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Response to PA Sexual Abuse

So, I can’t speak to a lot about the sexual scandals because frankly, I’m not part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. As a lay person and as a woman I’m not allowed to be.

However, I did receive my Master’s degree alongside many priests and here’s what I know is problematic in their formation process that can ultimately lead to people acting in such horrific ways.

During my three years in my Master’s program I was confided in by a few different men in formation for the priesthood who were experiencing normal romantic and sexual attraction and didn’t have anywhere to discuss these experiences. One man fell in love with a woman while on a pastoral ministry rotation and another man went a on a few dates with a woman and felt conflicted about whether to remain in his order or leave. Both of these experiences—falling in love—is perfectly human and good. However, because of their positions they were unable to discuss them with full candor with their formation directors out of fear that they may be asked to leave their religious orders.

Allow me to impress upon my reader what entering a potentially leaving a religious order required for these men:

  • Giving up their worldly possessions. Any monetary savings and investments were given up. Much of their clothing, books, odds and ends, were given up.

  • Many of these men are not in their home countries and are on Religious visas, meaning were they to leave their order they would no longer have a visa to remain in this country. Others (as we were in school) were on education visas and didn’t have a way to continue to pay for their education without the help of their religious order. This means that to leave their order would mean to left in a foreign country or at least a state where they have little familial support and have no money or professional experience outside of the Church to help them get on their feet.

  • Additionally in many countries, especially in the Global South, being asked to leave or choosing to leave a religious order after entering brings great shame to your family and to yourself.

For priests and seminarians to honestly discuss their challenges with peers (other priests) or superiors (formation directors, supervisors, etc) means risking not only the loss of a job, but ultimately being thrown out onto the street.

I know you’re probably thinking that a religious order would have to be somewhat compassionate. However, a friend of mine who was asked to leave his order was given a one-way ticket out of the country, despite his desire to complete his Master’s degree. Despite the fact that lay people also lived in this Religious order's dorms, he was not offered a roof. He was not offered money or assistance to find a new place to live. Nor was he given any tuition assistance by his order. Fortunately, the school offered him tuition assistance and an on-campus job, but that’s not something every theology school could offer.

During the process of my education all students were required to take a two-day ethics seminar. Lay people and priests were together for this seminar. While there were the typical questionable ideas about sexuality being spouted by presenters, what truly upset me was when we were told we could not have dual-relationships with people in our parishes. What this meant was, if you were working at a parish you were discouraged from having parishioners as friends. .

This promotes clericalism, by encouraging priests to see themselves as separate from and ultimately better than parishioners. We were told that the typical parishioner would project God's greatness onto us and therefore to develop a personal relationship with a parishioner could negatively impact the individual's faith life, especially if we were to demonstrate a less than ideal trait. In other words: the adults in your community can't be trusted to be adults and understand that you are in fact not speaking for God at all times and are merely human. The definition of clericalism, in the name of clear boundaries.

This is practice is also a social death sentence for priests:

A priest typically has one official day off a week. This day off is rarely a weekend day. A diocesan priest (one who stays in just a particular region—the priests in the PA report were all of this kind) typically lives alone or with one or two other diocesan priests. None of this is something they have much say in. Ordered priests (Jesuits, Franciscans etc.) have more community, typically, but they still have very little say in where they are and who they’re living with. It’s entirely possible to end up living for years in a place you hate with people who rub you the wrong way. It’s possible to live the loneliest life while trying to be a spiritual leader.

This process is a recipe for disaster. Imagine: You have only Monday’s off but you’re not allowed to be friends with your co-workers—and you work 10-12 hour days. So when you get home to your roommate who you have very little in common with, all you want to do is crash. You have friends, but most of them live in different cities or even countries.

You will crack. At one point or another. And you were set up for failure. I don't know much about pedophilia, so I can't say that were these men better supported emotionally and could have a space to honestly discuss their challenges that things would have been diffferent. However, I do know that humans on their most basic level need community and need intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationships. The structure of the priesthood and the formation of priests fails at providing space for these needs.

This in no way excuses priests’ behavior. I’m merely offering a inside look at part of the problem.

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