Homilitec and Pastoral Review Magazine
January 29, 2015
The evaluation process of accusations against priests in regard to determining their suitability for priestly ministry would benefit from greater justice and knowledge of psychological science. There are presently severe weaknesses in this process that should be addressed.
The practice of immediately removing a priest from ministry after an accusation is made should be reevaluated unless it has significant credibility. When the accusation is questionable and involves supposed boundary violation, grooming behavior, or consensual sexual behavior with an adult, the removal from active ministry harms the good name of the accused priest. A more just approach is that given to most other professionals who continue in their work while accusations are being evaluated.
Also, many priests have complained that some diocesan officials have treated them in a manner that lacked any sense of justice or charity, as though they were already convicted of criminal behavior, based on an unproven allegation.
An inappropriate response of some diocesan investigators is to go to the accused priest’s parish and communicate to parishioners the (unproven) accusations against him. Then, parishioners are asked to report any information they may have of any inappropriate behavior by the accused priest. Such behavior could create false memories in parishioners1 and harm the accused priest.
Justice requires an in-depth knowledge of the accuser, given the prevalence of false accusations in the culture such as occurred in the false memory epidemic against fathers that was influenced by mental health professionals.2 This knowledge would include an identification the accuser’s emotional background with his/her father because unresolved anger with a father can be misdirected, perhaps even unconsciously, at another father figure, the priest. It is also vital to evaluate any major weaknesses in secure attachment relationship from childhood and adolescence with parents, siblings and peers, and any traumatic experiences in adult life.
At a 2012 Rome conference on the crisis, a priest-psychologist stated that 95 percent of accusations against priests are valid in his experience. Most mental health professionals with expertise in working with priests do not accept such a view and have extensive experience with false accusations against priests and others, particularly related to divorce and custody issues.
In order for priests to defend themselves when accused, it is essential that priests be allowed to read the accusations made against them, as occurred in the past, prior to the Dallas Charter. If an accuser insists on remaining anonymous, the accusation lacks credibility.
An understanding of false accusations is essential for all involved in the evaluation and discernment process. Participation in ongoing education in this area should be required with a proof of a thorough understanding of the research and writing of the leading expert in memory and false memory, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, University of California, Irvine.3
The personality and spiritual temptation of giving into making false accusations undoubtedly is one of the reasons for the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” In view of the commandment, encountering false accusations should not be surprising to anyone.
False accusations against authority figures, coworkers, members of the clergy, and even spouses have been increasing in our clinical experience. Those against priests have been caused most frequently by excessive and misdirected anger and by hope for financial gain.4
When gathering data concerning the accused person, it is important to discover any possible uncovered motives in the accuser. Actual case histories have revealed some of the following conflicts in the accuser:
Vicars for clergy who are informed by parishioners that their pastor has a problem with being pastorally insensitive and angry should first ask themselves if they are, in fact, listening to a false accusation. Today, many faithful priests who teach the fullness of the Church’s truth on sexual morality and the sacraments are victims of such false accusations. Unfortunately, some clergy offices and bishops accept these accusations as being truthful without exploring the background and possible motives of an accuser, and then request the priest go for an evaluation of his supposed insensitive treatment of parishioners and anger at a treatment center of the Church.
Also, when the evaluation by the district attorney finds the accusations not credible, priests should be returned promptly to their priestly ministry. Sadly, some priests wait years or have not had their faculties restored.
Mental health professionals who are called upon to evaluate priests should report fully on the background of the accuser and should document how they have determined that the specific accusation against the priest is not false. The need for such an evaluation process is clear, given the extent of the false accusations made in our culture today. The same responsibility applies to review boards.
Since the major unresolved anger that adults bring into their adult lives that is misdirected at others arises from hurts in the father relationship, a thorough history of the accuser’s relationship with her/his father is required.
Unfortunately, some dioceses have supported false accusations by accusers with criminal records, who even spent time in jail. One such accuser, who had no proof of her accusation, received a financial settlement, followed by an attempt to laicize the priest.
A veteran Los Angeles lawyer, Mr. Steier, who was involved in over 100 investigations into claims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, wrote in a declaration to the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2011, “One retired FBI agent who worked with me to investigate many claims in the clergy cases told me, in his opinion, about one-half of the claims made in the clergy cases were either entirely false, or so greatly exaggerated, that the truth would not have supported prosecutable claim for childhood sexual abuse.”
