfully, reflected on, and integrated, can be life giving for both lay person and priest. If not handled respectfully, reflected on, and integrated, however, it can degenerate into sexual transgression. When sexual energy is handled wrongly, when the priest is not equipped or willing to respect a lay person as “off limits” for him personally, he no longer functions to represent God. He acts as God. He, and his victim, may never know the difference, which is why so many relationships resulting from boundary violations are so soundly defended by those in them as special, unique, love relationships. They carry the scent of the divine, or a simulation thereof. Thus there is a particular form of denial built right into sexual transgressions involving clergy.
This denial spreads in ever-widening circles, affecting (at least temporarily) the victim and the parish. I have worked with a number of female victims and almost without exception was struck by how intelligent, committed, and sensible they were. They should have “known better.” But they did not “wake up” to the reality of their situations until they had suffered egregiously in the relationship, realized it was a dead end, and wanted to protect other women from the same fate. One female victim I worked with, whose priest/lover deserted her when she got bone cancer, still wrote him a thank-you note “for all the good times.” Another woman wrote regular letters to her former priest/lover, many years after the sexual relationship was over and after she had become a therapist specializing in sexual abuse.
The widest circle of denial is the parish itself. Part of my job, after a priest was accused of sexual misconduct and the investigation had proceeded far enough to indicate with certainty that a transgression had occurred, was to go to the priest’s parish to meet with parishioners to explain what was going on and how it was being addressed. Without exception, and even in the most dramatic cases of prolonged, egregious misconduct, the parishioners refused to believe that their priest had transgressed; they reacted with great rage and steadfastly tried to find alibis or excuses for him.
One priest, who had dealt drugs, frequented prostitutes, compromised parish finances, and engaged in sadomasochistic sexual activity with retarded young men (and photographed it), was ardently defended by his middle-class, elderly parishioners. They knew him as “Father Mike” (not his real name), the volunteer chaplain to the local volunteer fire department who could be found, most nights, down at the local bar throwing back a few with the local guys. Another priest, married with children, who had had numerous sexual liaisons with teen-aged and young men throughout his career, was staunchly defended by his priest colleagues, who believed that as a bisexual he should be “left alone.” Another parish, whose extremely charming priest had completely falsified his identity and drawn them into colluding with him in an INS fraud to secure him religious worker status in this country (status he was not qualified to receive), reacted with rage when told of his actions. “All priests lie!” said a parish leader. “Why should he be punished for it?”
During the time I held the job, we had no reported cases of pedophilic priests, though there were numerous such cases in the church at large during that time. One case had been resolved shortly before I took the position, however; this case involved a married priest who served a small parish in the rural part of the diocese. He had many victims, and as a result of his transgressions he was “deposed,” or formally removed from the ministry. (The popular term for this is “defrocked.”) He defended himself throughout, insisting that he had not done anything really wrong, and he continued to use the title “the Reverend” after he was no longer a priest. When the Bishop warned him not to use this title, he responded with a vulgar letter. It took his parish many years to begin to recover from what had happened.
Because the media seem to report few cases of pedophilic abuse by Episcopal priests, sometimes people speculate that there are fewer pedophilic priests in the Episcopal Church than in the Roman Church. I have no access to those statistics, but my experience suggests that that is an accurate observation. This may be because the Roman priesthood is a natural magnet for men with undeveloped sexuality.
Most newly ordained Catholic priests are ignorant of the psychic import of their role. They are also not fully cognizant of how the Christian tradition itself reinforces some of the role’s sexual mystique. Augustine declared that sexual desire was a tremor of the Fall, which set sexuality on a downhill course for centuries. Once there were no more martyrs for the faith, then virgins became the most highly esteemed Christians. A one dimensional understanding of the virginity of Mary also added to the Church’s misunderstanding of sexuality. The imposition of clerical celibacy in the 11th century was the last straw, implying that abstaining from sexual activity conferred holiness and making priests a “higher” class of people. The understanding that holiness means “wholeness” never completely disappeared, but it has not been the controlling belief. Most clergy learn of this intellectual inheritance in seminary, but they are not taught how that inheritance will affect them concretely.
