Highlights of the National Study of Catholic Priests
Considerations of trust and policy between priests and bishops
Brandon Vaidyanathan, Christopher Jacobi, Sara Perla Comments Off on Highlights of the National Study of Catholic Priests
This year, The Catholic Project, an initiative at The Catholic University of America that aims to foster effective collaboration between the clergy and the laity of the Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, conducted the largest study of Catholic priests in the country in more than 50 years. The initial report for the National Study of Catholic Priests, released in October 2022, summarizes the study’s findings about priests’ well-being, trust in leadership and policy support in the wake of the abuse crisis.
The study originated in a conversation between a bishop and the former president of The Catholic University of America, John Garvey, regarding a shift in the relationship between bishops and priests after the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Dallas Charter) in 2002. The bishop intuited that his priests no longer came to him with personal struggles, and he expressed a desire that things be different. The study looked at levels of trust in the relationship between bishops and priests to see whether the bishop’s intuition was accurate, and what might be done about it.
The study was conducted in three parts: a census survey of bishops (131 responses); a survey of a nationally representative sample of 10,000 priests (3,516 responses); and over 100 one-on-one interviews with survey respondents. The census of bishops was carried out by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) between October 2021 and February 2022. The survey of priests was conducted by Gallup between February and June in 2022 and the interviews between March and June 2022.
Trust in the Bishop
The study paints a sobering picture of the relationship between bishops and priests today — one that is fraught with distrust and tension, viewed in different ways by each party. According to the data, less than half (49%) of diocesan priests in the United States have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the decision-making and leadership of their bishop, and fewer than a quarter (24%) have that level of confidence in the “U.S. bishops in general.”
Numerous commentators have called this section of the report a “wake-up call” for the bishops. One diocesan priest said: “I personally have no confidence in [my bishop]. I would no more call him about something than a stranger on the street.”
The study also points to glaring differences in the extent to which priests and bishops think they know each other. Bishops are much more confident about their relationship with priests than priests are about this relationship. To the question — “How well do you and your bishop know each other?” — none of the bishops answered “not well,” while 12% of priests did.
On the other end, 89% of bishops answered “very or moderately well” with only 61% of priests agreeing with that assessment. Bishops told us that they see themselves as fathers and brothers to the priests (70% and 73%, respectively) but only 28% of priests see them that way. Instead, priests primarily see the bishop as an administrator (55%), and they become concerned if the chancery is calling them.
A priest’s confidence in his bishop also has a strong statistical relationship with his well-being. In fact, distrust for the bishop was associated with lower levels of well-being for priests on every dimension of well-being on the Harvard Flourishing Index, a validated psychological instrument for measuring well-being.
Chart 1, where a score of 0 represents the worst possible score and 20 represents the best possible, diocesan priests who trust their bishops “a great deal” score very highly across all domains of flourishing, but those who have “very little” trust in their bishop have around 2-3 points lower well-being. This difference is especially strong on the domains of happiness and life satisfaction, but even holds true for self-rated physical health.
Priests who trust their bishop, then, are doing better overall. And when the presbyterate is healthy, there will likely be fewer unexpected crises for a bishop to handle. A culture of trust in a diocese is a win-win situation, which should be an important goal for bishops.
Trust in the Process
The Dallas Charter established a framework for dealing with allegations of clergy sexual abuse, but the details and their implementation are left to each diocese. Article 2 of the charter reads, in part, “Dioceses/eparchies are to have policies and procedures in place to respond promptly to any allegation where there is reason to believe that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred.”
Dioceses/eparchies are required to have policies and procedures, but the details are left to the diocese, as is how those policies are communicated. Priests should know what the process is and what resources they would be provided with. Diocesan priests in particular believe that they would get little support if they were falsely accused (see Chart 2).
These anxieties also surfaced in our interviews with priests. Many priests rely on hearsay instead of reliable information. One respondent noted: “I’ve known situations where … a guy went in, you know, fully lawyered up and the bishop was pissed because he wanted it to be over quickly. … And then there was another guy who … had to have an escort so he [could] go get his underwear from the rectory. Like what?”
Similarly, priests do not know what standards are being used to review cases. As another priest said: “What standard of evidence are you using? How do you decide if someone is guilty or not guilty? Or in this case substantiated or unsubstantiated? What is the evidence? What standard?”
