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Challenges for Priestly Ministry in Ireland Today: Marie Keenan

Priesthood in a Time of Crisis: What do we know about Priests and the Challenges they face?
While some might argue that there is no crisis in the Church today I think for our purposes I am taking the position that the Church in Ireland is in crisis and that this poses particular challenges for Catholic priests. I am also taking the position that with challenges come opportunities and that while crises provide many challenges and often much pain and grief, humanly we are often more able to embrace change when in a crisis than when in a period of stability and certainty. However, we need human support to weather a crisis as well as to embrace the new learning. Avoiding isolation is critical. This is why I commend the work of the Association of Catholic Priests and will support your work in whatever way I can.
While I will talk in the main in this paper about the main body of priests, sometimes in the literature referred to as “normal” priests or in the popular press as “good” priests, I will also reserve some space to mention a group of priests who are very close to my heart at the moment; priests who have been falsely accused. I will not talk so much today about priests who have perpetrated sexual abuse because I have written extensively about these men in my book Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church, Gender Power and Organizational Culture New York: Oxford University Press (2011). Neither will I talk so much about priests who have been elevated to the rank of bishop or cardinal, mainly because a lot more research needs to be undertaken with these men in order for one to speak with any kind of authority about their lives and their challenges.
“Normal” Clergy
I want to begin in the United States – mainly because there is quite a bit of research on priesthood in the US and although the issues may be different there than they are for priests in Ireland, because local conditions apply to do with history and so on, it is useful to look to the US to give us at least a place to start, despite the limitations.
There is a tradition of research with Catholic clergy in the United States, the narrative of which I want to begin with the closing of the Second Vatican Council. While the post-conciliar years were full of excitement, anticipation and hope for many priests and laity alike, it was also a period of uncertainty, as many of the hitherto taken-for-granted certainties appeared to come up for review both in the structure of the Church, parish, diocese etc and to some extent in the role of the priesthood. Questions were being asked by priests themselves such as: What are we about? How distinct are we priests? Should we have a unique social status? Will a celibate priesthood continue into the future? And so on
In response to this questioning many priests began to take action. Some began to organize themselves into self-governing organizations and others chose to resign. These developments alarmed the Church leadership who decided to investigate the situation by means of a number of research projects. The bishops wanted to learn the facts about the priests’ satisfactions, dissatisfactions and their problems. Andrew Greeley and Richard Schoenherr were put in charge of this research under the auspices of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the research project produced a three volume set of work. Greeley himself produced a very interesting study on active and resigned priests in 1972 which was published as The Catholic Priest in the United States: Sociological Investigations (NORC). Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler’s (1971) published The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations and Tracy Ellis’s (1971) produced an edited collection The Catholic Priest in the United States: Historical Investigations. The 1970s surveys have served as the bedrock of research on priesthood in the United States for decades, and have been drawn upon and replicated by scholars for assessing trends and offering comparisons and so on. In 1985 and 1993 Dean Hoge, formerly of the Catholic University of America, replicated questions from the 1970 survey. In 2001 again the survey was repeated, this time under an initiative of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. The First Five Years of the Priesthood (2002) and Evolving Visions of the Priesthood (2003) emerged from this work.
What is interesting however about the 1970s surveys is that having commissioned the studies, the bishops of the USA did not act on any of the findings. In fact, Barbara Balboni who undertook research with the US bishops in 1998 in relation to their response to the abuse situation, could find no evidence that the National Conference of American Catholic Bishops had initiated discussions on the findings, made any attempt to follow through on the suggestions made or to respond to the needs of priests, many of whom the research suggests were struggling. Some commentators have since argued that had the bishops of the US studied these research findings and acted on them at the time that some of the later crisis in the Catholic Church with regard to clerical sexual abuse might have been averted. Kennedy’s work (1971: 7-12) in particular, drew attention to personal immaturity, intimacy deficits, poor psychosexual integration and poor self awareness for some men whom he classified as “underdeveloped”, who incidentally were not in the minority. Kennedy highlighted a concern that some priests were using priesthood as a protection from facing some of their life issues and that they were struggling.
