Wednesday, June 10, 2020

An open letter to brother priests: what I've learned from talking to clergy abuse victims

Dear brother priests,

I am in a position I never imagined just a few months ago.  I prayed, in early 2019, that if there was some suffering I could experience on behalf of victim survivors of Catholic clergy assault, I would accept that willingly.  A month later I had my first seizure from a brain tumor.

When I finally learned that it was a brain tumor, I shared the diagnosis in a blog post, and ask if victims could share with me their name so that I could pray for them.  Over the next month, I had the distinct privilege of speaking with hundreds of victims either by letter, on the phone, or over email.  As gut-wrenching as their stories were, I was also hopeful in knowing in some small way the cross that I would be carrying through surgery, radiation and chemo was helping at least some of these victim survivors.

I wanted to share, then, the insights I’ve gained through those hundreds of conversations in the hope that something I’ve taken away from them might also help you (as it has helped me) see the danger signs coming from further away, and thus having a much better shot of steering clear of the dangers.

First, there are some preliminary facts that I think we can all agree on:

1) We live in a HYPER-sexualized culture, even if it hasn’t swallowed you up personally.

2) There is the carnage of broken families, broken marriages etc. that leave lots of people starving for connection, affection, etc.  And the hypersexualized world is telling them that the connection and affection has to be sexual.

3) There are going to be people at every assignment you have that will be attracted to you.

4) There are going to be people at every assignment you have that YOU will be attracted to.

So, then, the lessons learned through the conversations:

1) They are attracted to you at least in part precisely because of the gifts and talents that have come to you through your Bride, the Church.  You spent 6-8 years in the seminary gaining confidence, learning to preach, developing counseling skills and learning more about yourself.  Those are some of the same things that will attract people to you. 

2) There is an added layer of depravity when we USE what we learned in seminary about psychology as a weapon AGAINST others.  Finding out that they don’t have a father, or that they have some other need, and then EXPLOITING that information gained through counseling and spiritual direction against them.

3) There is a bottom level of the depravity, which is, unfortunately, common to too many stories.  The priest ultimately says some form of “Think of this as God loving you/embracing you”.  This is a complete and demonic reversal of “In Persona Christi”.

Finally, then, I humbly offer these suggestions as ways to swerve from trouble while it is still far away:

1) STRONG BOUNDARIES!  The power dynamic makes it impossible to have deep, authentic friendship with parishioners.  Anyone who has a deep friendship with a parishioner or anyone else under their spiritual care is deluding themselves.  That’s not to say that you can’t be FRIENDLY with parishioners/people underneath your pastoral care; that is EXPECTED.  But the idea that you would consider being a friend with a person under your care is unhealthy.

2) ALWAYS BE EXAMINING YOUR MOTIVES.  Ask yourself over and over again, multiple times a day, and during every conversation “why, exactly, am I saying this?”  That isn’t to invite paranoia into your life, but to just encourage a spirit of discernment with each conversation that you have.  In particular, we should pay attention to anything where we start to say “This person needs some special attention.”  Not that we don’t have people who need special attention at some point in their life and in our ministry, but we should be REALLY careful any time we find ourselves in that position, and should be cautious of our motives.  The ability for a person to deceive him or herself of their true motives is almost limitless, and the Devil LOVES to work in the midst of that deception.

3) Spiritual Direction monthly.  I can’t encourage spiritual direction and daily silent prayer enough.  Archbishop Buechlein, who ordain me a deacon and a priest, said to us the day before he ordained us priests, “Gentlemen, when a priest meets with me and says he’s thinking about leaving, I always ask him two questions, “when did you stop praying?” and “when did you stop getting spiritual direction?””.

4) Live with other priests if possible.  Vatican II says priests should be living in community.  It makes it a lot harder to get in trouble when you are living with other people.  They can also hopefully help in other areas of your spiritual growth as well (not just “not committing crimes”).


  1. This builds on what I was taught in training to be a teacher. At the time, the sex abuse scandal in the Church hadn't broken, but there had been abuse accusations involving a pre-school and others. The one turned out to be false, tragically after ruining the lives of innocent people, but the truth hadn't yet come out when I started my training. One good thing, I think, was the requirement for background checks before being admitted into the teaching program. I was also given the advice to remain somewhat detached, but not distant. We form a certain type of bond with the students in our care, but it's not the bond of parent and child. Knowing the boundaries and keeping them is crucial for doing the work. It's the only way to step out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work in the life of the individual under your care. I do hope your brother priests ponder these things in their hearts.

  2. Well said Fr.Hollowell. May the Lord binds the wouds of his people and heal the bruices he inflicted.

  3. This is excellent advice and very well articulated from an exceptional priest.

  4. Great letter! I'm glad you mentioned the attraction/transference phenomenon too. I think way too many people in pastoral positions do not fully understand this and it can be stressful to both people involved when it happens, but just knowing it's a thing can be so helpful.

    As for the advice you give, I'm totally on board with 2, 3, and 4. I'm a bit unclear on why friendship would be impossible between priests and parishioners. I understand that it would be inappropriate for any relationship beyond friendship, but why not friendship? Or, for me to not sound so challenging/adversarial, what is the more detailed process behind that way of thinking? Would you be willing to flesh that part out further in a future article? The reason I hesitate to accept that part is that I would think it would be awful lonely for a priest to have so many parishioners and not able to be close friends with any of them, especially if he was the only priest assigned to a parish, and I wonder if that loneliness could make matters worse. Could a priest have lay friends but who attend a different parish?

    1. For the same reason a therapist can't be friends with a client, or a high school teacher with his students.