Ironically, because many Episcopal clergy are married, their parishioners are aware (on some level) that they are sexually active. For some potential victims, this knowledge only increases the priests’ allure, the unknown “private” areas of the priest’s life serving as unspoken evidence of a broken taboo.
During the course of my work on the Bishop’s staff, I met monthly for half a day with all the newly ordained priests of the diocese, that is, all priests ordained two years or less. We spent time debriefing, reflecting intentionally on their ministries, and giving each other feedback. Early on in these sessions, I would always offer to help the new priests reflect on how being ordained had affected their sense of themselves as people, their intimate relationships, and their sexuality. Many of the women were eager to do so, the men not always so willing. In my experience, the first five years of priestly functioning are stressful for marriages, with the marital relationship having to go through reassessment and redefinition. For women priests, this process often involves incorporating a new sense of their own authority and effectiveness into the marital relationship; for men, it has more to do with time management and the toll of many hours away from family, with the (usually female) spouse having to adjust to being a “clergy wife (or husband)” an extremely difficult role to manage.
Martin Luther, of Reformation fame, was an Augustinian monk. He left the Augustinians, married a former nun, and had a family. His strong belief in the healthiness and importance of marriage and family in the Christian life still has a tremendous influence on the way Protestant clergy are formed. In the Episcopal Church, candidates for ordination are advised that they should not pursue ordination if their spouses are opposed to it, as the marriage vow comes first. This admonition extends into their priestly career. Priests are frequently reminded that the marriage vow comes first, that no matter how compelling the demands of their parish, their first responsibility is to the well-being of their wife or husband and children. This prioritizing is more difficult to negotiate in practice than it is in theory, but it remains a useful flag for Episcopal clergy, especially since a clinical study of the lives and ministries of clergy and their families (Lummus and Walmsley, 1997) found that the overall health (physical and emotional) of clergy spouses was worse than that of the clergy themselves.
In the Episcopal Church, once a person has been put forth for ordination by his or her parish, that person goes through a process that (in New York) ordinarily takes a year or more to complete. It includes a full psychiatric evaluation (cognitive, personality, and projective testing, with a number of interviews with a psychiatrist and a psychologist); a physical examination; a background check; a very detailed questionnaire that explores the candidate’s family and sexual history, including sexual abuse, relationship history, history of drug use (including alcohol), involvement with the law, and other potentially problematic areas, including any sexual contact with minors and involvement with pornography; and reference checks. The purpose of such a thorough “preprocess” at this point is to pinpoint the candidates who are most whole in terms of life functioning. If no contraindications are found, the person goes on to a series of interviews with clergy and lay persons of the diocese appointed by the Bishop and trained for this purpose. Great weight is put on the evaluations that come out of these interviews, especially as they pertain to the candidate’s ability to thrive, not simply survive, in the priesthood.
Since we live in a professionalized culture, it is easy to conceive of priests as “professional Christians,” those persons who by dint of their commitment to God and the church have decided to be “full-time Christians.” This individualistic approach to ordination (which greatly informs the selection process in the Roman Church) is potentially disastrous. Implicitly it puts forth medieval notions of personal piety as the foundation for priesthood, and not the more realistic criteria of aptitude for ordained leadership.
This misunderstanding of the priestly role was further emphasized in the 1960s and 1970s, when important principles from the therapeutic world began profoundly to influence the culture at large, including the religious culture. Roman Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1979) put forth a model of the priest as a “wounded” person who ministers to others out of his own wounds, rather than out of his strengths. (Nouwen, now deceased, was a homosexual who made that part of himself public only in the final years of his ministry.) The “wounded-healer” model continues to have great influence. This way of seeing priesthood has a certain partial theological value, since Christians believe that, in the weakness of the cross, God showed forth His power and love. As a model for priesthood, however, the “wounded healer” encourages a kind of displayed vulnerability and a disincentive to growth that does not serve the priest or the church well. It also underlines the tendency to see the priest as the primary resource for spiritual nourishment. He is the “real” Christian, the “truly spiritual” person, the one “ordained” and thus possessed of a “special” relationship with God. The highly sacramentalized spirituality of Roman Catholicism contributes to this image of a priest, making him an other-worldly figure who emanates mystery and spiritual power.
