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Survey of priests indicates lack of confidence in support from bishops

According to survey, majority of priests fear false accusations of abuse, and believe bishops wouldn’t assist them in that event

WASHINGTON — A study of U.S. priests released Oct. 19 details clerics’ “crisis of trust” toward their bishops as well as fear that if they were falsely accused of abuse, prelates would immediately throw them “under the bus” and not help them clear their name.

The study “Well-being, Trust and Policy in a Time of Crisis” by The Catholic Project, written by Brandon Vaidyanathan, Christopher Jacobi and Chelsea Rae Kelly, of The Catholic University of America, paints a portrait of a majority of priests who feel abandoned by the men they are supposed to trust at the helm of their dioceses.

And while the study says priests overwhelmingly support measures to combat sex abuse and enhance child safety, the majority, 82%, also said they regularly fear being falsely accused. Were that to happen, they feel they would face a “de facto policy” of guilty until proven innocent.

The study, unveiled at The Catholic University of America in Washington, documents the environment between priests and their bishops in light of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” instituted in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Commonly referred to as the Dallas Charter, it sets in place policy about how to proceed when allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy or Church personnel come to light.

“Indeed, many priests feel that the policies introduced since the Dallas Charter have depersonalized their relationship with their bishops; they see bishops more as CEOs, bureaucrats, and legalistic guardians of diocesan finances than as fathers and brothers,” the study points out and quotes a diocesan priest saying: “Our archbishop is a remote figure. Not at all personable. Not approachable. He appears to be a busy CEO and religious functionary.”

The document reveals that 40% of the priests who responded said they see the zero-tolerance policy as “too harsh” or “harsher than necessary,” adding that it’s too easy to lodge false claims of abuse against them. They feel bishops would not support a priest in the period necessary to prove his innocence.

“There’s this sense … that the bishops are against a priest who’s been accused, rather than doing what the bishop must do but still supporting the priest,” said one of the 100 priests that researchers interviewed in-depth.

“Most priests agree with the Church’s response to the abuse crisis, but also fear that their bishops wouldn’t have their backs if they were falsely accused,” said Vaidyanathan, one of the study’s authors.

Of the 10,000 diocesan and religious priests surveyed, just 24% said they had confidence in U.S. bishops in general. Instead, priests in the study said they predominantly see the prelates as social climbers, careerists and administrators who barely know priests in their diocese by name.

The study says 131 bishops also participated in the study, which analyzed attitudes about priests’ well-being, trust and the policy related to the sex abuse crisis.

In response to the study, the USCCB’s Public Affairs Office released a statement by Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, chairman of the organization’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.

“I am grateful for the insight provided by this study which will assist the bishops in our ministry to our priests. While not surprised, I am heartened that the results report priests have such a high level of vocational fulfilment and that they remain positive about their priestly ministry,” Bishop Checchio said in the Oct. 19 statement.

The bishop referred to a figure in the document that showed that 77% of the priests in the study could be categorized as “flourishing” — saying they felt fulfilled and had a sense of meaning and purpose — and 4% reporting that they were thinking of leaving the priesthood.

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