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Posted June 14, 2007

National hot line to offer listening ear to priests in crisis

By Ann Piasecki
Catholic News Service

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (CNS) -- Franciscan Sister Mary Frances Seeley, a counselor and certified suicidologist, is heading up a plan to establish a crisis hot line specifically to address the needs of priests and religious brothers in the grips of depression, thoughts of suicide or the everyday stresses of life.

Called the Upper Room Crisis Hotline, the program is endorsed by the National Federation of Priests' Councils and is slated to begin in late summer or early fall.

As a national hot line, it is intended to alleviate the emotional toll that Sister Seeley said is being paid by a majority of clergy in the post-scandal era.

Citing the demonization of priests by a growing number of the faithful in the aftermath of revelations concerning the sexual abuse of minors in the church, the Chicago-based NFPC asked her to fashion an easily accessible, interventional buoy for clergymen seeking safe haven and a place to vent frustration without fear of reprisal.

A member of the Congregation of the Third Order of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, Sister Seeley helped found the Crisis Line of Will County, which has operated continuously since 1976.

A 15-member board of trustees made up of vowed religious, clergy and community leaders is currently raising $200,000 to seed the venture that's set to operate in an undisclosed office in Joliet. It would be staffed by volunteers from the Illinois dioceses of Joliet, Peoria, Springfield and Rockford and the Archdiocese of Chicago, along with some volunteers from border towns in Indiana and Wisconsin.

In a June 1 interview with the Catholic Explorer, Joliet's diocesan newspaper, Sister Seeley said the concept of a crisis hot line to provide counseling anonymously has earned the support of presidents from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Lewis University in Romeoville and Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, all of whom sit on a board assembled to oversee the hot line.

NFPC officials were particularly interested in providing concrete counseling solutions for clergy facing the aftermath of the unacceptable actions of a small percentage from their ranks. It has forced the vast majority of the nation's priests -- more than 14,000 -- to shoulder the blame for the offenders, said Sister Seeley.

Sister Seeley is aware of only "30 or so" acts of suicide committed by clergy since 2000, but cautions that statistics on the matter are hard to come by.

Depression and signs of mental anguish are directly linked to the scandal, she said, adding that the effects of isolation have grown deeper in the post-scandal era. Lay Catholics now sometimes hesitate to draw an individual priest into their circle of friends.

Father Richard Vega, a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the current NFPC president, said recent policies in the church have significantly diminished the opportunity for clergy to "confide even in their vicars or bishops."

In light of mandated reporting policies, vicars and bishops are likely to err on the side of caution, he said. As a result, it keeps emotionally distraught priests at bay, seeking individual resolution when grappling with a sense of "frustration or addictions" caused by a combination of undeserved shame or something as common as stress caused by the problems of administering a parish.

Sister Seeley said a staff of 72 volunteers should be able to keep the emergency help line running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

As a vowed religious herself, Sister Seeley understands the clergy's sense of frustration. "They used to be respected. They've given their lives to the church, and they've been knocked down off their pedestal," she said.

Sister Seeley has a four-pronged plan for the hot line. The first is making it nationally accessible by way of a yet undisclosed 800 number. Second, she intends to advertise the hot line in clergy publications and on the Internet, encouraging priests to call even if they're just seeking information or a referral.

Next, the plan's design for suicide prevention relies on a method of "person-centered" counseling conducted within the realm of anonymity. Finally, Sister Seeley has devised a system that takes into consideration elderly priests.

Modeled on the existing Joliet hot line, the system involves daily contacts with those whose names are provided by individual clergy, their family members or friends. Referred to as "sunshine calls," she said the calls would include reminders to take their medication and a brief chat. "They're reassurance calls," she said.

Volunteers for the program would undergo eight weeks of training taught by Sister Seeley and other experts in the field.