Apart from these large scale surveys, other research has also been undertaken with clergy in the US. The Los Angeles Times also carried out an elaborate survey of American priests in the summer of 2002, when yet another wave of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy was hitting the Church in America. Several other researchers have produced research based on smaller data sets on particular issues such as sexuality, personality functioning, family background etc. And Stephen Rossetti has just published the results of research based on two large scale studies of priests in the US, the first involved 1,242 priests in 2003 to 2004, and the second surveyed 2,482 priests from 2008 to 2009 . This work is published as Rossetti is interested in the psychological and spiritual health of Catholic priests in the United States in this research.
So what have all these surveys told us about priests and about priesthood?
Hoge and Wenger (2003) identify two models of the priesthood that were operative in the US in 2003. In “the cultic model” of priesthood the sacred role of the priest is underlined, emphasis is placed on worship and the sacraments, and the priest is seen and sees himself as a man who is set apart, – if you like as part of a separate clerical caste. The second model is described as “the servant-leader model” in which the priest is seen as sharing the human condition with all of the baptized. This model de-emphasizes the priest’s separateness and special status, placing himself in the twin roles of servant and leader. A priests’ distinctiveness in this model comes from his spiritual and institutional leadership within the community and not as a matter of ontological difference coming from holy orders. Lest anyone think that the cultic model might apply to older clergy and the servant-leader model apply to younger men, Hoge and Wenger found that younger clergy are increasingly more orthodox than the middle aged clergy and often hold values that are in keeping with older institutional norms. Some younger clerics are more inclined to buy into the cultic model of priesthood in which the priest is set apart and set above the laity. Hoge and Wenger also detected however a fear amongst priests that they would be reduced to “sacramental machines” as a result of declining numbers and the Church response to this.
Other things Hoge and Wenger (2003) found are that the average age of priests is on the rise, priests were very critical of their seminary education, especially older priests who argued that “few attempts were made to help the seminarians learn how to deal with people”. Generally the priests’ criticism concerned their lack of training in the human and practical aspects of priestly life more than the academic coursework. The loneliness of priestly life was a topic also that many priests wanted to discuss . In terms of satisfaction, “the joy of administering the sacraments and presiding over the liturgy” and “the satisfaction of preaching the Word” were high on the list. What is important here is that these functions are similar; both take place in the Mass, both are personal performances in public and both involve sacred duties that may be carried out only by priests . In the Los Angeles Times survey the clear majority of priests said they are satisfied with their lives, with 70% saying they were very satisfied –finding that were also found by Hoge and Wenger (2003) . The percentage of priests who were “very happy” rose steadily from the 1970s, up to 2001. In terms of unhappiness, 6% said they were “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied”.
The ten problems facing priests in the US in order of significance in 2003 were : the way authority is exercised in the Church (24%), too much work (17%), unrealistic demands and expectations of lay people (13%), loneliness of the priestly life (13%), being expected to represent church teachings with which I have difficulty (13%), celibacy (11%), uncertainty about the future of the Church (10%), Relationship with the diocesan bishop of the diocese in which you work (8%), relationships with superiors or pastors (7%) or difficulty of really reaching people today (7%) (Hoge and Wenger, 2003: 32). Because the same 20 problems have been asked in the survey since 1970 some changes are evident over the decades: (1). The proportion of priests reporting “too much work” as a great problem has nearly doubled since 1970 (8% – 15%). (2). The proportion citing the “unrealistic demands and expectations of lay people” as a great problem also nearly doubled (7% – 15%). (3). The percentage citing “difficulty of really reaching people today” fell from 16% to 7%.
