success stories

What's right with priesthood' is better question,
psychologist says

By Catholic News Service

The clergy sexual abuse crisis has led many to ask what's wrong with the priesthood, but it would be better to start by asking what's right with it, a leading priest-psychologist said Sept. 18.

Addressing some 200 participants at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, Father Stephen J. Rossetti outlined formidable challenges in priestly formation today but said the current widespread impression of the priesthood as dysfunctional is simply wrong.

In his talk he rejected the exclusion of all homosexuals as priesthood candidates but said the screening bar must be set higher because "those with homosexual attractions have unique struggles and challenges."

He also warned against accepting "rigid" candidates unless they show a capacity "to learn and grow."

Father Rossetti is president of St. Luke Institute in Maryland, which treats priests and religious with psychological problems, including those with sexual disorders.

While "even one case of child sexual abuse is one case too many," Father Rossetti said, "anyone who works in this field of child sexual abuse and is aware how rife it is in the general population could only conclude that this percentage (of 1.6 to 2 percent of priests who have at some time sexually abused a minor) is no higher than the general population. Actually, it is probably lower."

He said there was a degree of laxity in seminary formation in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, but blame for the current crisis should not be placed there.

"Child sexual abuse is long-standing and has been with us for centuries; it is not a product of the '60s. Sadly, it is as impossible to eradicate completely as alcoholism or adultery," he said. "And some of the abusers have been our most stridently orthodox of priests. Doctrinal orthodoxy is not a firewall against child sexual abuse."

Father Rossetti defended the state of the priesthood today despite the image of dysfunctionality generated by the crisis. He said a recent national study shows that "priestly morale is very high" and 95 percent of priests said they are committed to remaining in the priesthood. "Other secular professions would be thrilled to have such an overwhelming endorsement" from their members, he said.

He added that in travels around the country he has been struck by the resilience of priests, the support they receive from their people and the strength of seminary screening and formation programs.

"There are many things right with the priesthood, with our seminaries and with vocational discernment and formation today. This must be the backdrop to any discussion of the issues, otherwise we are giving a skewed and false impression," he said.

He said the real danger and challenge for the priesthood lies in something else that has surfaced in the crisis.

"The challenge that has struck me most forcibly over the past few months has been the intense, negative polarization of the church in the United States today. Where there should be communion and dialogue, there is faction and diatribe," he said.

"One is rightly angered by anyone who sexually molests a child, especially by a priest and by any who would support his heinous behavior," he said. "But, as a psychologist, I would say that the rage that has surfaced in this country, especially during but not limited to these past few months, seems deeper and broader. It is as if this crisis has tapped into a well of anger, distrust and fear that has been simmering just below the surface."

He said that factionalism poses a major challenge for those who recruit and form future priests.

"A newly ordained today faces a divided church and a divided parish," he said.

"It will be easy for a new priest, and very tempting, to align himself with one group or the other. ... But his vocation is to be a shepherd, a pastor of souls, to all regardless of their theological or cultural makeup, orientation or age. He is to be a 'man of communion,'" Father Rossetti said.

He said the challenge of forming future priests is developing men of communion, priests with a "reconciled heart" who can bring peace and reconciliation to people who are divided.

Someone with a reconciled heart, he said, is characterized by "a solid sense of self-identity and a secure self-image," by an integration of his emotions and sexuality, by an awareness of the complexities and nuances of life and by a "mature faith."

He said the integration of emotions and sexuality does not require, as some are saying today, the automatic exclusion of all candidates who are homosexually oriented, but it does require taking account of the special challenges those men face in that area.

"Men who present themselves as candidates with same-sex attractions ought to be more carefully screened with these struggles in mind; their formation ought to take into account their unique challenges; and the approval for their ordination ought to be particularly cognizant of the stresses and challenges that they will face as priests. In short, the bar was set too low in the past. It needs to be raised," he said.

Speaking of the need for a mature faith, he said the wide concern these days about candidates who seem to be rigid "is a valid concern."

The rigidity at issue "is not what some would claim is merely a firm adherence to orthodoxy. In fact, it is not a question of belief at all" but rather of men with an immature and insecure faith, he said.

"They use their beliefs as weapons. Instead of engaging in dialogue, they promote diatribe; instead of promoting communion, they encourage factions to develop," he said.

Father Rossetti counseled patience, noting that the development of a mature faith is a long process.

Some of the rigidity seen in candidates today may be "a necessary defense mechanism" in the process of choosing priesthood in the face of "a culture that is increasingly materialistic, narcissistic, sex-obsessed and functionally atheistic," he said.

The real question vocation and seminary personnel should ask about those candidates, he said, is "Can they be formed? That is, despite their 'rigidity,' are they willing to trust you even a little and to learn and grow? If the answer is no, formation is impossible. If yes, they can become some of your very best priests."