Other reports of false accusations against priests that were supported by district attorneys’ offices have been documented.5
Many priests have been accused of grooming youth without meeting the criteria for any of the stages of grooming behaviors. Many of these priests had integrated their sexuality into their total gift of themselves as other Christs, as spiritual fathers, and as spouses to the Church. Enthusiastic ministry to youth and teaching the fullness of the Church’s truth about sexual morality has been misinterpreted as being inappropriate and dangerous to youth.
Dr. Michael Welner, forensic psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine, describes six stages of grooming that should be evaluated in those accused. These include:
Stage 1: Targeting the victim
Stage 2: Gaining the victim’s trust
Stage 3: Filling a need
Stage 4: Isolating the child
Stage 5: Sexualizing the relationship
Stage 6: Maintaining control
These behaviors are often never identified. Nonetheless, the priest is accused of grooming.
In response to one case of a priest identified as violating boundary violations and grooming, a highly respected forensic psychologist reviewed the case and concluded that the child protective office of the diocese did not know how to make an accurate diagnosis of boundary violations and grooming, and needed education in this vital area. This priest continues to be denied priestly ministry even though no family or child has ever filed a complaint against him for inappropriate sexual behavior.
In our clinical experience, priests are being subjected increasingly to accusations of having boundary issues. These accusations of boundary violations are often made by members of the parish and rectory staff, as well as school teachers or principals. In our evaluation of such cases, the priests were often engaging in completely appropriate priestly ministry with youth.
No accusations of boundary violations should be given merit unless the criteria for grooming behaviors are met, especially targeting a victim and isolating a minor.
Priestly behaviors incorrectly labeled as boundary violations include playing sports with youth on the school playground, being present to children as they were getting onto buses after school in a parish in which only a small percentage of the children attend Mass on Sunday, and visiting with an adolescent female in an office with an open door in the parish center before the weekly youth meeting.
Those who accuse priests of boundary violations or grooming behaviors often have the same inner psychological and spiritual conflicts as those who make false sexual allegations.
We recommend that a task force be developed of American Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists, to review the process of evaluation of accusations against priests and the criteria used for claims of boundary violations and grooming behaviors.
Presently, a major conflict exists, in that, for evaluations of allegations of grooming behaviors, boundary violations, allegations of troubled behaviors (according to parish staff or other priests or consensual adults), and other inappropriate behaviors, priests are required to go to inpatient treatment centers for priests and religious, rather than to mental health professionals who provide comprehensive evaluations in their offices.
A number of deviations from the accepted standards of care in the mental health field regularly occurs in the evaluations and recommendations at these inpatient centers, which include:
Another grave injustice is that the psychological evaluation of priests has been done by mental health professionals who work in close association with a district attorney’s office.6For example, a psychologist gave a priest the Abel Assessment for Sexual Interest, which has no proven scientific validity.7 The diagnosis given to the priest was that he had a psychiatric disorder related to attraction to girls, which has never existed in the mental health field. Opinions from such mental health professionals should not be accepted by review boards and second opinions should be required.
There are competent mental health professionals in most parts of the country today with a proven sensitivity in the evaluation of accused priests, who could perform evaluations of accused priests without the pressure of needing to fill inpatient hospital beds.
Many priests are fully aware of the difficulties concerning treatment center evaluations and insist upon the right to choose mental health professionals with expertise in treating priests, with the diocese or religious community having the right to request a second opinion.
The background for the work of the review boards is that the allegations of a charge of sexual abuse seem to be the one “crime” in our society in which the accused is considered guilty until proven innocent. This attitude in regard to accusations against priests, in particular, has led many priests to describe the present situation in the Church as a witch-hunt, comparable to that in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1600s.
A number of glaring deficiencies exist in the review board process and they include:
1. Lack of knowledge of the science related to memory and to false accusations. In our professional opinion, as stated earlier in this report, a lack of knowledge in regard to the current science surrounding accusations from the past is a serious problem for mental health professionals who evaluate accused priests and for the work of review boards. Review board members should be required to participate in ongoing education about the current science surrounding recall of traumatic sexual memories. Review board members, bishops, and religious superiors should have a thorough knowledge of the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.