This focus on the priest as “holiest one” is a setup for burnout, putting the priest in the impossible position of bottomless spiritual well, the one who must have an answer to a lay person’s spiritual dilemma even when he does not have an answer. In addition, it subtly molds a priest’s self-understanding and nudges it away from community faith leader and toward therapist/helper for individuals, a role that he or she is clearly not qualified (or ordained) to fill. It is also contributes to the aura of charged sexuality surrounding the sacralized figure of priest.
The education and training of Roman priests is oriented around theology and the institution of the church, both essential areas. The area that is neglected, however, is people. This omission reflects the orientation of the institution itself. A typical Roman priest is highly motivated to serve the institution of the Church and to bring people to faith. He is less motivated or prepared to accomplish those tasks primarily by serving people. It is not simply that serving people is not “emphasized” in the formation of most Roman priests. The issue has more to do with starting point and professional stance.
Properly speaking, priests are servants. They get to know a community of people; they listen to and reflect with the people on who they are and what their identity and mission are. Priests teach and preach the spiritual tradition to the community; this tradition functions as both nourishment and direction for the parish. Priests organize the parish so that it becomes a community; this is done through administration as well as pastoral care. The institution of the church is a container for the community, the priest guiding and leading it with the knowledge that (in the words of St. John) God’s house “has many mansions” and that the truth is very broad and very deep.
In my experience, it is the rare Roman priest who approaches his work from this stance. Rather, he has been trained to begin with the institution, with which his primary loyalty lies, and to labor to bring people into line with that institution and its beliefs, for their own good. He is the theologically educated one; he is the one who has made the “sacrifice” of his sexuality. People “owe” him deference and obedience. He is called “Father,” a title that carries a huge psychic load. The Roman church has in its priesthood created a separate class of people, clergy whose priesthood is the holiest element in the church besides the Body and Blood of Christ. This is what accounts for the hierarchy’s attempt, in even egregious cases of misconduct, to protect priests from the long-term consequences of their behavior. In the Roman Church, preserving a man’s priesthood is of very high value, as if somehow his priesthood is separable from his behavior.
Roman priests have an impossible job. Vatican II made it even more difficult. Pope John XXIII made bold moves for the empowerment of lay persons, moves that were quickly reversed after his death. The church (at least in this country) has become more conservative, while lay people (many of them more highly educated than priests) have become more convinced of their own dignity and competence as Christians and are not content to be treated as lesser. The crisis in the Roman church now is a crisis of control, with sexuality as the presenting issue.
Although, at least in the past, Roman priests may have been protected from the consequences of their behavior by the institution, nothing can protect them from the consequences of trying to do the job the way they have been trained to: as an idealized figure, an idol, who is “above” the realm of ordinary folk and who must continue to “sublimate” (read “deny”) his humanity in order to be who his superiors expect him to be. Friends who are Roman priests tell me of the alcohol abuse, the loneliness, and the anger that are so prevalent among their colleagues. One made his decision to leave the priesthood after he did a stint serving as chaplain in a church-run retirement home for priests. “I looked at all those alcoholic, bitter old men, and I knew I had to get out,” he said.
Sexual misbehavior is a logical consequence of the frustration and rigor of this style of priesthood. Straight men who were willing to take a vow of celibacy when they were training for ordination as young men learn, after years of ministry, that celibacy (when not freely chosen) confers no special authority or wisdom. They function within an institution that esteems them highly, mostly on principle. They may be able to form healthy relationships with parishioners, but frequent assignments to new parishes can prevent long-term ties with people. One middle-aged priest who left the Roman church to pursue priesthood in the Episcopal church said to me, “Not one of my superiors ever said thank-you to me. Not one, ever.” This makes me believe that the pedestal on which the Roman church puts its priests is a pedestal for public viewing only. Privately, as a human being, a Roman priest may be valued little by the church he serves.