How a priest is treated when an allegation comes in will get around the diocese, and if he is treated badly in some way, it will contribute to the sense of fear and mistrust among priests toward their bishop.
Another part of the process when an allegation is made is the diocesan review board. This advisory board, mandated in the charter, is mostly composed of laypeople who are not employed by the diocese. Its makeup and procedures are another mystery to at least some priests.
“That process, the review-board process, is mostly a black box to us,” said one interviewee. “An allegation comes in, a decision comes out. And we as priests have no idea what that process is inside that review board. And so there’s a lot of mistrust about that.”
Another topic that came up time and again is that a priest ought to be innocent until proven guilty, which is not how some feel right now. As one diocesan priest said: “You’re persona non grata when something comes to light in terms of an accusation. I do believe that it should be … innocent until proven guilty. Lawyers will tell you this: if you have to go to see your bishop about something serious … you come in with a lawyer. All of a sudden, it’s adversarial, all of a sudden, you’re in your corner and they’re in their corner. I think that’s what the charter unleashed. … You are guilty until proven innocent in the Church.”
There needs to be a way to ensure due process for priests while respecting the mandates of the charter.
A simple way to build trust in the process for priests is for dioceses to make it as clear as possible. Define all terms — for example: Who is considered a “vulnerable adult”? Provide priests with a step-by-step explanation of what happens when an allegation is made, and make sure that the process actually matches the document. Include anything that would directly impact the priest’s life, particularly housing. If he must move out of the rectory, is there a place for him to go? Consider providing an opportunity for priests to meet the members of the review board and ask questions. Have a canon lawyer explain their rights. There is no reason for this process to be opaque.
As for trusting the bishop, as one of our diocesan priest respondents said, “Trust is a two-way street.” It is personal, built over time, and either increases or diminishes through actions. Priests are bound to observe whether the bishop’s words match his actions. Likewise, a bishop needs to know whether he can count on his priests. This takes time and a certain amount of giving the other the benefit of the doubt. Honesty, clarity and directness all have a role to play in establishing trust. Consider some of the recommendations that priests made to our research team:
• “When bishops begin to demonstrate that they trust priests, then priests might begin to feel like we can trust bishops.”
• “I believe we need more open and less structured communication.”
• “More transparency in decision-making and more consultation with priests.”
Demonstrating more trust in priests may be the first step in becoming a bishop who is more trusted by them.
Social skills are essential to a flourishing human life, since they establish and solidify relationships, and clerics cannot forget the basics in their relationship with one another. Simple politeness, for example, can go a long way: handwritten notes; various elements of hospitality such as personally offering coffee/tea/water when a priest comes to the office; not multitasking when you are in a conversation.
Some priests expressed to researchers that they feel like they are not treated as human beings. One diocesan priest said: “Not only is the diocese just looking at me … to fill a hole in a parish, just be a cog in a machine, but … I’m expendable on the level of PR. Like, if it’s convenient, they will totally throw me under the bus.”
Priests and bishops both need to acknowledge the other’s humanity, which can be done in simple ways. Priests mentioned that a phone call from the bishop on their birthday, for example, was appreciated. Just as in a family, the work of relationship-building is primarily in the small things.
The National Study of Catholic Priests documents priests’ lamentable lack of trust in their leaders, but it also offers simple and clear ways forward. None of those ways are dramatic; no new programs or organizations are needed in order to restore trust. What is needed is to establish and strengthen real human relationships.
Since the worldwide Church is engaged in the synod process, this is a good time to note that the concept of synodality, rightly understood, offers a way forward. A bishop who knows his priests and listens respectfully to them and to the faithful of the diocese is a bishop who will be trusted.
Even if people do not get the response that they want, if they feel listened to they are more likely to accept the outcome. Increased consultation, dialogue and transparency can help Church leaders increase the trust of their people. In the words of one diocesan priest: “I believe that the bishops, with their clergy, and I think also with their people, they need to listen more. Like with our present bishop — he already has the answer before you ask the question. … Consult the people. Consult the laity. Consult your priests! … [Bishops] need to sit back and just listen, not interrupt. Not impose. But simply listen.”
CHRISTOPHER JACOBI, Ph.D., SARA PERLA and BRANDON VAIDYANATHAN, Ph.D., serve on the research team at The Catholic University of America that coordinated the National Study of Catholic Priests.