In terms of sources of support the findings are clear: “Priests receive their strongest support from their families, non-priest friends and staff members where they minister. They receive less support from fellow priests, their bishops, their presbyteral councils, leaders of their institutes (if religious) and the Vatican. For religious priests, support from leaders of their institutes and from local religious communities was ranked next highest, while for diocesan priests the next highest support was from parishioners and fellow priests. For all, the least support cited was that from the Vatican and from national organizations”
Hoge and Wenger’s research took place just before the 2002 Sexual Misconduct Crisis on clergy in the US, the effects of which are hard to understand. The Los Angeles Times survey, which took place in July, August, September 2002, during the height of the crisis, asked the following question “What are the most important problems facing the Roman Catholic Church in the United States today” and found the following answers: “shortage of priests” (25%), “problems with bishops and hierarchy” (20%), “child abuse by clergy” (18%), and “restoring credibility to priests” (13%). Rossetti’s recent research undertaken in more recent times was therefore consulted to help us try to answer this question. However what we find is a number of interesting and maybe confusing findings.
Happiness and Priesthood
A central finding of Rossetti’s study is the extraordinarily high rates of priestly happiness and satisfaction. He argues that priests, as a group in the US, are very happy men. They like priesthood and they are committed to it. They find much satisfaction in their lives and ministries. Spiritual variables are important here. Many priests stressed the importance and satisfaction of celebrating the Eucharist and the other sacraments, similar to Hoge and Wenger’s earlier findings. Other factors that increased happiness were the quality of the priest’s relationship with his bishop. A priest who reported a good relationship with his bishop was much more likely to be a happy priest. Over three quarters of the priests in Rossetti’s sample reported having a good relationship with their individual bishops and of approving of their leadership. Rossetti found that priests, by and large, are not lonely. While a slight dip in morale was noted in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis this dip now appears to be fading.
Having told such a happy tale of priesthood it was therefore interesting to note that when priests were asked in Rossetti’s survey about the morale of other priests, the results indicate that they perceived low morale amongst other priests, but not in relation to themselves. Rossetti argues that the priestly perception of a lower morale amongst others may be tied to an acute awareness of the suffering and public humiliation and embarrassment that many priests have had to endure in recent times as well as to other challenges of priesthood today, shortage of priests and so on. However my take is that those priests, who saw the morale of others as low, may be drawing somehow on their own experiences. I suspect that priests do not want to acknowledge how difficult it is for them today to be part of a Church to which they have given their lives which is trembling under their feet. They also want to be loyal.
Coming to Ireland
In Ireland we have much less research on Catholic clergy than is available in the United States. However, the 1997 survey carried out by the Dublin Diocesan Council of Priests on priests of the Archdiocese of Dublin did provide some interesting findings. It showed that just like priests in the United States three of the top supports for Dublin clergy were spiritual; the Mass, awareness of the presence of god and personal prayer. Two of the others were relational – friends and family. General Church leadership, the clergy scandals and the image of the Church were listed as three of the top five sources of stress. We have little research on the effects of the sexual abuse crisis on Catholic clergy in Ireland but it is to this that I now wish to turn. Unlike Rossetti who argues for a slight dip in morale in US clergy following the 2002 abuse crisis that is now on the rise again, in the Irish case I think the abuse crisis and its extensive parameters has not alone hurt the survivors of abuse and the Irish laity but also the clergy, in ways that are still un-languageable. It is to a number of observations of the abuse crisis in Ireland that I now wish to turn.
1. Priests have begun to talk to me about the Church’s own safeguarding procedures in which the priest feels the balance of rights have become seriously out of synch with fair and just practice. “Guilty until proven innocent” is what many priests now experience. Some of these practices and protocols which include announcements from the pulpit if a man is being stepped down following abuse allegations increase the trauma of the experience. Priests explain to me that they no longer feel like they are an asset to their Church but rather that they are seen as a liability. Heavily policed but poorly supported by Church leaders priests tell me they feel like they are being treated as the problem, not as part of the solution. In taking on this issue I think the Association of Catholic Priests is to be commended.