When Episcopal priests are ordained (the word means “ordered”), they make certain vows. The vows are very specific, and they reflect the job description, so to speak. There is a vow of obedience to the Bishop and to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church. There is a vow to continue always to read the Scriptures, to take intentional steps to grow in knowledge and strength, to work collegially, to pattern one’s life so as to be a “wholesome example” to the people one serves, to persevere in prayer. To take the vows means to put oneself under a certain discipline. In the course of the ordination liturgy, the Bishop points out that the role of the ordained person is to be pastor, priest, and teacher. It is a servant leadership role.
Contrary to common perception, a priest has no real spiritual authority that is self-derived. He or she functions as a priest only within the jurisdiction of the Bishop (from the Greek “episcopos”). Priestly authority is derived from episcopal authority. In addition, priestly authority is an enabling authority in that its purpose is to foster growth in the Christian community.
Despite widespread misunderstanding to the contrary, evidenced by possessive language such as “my ministry” on the part of some priests, priestly ministry properly exercised is not the possession of the priest, not part of his or her “equipment.” A priest does not have “her ministry” in the same way that, for example, an opera singer has “her voice.” Although it is to be hoped that everything a priest does, whether part of her public ministry or not, is marked by a certain priestly character, a priest has no authoritative ministry apart from the sphere of functioning to which he or she has been licensed by the Bishop. To understand otherwise is to attribute to the priest a power that he or she cannot claim. I point this out now because the traditional image of the Roman Catholic priest as a figure of great spiritual power, the “alter Christus” (the “other Christ”) stems in part from this misunderstanding.
In other words, the role of a priest is not to be a sacred figure from whom emanates spiritual power and who ministers to anyone who “needs help” or is “looking for God.” Although the priest will of course sometimes do those things, essentially he or she is to be the leader of a community of faith, most often in the form of a parish. A priest’s job is to minister to the people he or she serves so that they can minister to the world. This is a very specific task that requires specific gifts: the ability to teach, preach, communicate, and give the kind of spiritual counsel that builds up a community of faith; and the ability to administer an institution financially, structurally, and pastorally. This task demands both a willingness to serve an extremely imperfect institution, which requires a kind of self-denial that is profoundly countercultural, and the personal strength to thrive as an individual within that climate. In my limited experience, I have found that this is a relatively rare combination of gifts.
My colleagues in the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic professions have told me that in the last 10 years they have noted a growing number of very sick people seeking treatment. In the 1950s and 1960s, one colleague commented, he saw mostly neurotics in his practice, people with “problems in daily living.” Now he sees many more character-disordered people, many more narcissistic people, many more borderlines, many more people suffering from the consequences of abuse and addiction. Thus, the population that applies for ordination now includes persons with these problems.
Indeed, given the common (though incorrect) assumption that priesthood somehow confers wholeness on the priest, these very wounded people may be more drawn to priesthood than are others; the former are seeking unconsciously some kind of healing that is invisibly and sacramentally “conferred” by ordination rather than painfully and intentionally worked for in treatment. Accepting these people for ordination results in a corps of priests who have a need to be ordained rather than a corps of priests whom the Church needs to be ordained. Dioceses that have a rigorous psychological screening process are able, much of the time, to disqualify these inappropriate but usually highly driven candidates. Dioceses that have less rigorous processes are not so able, and the extremely intelligent, well-spoken, charming narcissist often seems an attractive candidate for priesthood, especially to a Bishop or interviewer who cannot see beyond a compensating self-presentation.
I mentioned earlier that the goal of our ordination process is, in part, to select people who will thrive, not simply survive, in the priesthood. It needs to be pointed out that, even for healthy persons, this is no mean task. The priesthood is a strenuous way of life. It demands emotional strength; the maturity that comes from an intentional, ongoing engagement with one’s own history; tolerance of great ambiguity; relative comfort with a wide range of emotions; patience; the ability to withstand conflict and use it creatively; the ability to lead; and self-acceptance.
