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Posted June 23, 2008

Time Is Not Your Friend

Richard Bakker, MA, CCDC, CPC
Vol. I No. 5 October/November 1997

How often has a Bishop or Superior sensed that something was inappropriate about the behavior of one of the priests/Religious for whom they were responsible, but were reluctant to act? How many times has someone been seen drinking too much at a social function, yet no one intervenes? How frequently is it reported that someone is unavailable because he/she is preoccupied with other, unknown activities? The inclination to give the person time to straighten out is strong, natural, and potentially disastrous. In my 14 years as a therapist at Saint Luke Institute I have seen far too many valuable and talented people destroyed by scandal, alcohol, drugs or even suicide because intervention came too late. None of the above situations will improve without action and there is no time to plan in a crisis. The passage of time only increases the pain and the damage: Time is not your friend.

This short article is about one very common example of unprofessional and indeed, unethical behavior. I trust the reader can see how some, if not all, of the principles apply on a larger scale. The general heading is 'MAINTAINING PROPER BOUNDARIES'.

Over-involvement is always a danger sign. When a professional colleague (priest/Religious, counselor, spiritual director) is exhibiting signs of over-involvement with counselees, parishioners or students, we assume that time will cure the problem; that the colleague will straighten out. Time may heal some wounds, but only if the infection is first eradicated.

A human service professional gets deeply involved in the personal and spiritual lives of those he/she counsels. This is necessary for counseling to be effective. Over-involvement in the sense of doing "too much" for the counselee is often recognized and addressed. We call it 'fostering dependency', 'codependency', 'caretaking', 'disempowering'. Another form is when the involvement becomes reciprocal, when the counselor's issues, needs, or desires become part of the relationship. Some of the warning signs are when the counselor:

has difficulties setting boundaries and limits (time, touch, subject matter),

progressively shares more intimate details of himself,

idly thinks, talks or fantasizes about the counselee apart from scheduled times,

desires or attempts to see the counselee in other settings (e.g., social),

finds personal needs being satisfied with counselee and spends less time with peers,

begins to think of or describe the relationship as other than professional,

finds it difficult or neglects to process important details of the counselee's well-being with his advisors.
Self-intervention would be the ideal, but it is rare. Some aspects of these warning signs have external manifestations that can be recognized by colleagues or advisors - if they will let themselves notice and do something. The "something" that must be done is to challenge the professional to:

immediately and explicitly set boundaries and stricter limits,

enter into professional consultation and/or supervision that is documented,

refer and/or terminate the relationship quickly if limits and supervision do not have fast results.
Over-involvement is abusive and easily leads to behaviors that are both painful and criminal, frequently leaving the sponsor open to lawsuits. Don't ignore warning signs; intervene.

When a crisis arises religious systems ought to have in place a plan which would seek to:

Remove and Contain: (the priest/Religious, situation, victims, scandal)

Evaluate: (the damage, victims, priest/Religious)

Treat: (the victims, priest/Religious, constituency)
If this article has stirred something in you, take it seriously. There are probably resources in your area which can help you. Here at Saint Luke Institute we have a number of staff professionals, Father Steve Rossetti, Doctors Frank Valcour, Steve Montana or Carol Farthing, available for telephone or personal consultations. You may call me as well. The temptation is to hope the problem will lessen, that time will take care of the situation. But, as I said above, time is not your friend.

Recommended reading:

Sex in the Forbidden Zone, Fawcett Crest, New York. Code of Ethics for Counselors, American Counseling Association

After 14 years as a therapist, Richard Bakker currently holds the position of Director of Corporate Services.