Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 6: The Role of the Priest

By TOM SMITH

There is no specific job description for a parish priest. Since Catholicism is so focused on sacraments, there is a general expectation that priests will preside during Catholic sacramental, ritual actions. But beyond that, job duties vary immensely. A priest can be as busy, as involved, as committed as he wants to be. Or he can be as lazy, as isolated, as detached as he wants to be. Unless he has another job attached to his priesthood, a job like teaching for example, he can rather easily schedule his day with a lot of free, unsupervised time.

The point here is that a priest who is also a sexual predator can find the time and space to act out his inclinations, and there is no one who will question where he is or how he spends his time. Other people with “regular” jobs have scheduled tasks to perform and some kind of work-related accountability usually including an on-site supervisor. That is not the norm with parish priests.

Preparation for the priesthood has centered on orthodox doctrine. The underlying message is that you will be a fine priest if you know the correct answers to questions related to faith and morals. The skills needed to celebrate the sacraments are minimal, and most of those skills are written out in detail in ritual books anyway. Unlike doctors, lawyers, plumbers, technicians, or engineers, the parish priest has little or no training except in church doctrine. In effect, his ministry is personality-based rather than skill-based.

We all have our personality flaws and they will occasionally interfere with our lives and relationships. And that’s the best case. A priest may officiate at sacraments perfectly but may be ineffective or even destructive in other aspects of his ministerial life. His ability to relate positively with people is crucial to the success of his ministry.

If a priest has a personality disorder, it will affect his relationships. If that disorder includes his sexual life, that too will impact his relationships. And if that disorder is severe enough, like pedophilia, his behavior will likely include sex abuse.

While a more structured work life will not cure major sex abuse inclinations, more work-related accountability may make it harder to act out in a sexually abusive manner. The built-in freedom that priesthood allows makes it that much easier to indulge these inclinations and the power inherent in the position makes it safer for the abuser to identify and victimize his targets.

There are many other reasons priesthood needs restructuring, but this one about protection of children and adults from sex abuse is a significant factor. Included in that restructuring is the need to create realistic and specific job descriptions for priests. For example, seminaries need to focus more on priestly ministry rather than dogmatic teaching. What is it that parish priests are expected to do every day? Specifically.  Priests who minister in large urban areas have a very different experience than those who serve in a rural setting. A suburban environment varies considerably from both urban or rural. Train seminarians for these different ministerial responsibilities and the variations of the parishioner profiles in each of these situations. What issues affect people in these various environments, and how best can the message of Jesus be delivered in these sometimes-conflicting settings? Draw up corresponding job descriptions and provide seminary education and training to prepare priests to minister accordingly. Include some dogma, of course, but not as the primary, or exclusive, focus as it has been for centuries.

Provide this revised approach for current priests as well.

Along with more precise job descriptions for priests, implement more accountable adherence to these specific ministerial responsibilities. Educate priests in the skills needed to be successful. Since priesthood is also personality-based, develop tools to help monitor the quality of the relationships that the priest experiences in his priestly role.  Bishops would then be chosen who excel in this area.

There are multiple benefits from this revision and re-emphasis. One would likely be a minimization of sex abuse and the need to cover up these crimes. In any case, the current Catholic culture and clerical lifestyle does not work well in the 21st century. The centrality of teaching and preaching correct orthodox doctrine is not the answer. Combined with other comments on Catholic culture from previous articles in this series, this suggested revision of the role of the priest will offer healthier and more genuine leadership that will, at the same time, minimize occurrences of sexual abuse and the need for cover-ups.

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