Most important for the present topic, perhaps, is the ability to take on oneself a largely public role while sustaining an interior life that is integrated with the public self while at the same time is not shared publicly-in other words, the ability to learn consciously to hold boundaries. This is a constant and life-long challenge for any priest. Undertaken consciously, it can be very fulfilling and freeing. Blundered into, it can lead to great grief and emotional hurt to others, because the emotional strains of the job are usually great enough to threaten the maintenance of appropriate boundaries, at least occasionally.
The Roman Church has traditionally ordained very young men to the priesthood, with the ordination process beginning, at least informally, as early as high school and sometimes earlier. In contrast, in the Episcopal Church for the past 25 years, most vocations to ordination have been felt by persons who are in their mid-30s or older. For many years, men and women right out of college were turned away from ordination on the basis of their youth and were told to “get some life experience” for a while. While there are obvious benefits to postponing ordination, it seems clear now that the risks of ordaining people at midlife can in some cases outweigh those benefits. The Church is now encouraging younger people to come forth for ordination. The Church understands that a person in his 20s has more flexibility and openness to growth than an older person does.
While people in their 30s or 40s often have much to offer the Episcopal Church, including a first career in the arts or law or medicine or the helping professions that can inform their second career, accepting these people is not uncomplicated. Sometimes these candidates bring a sense of restlessness and unfulfillment with them; they speculate (not always correctly) that the priesthood is their “true” vocation. These candidates typically are articulate, well educated, and conversant with the workings of the Church and have a track record of lay ministry and an intentional spiritual discipline.
They also bring their problems with them. “In the middle of the journey of our life,” they may be in marriages made at an early age that have been ill tended and are stalled, with the church assuming the role of unconscious “lover.” A deep involvement in parish life may be more a manifestation of a need for control and order than a potential for leadership. Such a candidate may not yet have struggled with family-of-origin issues. His intentional spiritual discipline may mask a relatively immature understanding of things religious. There is sometimes a low-level chronic depression or an alcohol-dependence problem. Again, these are often “subclinical” issues, with the person presenting as highly motivated and highly credentialed.
Similarly, I am told that, in the Roman Church, the average age of ordination has risen from 26 to 34 over the past decade or so. This change may bring some benefits. However, my psychiatrist and psychologist colleagues who assisted us in the selection process continually warned us to beware of older priesthood candidates who had never succeeded in any professional or vocational path. In my limited experience teaching seminary students of all denominations in hospital chaplaincy internships recommended by some Roman seminaries (and required by most Protestant seminaries), these older Roman candidates for ordination are men who fall into this category: they have not succeeded in any vocational path or endeavor. They are men entering early middle age who are at sea about who they are and what their place in the world is. While they may be highly motivated spiritually and may be dedicated church volunteers, they are often immature, naïve, rigid theologically, and lacking in self-awareness. Not having succeeded in the world of people, they want to begin in a world they think is controlled by God. The Roman church needs to think hard about why it is no longer attracting young men to the priesthood.
It may also be the case that, while older persons may have the life skills that enhance ordained functioning, they are simply less open to growth and change by virtue of their age. The three-year seminary experience is designed to be transformative of the whole person, not simply a spiritualized graduate education. A very young person usually comes out of seminary a very different person than when he or she entered; he or she has experienced numerous crises (spiritual and emotional) along the way.
An older person usually experiences seminary very differently. It is more difficult for an older candidate to surrender completely to the experience of a transformative educational/vocational process. Sometimes he or she views the requirement of a seminary education as a “necessary evil,” occasioning family dislocation, increasing debt, and the annoyances of being a student again. For older candidates, a theological perspective and way of understanding the world are already formed. They may see seminary professors as peers, rather than mentors, and as only the frosting on the cake, the “ticket” they need to begin to work as priests. This attitude can lead to a subtly adversarial relationship with the institution of the church that begins to operate even before they are ordained. In the course of doing my misconduct work, I have sometimes wondered if this adversarial attitude can contribute to misconduct, with the priest (whether ordained at midlife or at a young age) essentially “screwing” the church in the form of one of its members. This is no more than an intuition on my part.
