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Clergy suicides tip of depression iceberg: clergy mental health long neglected.

Clergy mental health long neglected

The highly publicized suicides of two priests in recent months have raised questions of just how serious the fallout on clerical sexual abuse has become. Both deaths would have gone almost unnoticed were it not for the fact that each priest had a record of alleged sexual abuse of at least one minor. Both were older men with good clerical records.

The first, from the Arlington, Va., diocese, had been a chancery official; the second was a popular, effective Baltimore pastor. Each used a shotgun. Neither had been formally charged, but there were hints of a history of episodic abuse.

Are there others? Are offenders being driven to suicide? Not according to knowledgeable sources contacted by NCR.

John Keenan, priest-psychologist, said the primary cause of suicide among priests is the same as among laypeople: depression. Keenan is founder and director of Trinity House, a Chicago-based, institutionally independent treatment center for priests and religious, some of whom are sexual abusers.

"Cases like those are aberrations," Keenan said. "I don't know the statistics on clerical suicides," he added. "They would be hard to uncover, and you still wouldn't uncover the men who committed suicide slowly by drinking themselves to death. But we can say that the primary cause is depression."

One major Catholic university had three clerical suicides in a single summer session. Such a statistic suggests an epidemic, but it would be misleading. Often, priests suffering from depression are farmed out to universities - sometimes at their own request - for higher studies. Not long ago, a Chicago priest died of "liver failure." He had a record of sexual abuse and of only partial success in treatment. One observer said: "He just wanted to die. There was a pill addiction, but it was depression that killed him."

While these priests may be involved in sexual abuse, this observer continued, they need not be pedopbiles. "Instead, we should be looking at their depression and possible alcohol or drug addiction that is often part of the picture," he said.

Any discussion of sexual abuse involving minors can readily get emotionally charged. Church officials still pick their words carefully, as if searching for unexploded land mines in Kuwait. Impatient observers want abusers to be punished to the full extent of the law and then driven from the priesthood. Priests grow increasingly discouraged at the prospect that their clerical files are being searched for any evidence of misconduct.

The climate of suspicion is clearly keeping young men from entering the priesthood and may be causing others to leave the seminary and active ministry. One priest observed simply: "Maybe this is God's way of bringing us to our knees."

Although it is clearly not a way God would have chosen, there is evidence the church has been brought kicking and screaming to its knees. Interviews for this story found people far more open than they had been in the past. It is as if they had reached Step Five in the 12-step program made famous by Alcoholies Anonymous: "Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs." Further, out of the morass of conflicts that have come from the scandals, a kind of institutional 12-step program is emerging.

The sexual abuse crisis is changing the way priests are recruited and trained. It is making mental health care respectable among a previously pseudo-macho corps of men who could once admit only to hernias or bad backs without losing face. It has caused a growing number of bishops to apologize and ask forgiveness on the part of the institution. It is gradually changing the way priests live. It is having an impact - not always a positive one - on how clergy approach their ministry. It is bringing clergy up to speed - and beyond those in other professions who have yet to admit that they suffer, even from zits.

"Forty years ago," Fr. Keenan said, "nobody knew how to treat sexual abusers. The poor Paracletes are being crucified for what we know only today. (The Paracletes are a small order founded in the 1940s to treat troubled priests. It has a monastic hospital in Jemez Springs, N.M.) We just didn't know how to treat these cases. Sexual misconduct was covered up. Now, we're still trying to separate the pedophile (abuser of prepubescent children) from the ephebophile (abuser of teenagers), the homosexual abuser from the heterosexual abuser."

"We can't split hairs on words, especially when an adult violates a child," said Paulist Fr. John Geaney, communications consultant at the prestigious St. Luke Institute in Suitland, Md. "We have got to get as close to the law as we possibly can."

St. Luke's is a 32-bed hospital that treats all types of addictive behavior. Presently, it has 50 patients who will undergo a week of evaluation, six to nine months of intensive therapy and a five-year follow-up. Some patients are doubly addicted - sex abuse and drugs, for example. However, they also suffer from clinical depression. They are good candidates for suicide, but treatment and monitoring lower the risk.

Geaney agrees with Keenan that the primary problem is clinical depression and that sexual abuse is just one manifestation of it as are the suicides that may result.

We have no hard and fast rules at St. Luke's," Geaney said. "Treatment is individualized. Some men can still be good priests - with supervision."

"Not every offender should remain in the priesthood," he continued. "But with cooperation from the offender and supervision by the church, most offenders are less likely to offend again if they remain in the priesthood than if they were simply driven from active practice."

