Priests feeling alienated from both people and the Church leadership


Rarely can it have been so difficult to be a Catholic priest in Ireland. It may be argued that it was worse in Penal days but that was when the priest was a hero among the Catholic Irish. Sex scandals and a general loss of faith have taken a great toll.

Earlier this year I asked a priest whose close colleague was now in jail for sexually abusing children to write about how he felt. He gave a deeply moving, very human account of the bewilderment and hurt which followed the revelations, about which he had known nothing. He also sent the piece to his diocesan magazine.

Shortly before his article was to appear in this newspaper I tried to let him know. He was away, but a third party told him and came back immediately asking that the piece not be used. All became clear when a later issue of the magazine carried a robust response from a senior prelate.

Both pieces illustrate the double isolation felt by many priests - their isolation from the people and also from an often less than sympathetic church leadership.

He wrote: "I am very sad indeed and quite angry with all that has transpired. And I feel a profound sense of loss of much that I hold dear, not least of all in my relationships with parishioners, with families, and with their children . . . " After the revelations "there was enormous anger toward the church institution, in particular toward those responsible for [name deleted] and those who knew his history".

One former parishioner told him "that no priest, me included, could ever be trusted with children. I stayed away from families in the parish . . . I was not aware of it at the time but in fact what I did was to spend time only with those friends who knew me before I was ordained . . . "

He reflected: "There are 9,000 priests in Ireland. Despite the small percentage involved, priests throughout the country have been devastated by the revelations [of child sex abuse] . . . We often find ourselves alienated and alone . . . The crushing burden of what has come to light in recent scandals has at times made life as a priest intolerable.

"I feel secure in my priesthood but many former certainties have disappeared. In some ways I am ashamed to be seen as a priest, and embarrassed by my Catholicism. There is so much that is indefensible and so much that is projected onto me because of the collar that I hold. Wearing a Roman collar in public can evoke a wide variety of reactions, many of them unpleasant."

On the convicted colleague he wrote: "I still call him my friend. Despite the hurt and anger, I cannot wipe out who we were to one another in the [number deleted] years we shared a presbytery. I am extremely angry with him and also very sad for him. For my part I will continue to support him in whatever way I can. I will visit him in prison if that helps. But I will exercise our friendship on the basis of truth which will not deny what he has done . . . "

Then he expressed the views which most angered his senior. "I do not believe that we priests can survive without intimacy in our lives. I continue to believe that for priests the only hope of dealing with the challenge and privation of celibacy is to have close friends with whom we can share hopes and dreams and fears and failures, as well as being accountable to them for our lifestyles."

He concluded: "Perhaps in these troubled times, we are learning, albeit painfully, that we are not alone and we cannot go it alone."

His senior was annoyed. "Celibacy is not a privation," this man wrote. "Not only by the Code of Canon Law but, as its source, by the II Vatican Council itself is celibacy described as `a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour'."

The priest, he wrote, had "all the components of a very confused appreciation of where we priests should stand in the community". His expression of anger was "inappropriate" and he was being "insensitive and distasteful" in centring the problem on "a onetime named fellow-curate".

Two thousand years ago, the senior prelate pointed out, the Son of Man revealed that "without me you can do nothing. There surely," he concluded, "is our real refuge, and strength, in time of trial - in fact at any time."

With such "support" from fellow priests, who needs enemies? And there are many of those too.