Margaret Kornfeld (1998) has observed that many ordained persons come from families in which they were never truly “heard” and valued as the individuals they are. They thus have been made into people who cannot locate a sense of self-worth and self-acceptance within, but who, rather, continually seek “good feelings” and approval outside themselves to feel real. There is no way to underestimate the unsure footing on which such an emotional history puts an ordained person. It is initially experienced by a candidate for ordination as idealism, a strong relational pull toward other people, a pull that seems to lend credence to the sense of call. Indeed, it is a convincing facsimile of the other-directedness that is required of an ordained person. But it is not “the real thing.” Sexual misconduct can be one of the eventual outcomes of this dangerous emotional scenario.
The problems that eventually lead to sexual misconduct in midcareer can sometimes be seen early in a person’s priestly career. During the first few years of ordination, typically the work itself (the sustained close contact with people, the rigorous work schedule, the demands of being a spiritual leader) will flush out in the new priest the issues that he or she needs to work on in order for the ordination that has been conferred sacramentally to begin to become real.
The drama and energy of becoming ordained can provide the emotional and spiritual “steam” to keep a person functioning relatively happily for about five years. After that a crisis occurs. That crisis can be resisted or accepted. If it is resisted the trajectory toward a breakdown in healthy functioning can begin. It can include misconduct, a breakdown that I would call self-loss. In my experience, this self-loss happens invisibly and insidiously, with misconduct being only one of the ways that it finally erupts visibly as a kind of desperate assertion of self.
In the interests of tracing the roots of self-loss, then, what follows are characteristics of that early-career crisis, seen from the perspective of my own work with newly ordained priests:
First, idealism gives way to fatigue. The new priest discovers that there is no way he can do all the work, all the time, and still feel human. The work of a parish priest is cyclical (Christmas comes every year, and no matter how “well” you did it last year, it will come again this year). The work is never done, and in some sense you are always starting from a blank slate. Priests who have not established a routine of rest and self-care will deal with their fatigue by working harder. Eventually the fatigue and stress become habitual and oddly sustaining.
Second, the new priest discovers that people are only human. They are wonderful, but they will do what they will do. They will think what they will think. They will not always listen to the priest. They will not accept all he learned in seminary. They will reject the most convincing methods of church growth. They will resist his charm and his intelligence. The new priest discovers that being a pastor is more like herding cats than shepherding sheep. This is an extremely disarming experience. It can make the priest feel misunderstood, not seen, and ineffective. Most new priests react to this reality by working harder. At the start of the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman tells young actors to take roles that “fit” them as actors, and when they do, to take on the role gently. “Don’t attack the role,” he advises. Many new priests “attack the role.” Instead of drawing back a bit to observe and reflect and just let things happen, they pounce on their responsibilities and try to be “a good priest.” If he or she has a family history of not being “seen,” this attacking of role is more likely to happen.
A priest is rarely “seen” as the person he or she is. This revelation is counterintuitive and comes as a disappointment to the new priest, who places a high value on being seen. The duties of the job would seem to make “being seen” relatively easy-after all, a priest is preaching often, giving spiritual counsel, sharing experiences at a deep level, teaching, being with people at moments of crisis and joy. But functioning effectively as a priest involves a delicate negotiation with one’s self about “being seen.”
First, priesthood involves self-offering, not self-immolation. Constant sharing of self is a sure road to burnout. More important, the priest needs to remember always that even if self-disclosure were appropriate to the role, it always backfires because the priest is rarely seen as the person he or she is. Each person who encounters the priest projects onto him or her a number of things: the person’s experience of God, his or her history with the church and sometimes with parents; and his or her understanding (or lack thereof) of what the word religion means.