What happens to priests who offend? It's hard to tell. The secrecy that once protected offenders now covers their tracks. Further, the vaunted control bishops are said to exercise over their priests is in part myth. There is nothing to prevent a priest from simply walking away from his ministry. When chancery offices report that they do not know the where-abouts of a priest, there is at least a 50-50 chance they are telling the truth.

A priest stated recently he would rather go to jail than reveal the whereabouts of Archbishop Robert Sanchez, the disgraced archbishop of Santa Fe, who had been rumored to be the next archbishop of Miami - and the first Hispanic-American cardinal. Sanchez's alleged offenses involved minor females.

"Phil," a convicted offender who served three years for abusing a teenager, was dismissed from the priesthood while on parole. After lying about his past on the application, he found an entry-level job in another industry and worked 60-hour weeks until his parole was complete. He entered a graduate program in his new field, led his class and found employment in his new vocation. Throughout his arrest, conviction, prison time, employment and studies, he received no professional help. He could be a time bomb.

"Bill" got three years, too. He's appealing his conviction on the grounds that prison would destroy him. A professional observer from a foundation that deals with criminals agreed. "Prison isn't going to help him in the least," he said. "He's too old. The church would have been better-off keeping him and watching him. But it's out of their hands. Bill is a flunkout from St. Luke's who still denies his offenses."

"Harry" was accused of sexual abuse and put into treatment, while the diocese settled with the victim and his family. After treatment, he was declared by his therapists to be a safe risk for return to practice. He served without incident in another parish until his background was leaked to the media. He walked away from the priesthood.

Steve Sidlowski, professional fitness review administrator for the Chicago archdiocese, said offenders are not encouraged to leave the priesthood. "We're committed to getting them into proper treatment," he said. "After the treatment, if there is a positive prognosis, we try to place them in a restricted ministry, perhaps a hospital or retirement community. We are still trying to find ministries that are appropriate."

"We don't give up on them," be added. "If they insist they did no wrong or if they refuse to cooperate with treatment protocols, then canonical steps are taken. However, if they chose to leave, we offer very generous exit packages that include additional therapy and education for another career."

The Chicago model may be the best in the United States. According to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the sexual abuse issue cost the Chicago church $1.8 million in the 1992 fiscal year and will cost even more in this fiscal year. Yet, the system has drawn criticism from both clergy and laity, including complaints from alleged offenders that they are being treated like prisoners, forced to take drugs and moved from one "safe" house to another.

In the spring, one Chicago priest committed suicide. There is no evidence that be was a sexual offender. Recently, an alleged offender resigned from the priest. hood. Another priest is facing trial in Wisconsin for sexual abuse. A permanent deacon from the archdiocese was charged in another state and a seminary deacon was arrested just before ordination. One source said that "as many as a dozen" are presently barred from active ministry because of alleged offenses, though NCR could trace only about six.

It!s clear the mechanisms of paraphilia (preference for unusual sexual practices) can be terribly complex Keenan observes that offenders say "they never really thought about it. They often simply describe their offense as a special kind of love."

Experience has revealed that pedophilia is treatable but not curable. However, it hasn't been ascertained just how many offenders are true pedophiles or ephebophiles. Thus, a highly stressed, depressed priest who has turned to drinking, may be capable of abusing the teenager who answers the rectory telephone. But he may be treatable, provided all the issues are addressed.

It is still difficult to sort out seminary candidates who are potential abusers. Some present testing procedures - most notably the plethysmograph, used with suspected offenders - have been likened to modern-day witchcraft. In Georgia, a new screening procedure has been developed that claims to be more than 90 percent effective, but it has yet to receive approval by the professional community.

The screening is made even more difficult by the fact that many abusers do not emerge until they are in their 30s - at least five years after ordination.

Some years ago, a brilliant, promising, but deeply troubled priest returned from studies in Rome. Although be sent signals to his clerical brothers, most missed or ignored them. One day, he drove his car into his mother's garage, closed the door and left the motor running. Some friends knew he was gay; others suspected he drank too much. But no one recognized the depression. The bishop said simply: "Give the family whatever it wants (for the funeral)." But be absented himself because of some neurotic institutional prudence - clearly a contributing factor to the current mess.

Things have changed a lot since then.

Gradually, the church is coming to recognize that its clergy are simply people - ordinary men gifted with a vocation. Yet, even the most open of dioceses is recognizing that identification and treatment are a terribly complex process.

On balance, however, the church may be ahead of most professions in confronting the problems of its dysfunctional priests. Soon, it may be able to address depression among its priest corps before its secondary symptoms wreak havoc on its faithful.
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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