2. Child protection is becoming increasingly legalistic and bureaucratic in general across many jurisdictions, but in my view the Catholic Church in Ireland wins the prize for taking this to extremes. The Church’s child protection structures are fast becoming unnecessarily bureaucratic, legalistic, centralised and costly institutions that work in parallel to those of the State, duplicating work with questionable results, not only in Ireland but also in the US and the UK. While many applaud these initiatives, which are a response by the Catholic Church to the public outcry that followed the disclosure of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, in my view they are built on a flawed logic that is itself at the core of the problem – i.e., that the Catholic Church is set above and set apart! In my view, the Catholic Church does not need its own child protection or child safeguarding centralised super operation; it merely needs to co-operate at local level with the agents of the State, just like other professional groupings, such as teachers, social care professionals, doctors, lawyers and other health and care professionals. It is also worryingly clear that the Catholic Church’s Safeguarding Office is attempting to impose a ‘top-down’ structure of child protection and child safeguarding on the dioceses and agents of the Catholic Church, in ways that run against acknowledged best practice in child protection. Instead of encouraging local cooperation and multidisciplinary approaches to enhancing the well-being and protection of children, the National Office for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland appears intent on imposing a centralist approach in which all dioceses and agents are controlled by the National Office’s Chief Executive and its policies. It is little wonder that parallels between such a centralised form of control and the centralised form of control that was previously exercised by the Church hierarchy and so trenchantly criticised by the laity, have been well drawn.
This situation signals for me, not good child protection practices but a breakdown of right relationship and a breakdown in trust. Not only have priests lost trust in the hierarchy, but it appears to me too that the hierarchy has lost trust in the priests. In what is mirroring the punitive form of civil protection that is taking place in civil society, what David Garland has called the “garrison state”, the Catholic Church is creating its own garrison state within a garrison state in which the only antidote to current fear is the endless extension of control.
3. The breakdown of trust between many Irish bishops and their clergy in what can only be described as a Church culture of fear is contributing to many hours of unhappiness for priests and I believe to other problems, the consequence of which we have not yet begun to know. While many clergy and bishops have always known a lot about fear, fear is now on its way to becoming generalised into a permanent condition, from which there is little respite. Unsustainable over the long term, eventually caution will be thrown to the wind as priests cannot any longer live in such a garrison state. Disgruntled, disenfranchised and voiceless in the unequal landscape of power relations, Church leaders will ignore clergy and their issues and concerns at their peril, if the American situation that I described earlier is anything to go by.
4. Relationships need to be restored, not only between the bishops and the laity, but also between the bishops and the clergy. Top down models of leadership will not repair this broken trust. In fact it will only prolong the problems and add to the pain. Honest engagement and dialogue is the only way forward here, no matter how long it takes. In a lesson that the Church leadership do not seem yet to have learned, external edicts destroy motivation; engaging with people and valuing their skills, knowledge, hopes, dreams, visions and imaginings for a renewed church is likely to do the opposite.
5. I am concerned about the absence of transparency in the running of many dioceses, not just in relation to financial matters as was suggested by recent commentary in Dublin, but in relation to how individual priests are treated when it comes to accommodation, salary, appointments and so on. The absence of transparency and potential for abuse of power in what is basically a system with few checks and balances, when it comes to the relationship between bishops and priests, leaves many priests in Ireland vulnerable vis-a-vis these basic human needs. I think Alan Hilliard echoed the current sentiments of many priests when he wrote in last week’s Irish Catholic of Irish priests: “if you are not at the table you are on the menu”.
6. I wonder if priesthood is undergoing a crisis in identity not unlike the one following the second Vatican council in which priests are questioning what is means to be a priest in the 21st century modern Ireland in a way that can be inclusive of diversity and of many traditions and orientations. What does it mean to be Catholic and Christian and working for God in the modern world? I wonder if the revisioning of priesthood alongside a revisioning of the Church in Ireland and mending our broken faith will need a Synod for Ireland or facilitated dialogues in which the wonderful collective energy that was clear to be seen here last night might replace Willie Whitelaws “stirring of collective apathy” that Kevin Hegarty referred to in his talk.