This is a heavy load for a priest to bear. The clerical collar is an identifying mark, but it is also an obliterating mark. When I put a collar on each morning, I am no longer Anne Richards, but the Reverend Anne Richards. There is a difference-but only for me. There is no difference for my parishioners, even though they may think there is. The very nature of the role creates a boundary between public and personal, a boundary that must be observed if I am to do my job. Part of the priest-parishioner relationship is the working out of that boundary insofar as it helps the parishioner understand that any process of growth, including spiritual growth, involves learning healthy boundaries, especially as they take shape in the question that is at the heart of any spiritual path, “Who am I?” Thus, the learning of boundaries has to do not so much with boundaries understood as “limits” or “beyond this point you shall not go,” but rather as the delineation of the self as it stands among other selves and with God. In the early years of her career, a priest begins to live within this delicate area, consciously, one hopes.
It is also at this point that a new priest may experience anger in a way that surprises him. Religion is highly idealistic in the abstract. Doing religion is to collide idealism with realism. The psychological profile of most candidates for ordination shows a marked discomfort with the expression of anger and a need to avoid conflict. If the new priest does not confront his anger early in his career, he will act it out anyway, by “throwing his collar around,” so to speak (asserting his authority, invoking policies, laying down the law), or by directing it at his superiors, most often at his supervising priest or his Bishop, or the unfortunate parishioner who either challenges him or does not conform to his idea of what a good parishioner should be.
It has been said that when a priest gets into the pulpit for the first five years of his ministry, he is preaching to his parents. There is, it seems to me, a profound truth in this quip. For the child who was not cherished as he or she wished, the priesthood, with its very public role and its opportunities to talk about truth and goodness and Ultimate Reality, seems to offer a sure path to be seen and heard as the individual one really is. The problem is that the priesthood is not intended for that. Although it is to be hoped that a priest will find, within his vocation, who he is “really” meant to be, the exercise of his true personhood, in day-to-day reality the priesthood is a profoundly other-directed profession. It requires a setting aside (not a denial) of the self that creates room for other people to become who they are really meant to be. That happens within the other person, and it is often invisible to the priest. Thus the priest must learn, often painfully, the limits of his effectiveness, even as the person he really is. He cannot keep insisting that other people (his parents, his parishioners) validate him. It is only by setting his parishioners free from that implicit demand that the priest can be really free to be a priest. This is a task that should begin in the early years of priesthood.
In a sense, these issues are about authority: personal authority, priestly authority, and institutional authority. Most priests are surprised that ministerial work inevitably brings to the fore their “authority problems.” When their parishioners do not respond to them as they would like, issues about personal authority (what it is and how it is exercised) emerge. When one’s work seems ineffective and when one’s internalized image of the ideal priest (an image every new priest holds within him, often unconsciously) begins to falter, issues about priestly authority (What is this job really about?) emerge. And when the new priest begins to experience the limits of living under a vowed discipline that does not allow him to live as a free agent, issues of institutional authority erupt (Is the Church worth working for?). Thus, finding one’s place in the Church, broadly speaking, is also a process that must begin early on. In this way, the transition from the highly individualistic “call” part of the priest’s vocation to a more corporate, less self-regarding understanding of one’s life work can begin.
Priests are God-bearers. They are meant to be channels for the Divine. Human, fallible, imperfect, deeply flawed-but still vessels for God to work through. This quality is not “bestowed,” ready made, on the person at ordination. The grace and strength are given sacramentally, but it remains the task of the ordained person to grow into the vow to be an instrument of God’s grace. The profound challenges of the early years of priesthood include, then, the challenge of understanding that even one’s most deeply held understanding about who God is must change. Many people sitting in the pews in church every Sunday morning are highly accomplished people, but their understanding of God is essentially their childhood understanding. A priest can help people mature in faith only if he understands that the God of his childhood is dead-it was only an image. The only God that is real is the God who is always elusive, the God of change and life as it is lived, the real God who stands beyond experience while shining through it. This means that his parishioners themselves will teach the priest about who God is. A new priest who does not take up this challenge will function ministerially in the realm of the “should,” trying to recreate the past by stifling creativity and change. Many priests fight this challenge throughout their entire careers.