In order to properly evaluate accusations, knowledge of the psychological background of the accuser is essential, particularly since the major, unresolved anger that people bring into their adult lives arises from hurts in the father relationship. Such anger can be unconsciously misdirected at other father/authority figures.
2. Failure to interview the accused. In review boards for other professions, no major decision is made against the right of the individual to exercise his/her profession without giving the individual the ability to appear before the review board to defend himself/herself. Priests deserve a similar just process.
3. Lack of ability to read charges against the accused. In the past, a priest was permitted to review the charges against him with his canon lawyer present, But now, that fundamental right has been removed. Today, only the canon lawyer can read the charges and cannot take a copy of them to the priest to review. This action is clearly unjust and damages the priest’s ability to defend himself.
4. Lack of knowledge of the spiritual life and priestly ministry of the accused priest. Many accused priests have successfully integrated their sexuality into their total gift of themselves as spouses to the Church and as spiritual fathers. Priests, who have done so, usually cope well with sexual temptations and are unlikely to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviors. The priest’s spiritual life should be evaluated by a priest member of the review board or by a consultant to the review board. This report should be available for review by all involved and should be an important aspect of the discernment of the bishop.
5. Unscientific diagnoses used against an accused priest. Review boards have arrived at opinions against the suitability of priests for ministry that often have no basis in psychological science. For example, priests have been determined to be unfit for priestly ministry because they were determined to be immature, in the absence of sexual accusations against them. The claim is made that this diagnosis makes them potentially dangerous to youth. The determination of immaturity is rarely objectively described. Furthermore, growth in maturity is viewed as a regular part of normal personality development and can occur at every life stage.
No psychological science exists that supports a relationship between so-called immaturity and a risk of sexual acting-out with youth. In our evaluation of priests so accused, they demonstrated a zeal for ministry to youth in parish schools.
Bishops should require that opinions offered by review boards be based in psychological science and reason, and not upon intuitive feelings against a priest.
6. Lack of transparency. When the review board offers opinions, they should be in writing, and the priest should be able to review them at the time of his meeting with his bishop/superior.
Opinions of review boards, that state that those priests engaged in boundary violations and grooming behaviors, need to be defended with objective criteria that are agreed upon by competent mental health professionals. Each review board should include at least one competent mental health professional who is familiar with the psychological dynamics related to false accusations.
7. The history of priestly ministry of the accused. In addition to the spiritual evaluation of the accused priest, the history of the exercise of his priestly ministry should be documented. This history is vital in the discernment process for each priest.
8. Proof that the accusation is not false. The review board should be required to state its specific reasons as to why it has determined that the accusations against a priest for boundary violations or inappropriate sexual behaviors are not false accusations. They should describe the family background of the accused and the life adjustment at the time of the accusation. The causes of false accusations should be listed and identified as not applicable to the accuser.
Bishops and religious superiors should be aware of the present weaknesses in the evaluation process. Justice requires that the bishop should insist that the review board present to him a thorough analysis of the adult accuser(s) of priests. The bishop should review with the priest how the review board has determined that the accusations are not false.
Bishops and religious superiors need to exercise caution and prudence in evaluating the review board’s decisions specifically in support of boundary violations, grooming behaviors, and psychological conflicts that the board has determined indicate the need to remove priestly ministry.
Some bishops attempt to laicize priests after one sexual mistake with a woman while reassigning priests who act out homosexually. Other bishops have refused to even open second mental health opinions on priests who attest to their psychological health and fitness for ministry.
St. John Paul II has written that, “The priest should mold his human personality in such a way that he becomes a bridge, and not an obstacle, for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Humanity.”8 Many priests with healthy personalities have been the victims of the injustice of having their priestly faculties removed, due to a flawed evaluation process by child protective services, mental health professionals, and review boards.
Justice requires that many priest cases be reviewed in light of the psychological science related to anger, the nature of false accusations, and memory recall, particularly, those evaluated by mental health professionals working in association with a district attorney’s office or for a treatment center. These priests should have the right to pursue second opinions. Review board decisions based on these reports should be reevaluated.
We recommend a task force be developed of American Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists to review the mental health evaluations of accused priests and the activities of the review boards, in order to develop more scientifically rigorous criteria to protect priests and the Church.