‘Everyone’s vulnerable to an accusation’: Bishops respond to priests’ fear of false abuse claims

‘Everyone’s vulnerable to an accusation’: Bishops respond to priests’ fear of false abuse claims

Left to right: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Worth-South Bend, Indiana, and Auxiliary Bishop Robert P. Reed of the Archdiocese of Boston. / CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 25, 2022 / 11:00 am (CNA).

A recent survey of priests found growing distrust of bishops and major fears that they would not get their support if faced with false abuse accusations.

Eighty-two percent of priests responding to a survey conducted by The Catholic Project, a research group at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said they live in constant fear of being falsely accused of sexual abuse.

And only 51% of diocesan priests believe their bishop would support them during an abuse investigation, according to the survey, which was released in October. Meanwhile, only 36% are confident their diocese would provide the resources necessary to defend themselves during a legal investigation.

CNA discussed those survey results with bishops attending the fall general assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore earlier this month. During the annual gathering, the U.S. bishops marked the 20th anniversary of the Dallas Charter protocols the conference adopted in 2002 for responding to abuse allegations against clergy.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco called the survey’s findings “very troubling,” adding that bishops must “support the priests that are having difficulties and troubles” and “be compassionate and patient with them.”

Cordileone said the possibility of career-ending accusations is even greater in some parts of the country than in others.

“Priests are under a lot of pressure, and we need to appreciate that, especially in the climate in some states, like our own (California), that once again has lifted the statute of limitations. Now everyone’s vulnerable to an accusation,” Cordileone said.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Reed of the Archdiocese of Boston voiced his sympathy with priests’ concerns, saying that priests live with the knowledge that they are “just one accusation away from retirement” and that in many cases, “if you are accused of something, that’s pretty much the end.”

Priests’ lack of trust in their bishop contributes directly to burnout. Young priests seem particularly vulnerable, with 60% of diocesan priests under the age of 45 voicing at least some level of burnout, according to the Catholic Project survey.

Connecting with and helping individual priests feel supported is a “challenge for bishops,” Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, told CNA.

“I think it is important,” Rhoades said, adding that he’s had to ask his staff for additional support “so that I can have time with the priests.”

Yet, when it comes to sexual abuse investigations, those challenges are further magnified. “You’re trying to be sensitive to the victim, alleged victim, and be there for them. Then there’s the priest,” Rhoades stated. “So it’s a really, really difficult thing to deal with, but we have to.”

To Reed, the solution to priests’ distrust of bishops is “less administration, more personal contact.” In Reed’s opinion, there “has to be a missionary aspect” of a bishop’s work. “A cup of coffee, you know, with a priest, celebrate the morning Mass, go out to dinner, maybe stay over the rectory, that kind of thing.”

Though a bishop can work hard to improve the trust with his priests, there is “nothing you really can do” about the one-and-done nature of abuse accusations, Reed conceded.

For Cordileone, it depends on the priest in question and his track record. Cordileone said that if “it’s clear that he’s innocent, and he’s been a respected pastor his whole life … (the priest’s bishop) has to protect his reputation … even despite the vitriol he’s going to receive. I think that that’s one thing that can help to rebuild trust with the priests.”

Shannon Mullen and Zelda Caldwell contributed to this story.

 

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