7. I have said elsewhere but I will say again here I believe that social context must ultimately be restored to the issue of the Church’s handling of abuse complaints and that some questions must be raised about the conventional interpretations that are reified in current explanations. First, my suggestion is that the privileged position afforded to some government appointed commissions might benefit from further analysis, if we are to learn anything from the literature on government appointed commissions and their capacities for reinforcing Government norms at the expense of a more critical analysis. While public inquiries are commonly seen in a positive light, they must also be looked at in terms of their role in the debates surrounding the relationship between power and knowledge – and the story that wants to be told. Scholars point to the political nature of commissions and public inquiries set up for investigating particular events and to the relationship between power and knowledge and how truth is created. The legalistic nature of such proceedings is also called into question on the basis that they do not necessarily encourage a broader or creative view that might lead to more effective solutions. “Limited by scope, the public inquiry frequently deals at the micro level, ignoring macro issues and the social, political and cultural contexts in which disasters occur” . For example, the decision-making processes that were employed in the Catholic Church in relation to the handling of the abuse problem are rather more complex than the published accounts or media representations suggest. In particular, in the Dublin Archdiocese for example, the role of the auxiliary bishops in relation to the Archbishop needs further unpacking and scholarly analysis. Similarly, in the wider Catholic Church in Ireland the relationship of the Irish bishops to Rome could well benefit from more in-depth qualitative analysis. The role of the theology of obedience and the style of repressive governance of the Catholic Church are areas that also warrant further critical exploration.
Several commentators have pointed to obvious shortcomings in the Murphy Report, and I am convinced that shortcomings are also evident in many of the statutory inquiries into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland; reports that all call out for serious scholarly and perhaps legal analysis and deconstruction. In the absence of such scholarship public opinion is influenced by an uncritical reading of the revelations of the official investigations and by published accounts into the handling of abuse complaints that are adding to the fast accumulating recorded history of the subject. These accounts are becoming reified as accepted explanations of why the bishops responded as they did, leaving many questions unanswered and many avenues unexplored. The conventional explanation of the hierarchy’s response to the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which has become a theory of ‘cover-up,’ is also one that needs further and much deeper analysis. My concern is that in isolating individuals from their systemic context as the objects of blame, further injustices may be perpetrated in the name of justice.
In addition we have not yet begun to examine the practices of other organisations and their professionals such as teachers, social workers, social care workers or other health and justice professionals to get a picture of the practices of other organisations in Ireland during the relevant period on which to base comparative and reasoned analysis. As some current analysis is beginning to show the Catholic Bishops were not the only individuals who were not reporting sexual abuse to the statutory authorities. As our crime statistics in Ireland for the relevant period are also grossly inadequate, there is an agenda of comparative social policy research that needs to be undertaken before we can say that any one group of adults were better or worse than the Catholic Church in Ireland in how we failed our nation’s children. I would argue that we have all failed the nation’s children and we are still failing them badly.
Despite my criticisms of aspects of the statutory inquiries into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Ireland, only few of which are outlined here, I believe we can be fully confident that the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports contain important data about the extent of the abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in Ireland and of how some senior clerics responded to them. Many of these facts are beyond refute, and they have lifted a burden from many abuse survivors who have at last been believed. It cannot be emphasised often enough how vital this deep remembering is and how important it is that the accounts of the suffering of thousands of Irish children are woven into the collective memory of Irish social and Church history forever. There is a journey of collective healing and recovery that has yet to be undertaken. Restorative and transformative processes are yet to be explored in relation to sexual abuse and the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Turning Now to False Allegations
Over the past few years I have met with a number of priests who have been subjected to false accusations and I have worked therapeutically with a number of these men. My experience is that they are the forgotten ones, regarded as “collateral damage” by the institution, and although given a sympathetic ear when personally encountered by the public when they come to know of their cases, in truth there is not much public appetite for hearing the plight of clerics who are falsely accused, especially in the face of such wrongdoing by so many of their clerical colleagues. This situation however troubles me now needs attention and I would like to make a few points here in relation to this situation.
1. My experience of working with and listening to priests who have been falsely accused is that their hurt and anger is rarely directed primarily to his accuser but rather to the manner in which their case was treated by the Church authorities. This is so because in the mind of the falsely accused priest the injustice of the situation is firmly associated with those people who have acted as judge, jury and executioner of his good and innocent name – the very people from whom he might have expected some kindness and support. The bond between the priest and the bishop are often profoundly ruptured in the course of such proceedings. From these men I have learned how the situation might be improved.