As mentioned, the loss of self that can lead to professional misconduct happens invisibly and insidiously, usually over many years. If the priest suffers from a character disorder, it can manifest quickly, because priesthood will never satisfy the emotional needs of such a person. In my limited experience, this loss of self has as its background the failure to engage the formational issues I have described: the frustration and diminution of life that grows from long-term fatigue; anger at people because they resist one’s authority and insist on being free human beings; anger at the institution for not being perfect and a wish that the institution of the Church be the “perfect family” one never had; an immature need for approval and affirmation from the outside; and a failure to grow in one’s understanding of God.
No matter how much the priest or the people around him idealize this loss of self, it leads to an acute sense of deprivation that has any number of consequences. The incidence of untreated clinical depression among clergy is high, as is alcohol abuse or misuse. There is a great deal of marital unhappiness, and it bears repeating that the physical and emotional health of clergy wives in the Episcopal Church is at an all-time low. Many priests, and their spouses, talk often of great loneliness. I do not think sexual misconduct is any higher among clergy than it is among other parts of the professional population, but its consequences are different, affecting both the public sphere of the parish and the private sphere of the people involved.
But perhaps it can be said that sexual misconduct is an “occupational hazard” of the priesthood, especially for the priest who has not engaged with its inherent challenges. “If the shepherd is not fed, he will eat the sheep.” That aphorism has a certain internal logic, and in a sense, sexual misconduct does also. When a man (and there were no cases of sexual misconduct by female clerics while I was on the job) finds himself, 15 or 20 years into a strenuous ministry, with his sense of purpose or accomplishment largely unchanged since ordination, his marriage having suffered as a result of the time demands of his job, there is at least a chance that he is going to reach out for the nearest thing he thinks will make him feel “real” again, another human being.
During my six years on the job, the great majority of our cases involved married heterosexual male priests who had inappropriate sexual involvements with adult women. I am not sure that male priests realize how much sexual energy they attract simply by virtue of their role. Personal attractiveness and social skills only increase this allure. Understanding this allure and monitoring oneself is part of learning to handle the projections one receives as a priest, knowing for sure that they will come one’s way.
When a male priest begins to feel an attraction toward a female parishioner, he often feels “ambushed” by his feelings but can be quickly overtaken by them. Often this connection with a female parishioner is invested with the same energy and idealism as the original “call” to ordination. The priest admits he knows that, technically, being involved with a parishioner is “wrong” but claims that essentially it is “right.” His ability to hold comfortably to this contradiction is a measure of the split within himself, between the person he believes he “really” is and the person he is in the real world. In other words, that original need remains operative, having never been successfully engaged, and it is powered by his implicit refusal to accept the public, essentially self-denying role of priest because that too has never been successfully negotiated. Many sexual abusers remain idealistic about the abuse they have inflicted.
I mentioned that there were no reported incidents of abuse by female clerics during the time I served on the bishop’s staff. My only hunch about the reason for this comes from my own (perhaps incorrect) observation that male priests tend to “act out” their problems, whereas female priests tend to “act in” their unhappiness by overeating, drinking too much, withdrawing socially, and deciding to remain in jobs in which their full potential is not realized. That so many female clerics are obese deserves a close look by someone.
I am sometimes asked what it was like doing misconduct work as a woman. The answer is that I was hated and feared, and as a result of doing it I am sure I couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Hoboken. Many of my clergy friends misunderstood what I was doing. (They called me “the sex cop.”) My life was threatened. On one occasion I had to move out of my home for a few days to elude an offending priest who was supposedly going to “make me pay.” I had to rent a metal detector for my office before I interviewed one abuser who was known to carry a gun strapped to his ankle.
I am not at all sure, however, that the job is any easier for the men who do it. This is tough work. But it is worth doing. Over time, I realized that I found it rewarding because I was doing it, at least in part, for all the faithful priests who have the courage to deal-over a lifetime-with the issues and problems that come with the priesthood and who labor on, often anonymously, doing good work, in minor positions. I realized it was also worth doing for the offending priests when one day a priest who had gone through a lengthy disciplinary process for misconduct with women called me after he had been rehabilitated and restored to parish ministry. He said, “I just want to tell you you did a good job.” “Thanks,” I said. “No problem.” I realized then, and continue to realize, what a great gift that telephone call was.