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Posted April 15, 2004

Addressing Priestly Fraternity During Difficult Time

By Father Eugene Hemrick

A study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York recently reported that between 1950 and 2002, 615 priests were investigated by police on allegations of child sex abuse, with 217 priests being charged and 138 being convicted.

Undoubtedly more statistics will be forthcoming and will shed greater light on this issue. Sex-abuse cases will continue to surface, and victims will continue to feel uncompensated.

No doubt, too, we'll see more stringent rules formulated to prevent the recurrence of child abuse, and the church will undergo a period of reconstruction based on greater accountability, openness and honesty.

But what about the 96 percent of diocesan priests who are doing their best to serve parishioners? What about those priests who are serving more than one parish, sometimes in the hinterlands? What about those priests who have chosen an option for the poor and are ministering in ghettos and barrios? What will be the benefits of the period ahead for them? In particular, will we see the priesthood construct a new and stronger fraternity -- and one devoid of clericalism?

As much as priests receive wonderful support from the laity and sometimes prefer their company to that of fellow priests, a priest's principal support system is his brother priests. True, he is ordained to serve the people. Equally true, he is ordained into a fraternity of priests.

The influences that threaten this fraternity leave us with much food for thought. As priests dwindle in numbers, many find themselves alone with responsibility for two or three parishes, and those who have only one parish tend to live alone. And, too, we have chaplains who are literally lone wolves serving on ships or in battle zones.

Most priests have adjusted well to this new, solitary mode of operation. They have learned to cook for themselves, reach out to the laity for camaraderie, and develop wholesome routines that keep body and soul together.

No doubt many priests enjoy their solitude and privacy. And, too, to protect this privacy they may even be very selective in the priest friends they choose. Yet, I wonder if we might be witnessing a preference for solitary living over community living that is turning some priests into loners. How would such attitudes fit in with the fraternity of the priesthood that is receiving renewed emphasis today?

Granted, there are age gaps, differing theologies and likes and dislikes among priests that separate them from each other. And, too, even though the priesthood calls for a community spirit among priests, once priests are out on their own and dealing mainly with the laity this spirit is more difficult to maintain.

Could it be that this is leading to a lessened need for priestly fraternity? Or could it be that the uplifting spirit that should come from being with other priests is experienced too infrequently? Could it be that priests are moving away from the idea of a priestly confraternity into a new era of rugged individualism, needed to survive their solitude? And, too, we must be realistic. When a priest retires, often he leaves rectory living to live alone in an apartment. This was rare in days gone bye.

It is no secret that older priests and younger priests are sometimes more suspicious than accepting of each other. In rectories where two or three priests live, they often are like ships passing in the night. And some priests always have an excuse for not showing up at priests' gatherings.

These realities and questions need to be addressed if the priesthood is to reap the benefits of the new age of reconstruction that is upon us.