2. Falsely accused priests often tell me that they would prefer if the preliminary investigation is made outside of the Church or Bishop, perhaps by the Gardai or the Health Services Executive, because believe it or not, many of the men I spoke with [and including those correctly accused] felt they were met with more professional care and attention when dealing with personnel outside of the Church who were adequately trained for the job, rather than with Church personnel who were often overstepping the mark. Such a demarcation of functions for a preliminary investigation would put the bishop in a better position to deal with the man’s immediate pastoral care and his long terms care and the pastoral needs of the person making the complaint.
3. Preliminary questions must also be asked of the accuser/victim by a competent experienced authority who will ensure in the first instance that the priest is not publicly suspended by a mere allegation made by perhaps a mentally unwell person or by a person who is operating a con, resulting in serious injustice to the innocent priest, as has happened in the past. The competent authority will advise the accused and his superiors if there is a case to answer. While we know that most allegations against Catholic clergy are not false, and it takes enormous courage for survivors to disclose, at the same time it has also been proven in the Irish courts that false allegations against Catholic clergy have been made by people who were telling untruths.
4. If the accused priest must stand aside he must get immediate professional care and support, organized by the dioceses and paid for by them. In many situations accused men who are asked to “stand aside” are often sent home, or to another home, unmonitored, and told not to exercise any of his usual priestly functions. At a time in his life when he is very vulnerable and distressed he has nothing to do, nothing to occupy his day and nowhere to go. Many of the men I met with were told to leave their ministries and/or their homes without any alternative arrangements in place. This situation can lead to a prolonged and very painful and lonely “limbo”.
5. Public announcements from the pulpit must cease in cases where a man is protesting his innocence.
6. The present application of the regulation makes no provision for restorative justice for the falsely accused priest. Once the accusation has been proven false there is no formal after-care for the traumatised priest. The priest is left to “get on with it”. This may be partly due to the fact that the bond of relationship between the bishop and the priest has already been damaged by the procedure. The men tell me it can be hard to put the pieces together again. There is no provision for healing process or apology. From my understanding of Canon Law, it even precludes the priest from taking legal action. Aftercare therefore needs to be provided for the accused. The bishop must develop a definite procedure of restorative justice for the falsely accused priest – not only for restoration of his name and reputation but as each priest will have a different experience of the personal trauma there must be a listening process on the part of the bishop and diocese so that the assistance given to the priest will be commensurate with his needs.
7. Finally the family of the accused priest need to meet with the bishop to address their concerns. My experience is that families of clergy – correctly or falsely accused, are often forgotten.
I want to conclude my talk today by drawing on the work of an American psychotherapist Kathe Weingarten. She tells us that hope is a resource. We hoard it at our peril. It is a human rights issue and something that we do together. Just as food, water, and security must be equitably distributed, so too, must hope. Whether we offer or receive it, co-create or imagine it, we can all participate in doing hope together. Thank you for allowing me be part of your first AGM.

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  1. Surely Marie Keenan is the best commentator on the Irish Church today. Her command of objective, scientific reasoning brings a healing perspective to bear on the murkiest situations and her suggestions carry the force of seasoned and well-grounded reflection. She is a voice to be listened to, and acted on.

  2. I am most impressed with Marie Keenan’s work. As a former priest of the Dublin diocese I find that everything she says makes sense. It is a great pity the institutional church is unable to listen and act upon her ideas, but I think their mindset prevents them from being able to do so.

  3. Robert Sykes says:

    Marie Keenan’s work sets the stage for an examination of impact of Catholicism on the populace in general…the emphasis on obedience, the discouragement of critical discourse and contemplation and the essentially dysfunctional approach to normal physical and emotional development have traumatized the laity as well…is it any wonder that a viable institution remains? The emergence of Pope Francis has given us hope that healing and reconciliation can be initiated…

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