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Posted May 1, 2006

Priests' morale reported high despite
hurt, anger at abuse crisis

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The morale of U.S. priests is high despite the hurt and anger they feel over the crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors, a prominent priest-psychotherapist said at a seminar at The Catholic University of America.

Father Stephen J. Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and author of the recent book "The Joy of Priesthood," led the April 24 seminar at the university's Life Cycle Institute.

He reported on a survey of nearly 1,300 priests in 16 dioceses that he conducted between September 2003 and April 2005 to assess the effects of the abuse crisis on priestly morale.

St. Luke Institute treats priests and religious with behavioral problems and addictions, including alcoholism and sexual issues.

One of the main findings of his survey, Father Rossetti said, is that 80 percent of priests say their own morale is good, but only 38 percent think the morale of their fellow priests is good.

He said the large discrepancy seems to stem from the fact that a large majority of priests are committed to their priesthood and happy with it, but "when priests look at other priests, they're seeing the hurt and anger and think morale is bad."

He said it also shows that it's a mistake to think of morale as a one-dimensional reality that is either simply good or simply bad. He described it, rather, as a "multidimensional thing" involving "a multilayered, complex set of emotions."

"Can you like your ministry and still feel hurt and angry? Yes," he said.

He said two-thirds of the priests surveyed found celibacy personally satisfying and only 17.7 percent said they would marry if they could, but more than half, 52.9 percent, said they supported mandatory celibacy for priests.

One bad piece of news is the large number of priests, 42 percent, who said they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, he said. "If I were in a position of leadership in the church, I'd take notice of that," he said.

He said issues of priestly unity and fraternity are another source of concern: Only 58 percent said relationships among priests are good, and 47 percent thought there was a lack of unity in the priesthood.

Of the variety of factors that may contribute to a lack of a sense of unity, the biggest seems to be the ideological divide between those who described themselves as theologically conservative and those who described themselves as theologically liberal, he said.

One of the big changes directly attributable to the sexual abuse crisis, he said, is that 32.3 percent of the priests responding to the survey said they feel that "people now look at me with suspicion."

Only 27 percent of the priests said they thought priests who face allegations of abuse are being treated fairly, and only 42 percent thought they themselves would be treated fairly if an allegation was raised against them, he said.

He said the church has always been "very reticent" about disciplining a priest unless it was certain he was guilty and may have been too protective of priests in the past, but now some priests see the scales "tipped in favor of the victim."

He said he asked priests if they were committed to their ministry and 95.6 percent expressed agreement and only 1.4 percent said no. In social research "that's an unbelievable number," he said. "These guys are committed to their work."

He said that strong commitment to the church and their ministry may also explain why so few priests have voluntarily left the priesthood because of the crisis. "If this was Enron, people would have been bailing out," he said.

Father Rossetti said that in applying the sociological technique of multiple regression analysis to the responses he found high correlations of morale with several factors.

From a bishop's point of view, he said, "if I want my priests to be happy, I have to attend to these."

The factor that had the highest correlation with good morale was satisfaction with one's own bishop and a positive view of church leadership, he said.

The next-highest correlation was satisfaction with one's salary and benefits, followed by a sense of a personal relationship with God, he said.

Close friendships with other priests, the quality of spiritual life and a perception of priestly unity were among other factors that showed a strong correlation with priestly morale, he said.

Although large majorities in all age groups said their morale was good, the highest proportions came among priests recently ordained and priests ordained more than 40 years, he said. He said the percentage of those who expressed low morale was somewhat larger among those ordained 20 to 39 years.

He said that priests who described themselves as theologically conservative were more likely to consider their morale good than those who described themselves as theologically liberal.