A National Study of Catholic Priests

The crisis of clerical sexual abuse, which wracked the Church in the United States in recent years, deeply eroded confidence in the credibility of our bishops. There has been no shortage of painful reminders of the tremendous deficit of trust that has resulted from the Church’s failure to adequately address the scourge of clerical sexual abuse, particularly when it comes to episcopal accountability.

No one ought to be satisfied with the record of the Church in this country, still less complacent about the progress that has been made. But neither should anyone forget the Church’s real accomplishments, in no small part because of the efforts of our bishops.

In the twenty years since the passage of the Dallas Charter, the Church in the United States has become a global leader in protecting the young and holding abusers accountable. The safeguarding measures, reporting procedures, and review boards established under the Charter have become the standard model for anti-abuse and accountability policies around the world. The United States remains one of the only parts of the global Church with a strict policy of zero tolerance for confirmed abusers.

If there is one universally acknowledged flaw in the Dallas Charter, it’s that it failed to hold bishops accountable for their own abuse or for negligence and mishandling of abuse by those under their authority. Rome has attempted to address those shortcomings in episcopal accountability with (to put it charitably) mixed results.

But the Dallas Charter, for all the good it has accomplished, also had a downside.

For decades, there have been warning signs – anecdotal, but coming from both priests and bishops – that the policies put in place in response to the abuse crisis had caused a shift in the relationship between priests and their bishops. What had once been akin to a familial relationship had been de-personalized. Priests were worried that bishops saw them as liabilities to be managed rather than as brothers or sons. Bishops were worried that priests were less and less likely to come to them with serious personal problems or failings.

For the better part of three years, The Catholic Project (of which I am the executive director) and a team of sociologists led by Brandon Vaidyanathan (our Chair of Sociology here at Catholic University) has been working on a study to address this question: How has the abuse crisis, and the Church’s response to that crisis, affected the relationship and trust between priests and their bishops?

This week, we published the initial results of that study – the largest survey of American Catholic priests in more than fifty years.


What we learned from the study is this: American priests are thriving. They are “flourishing” in their vocations and deeply fulfilled in their ministry. Priests don’t have particularly high confidence in their bishops (though this varies greatly from diocese to diocese) and very little confidence in “the bishops” as a whole. Priests see their bishops very differently than bishops see themselves, more as administrators than fathers.

There is so much more; I won’t hazard a full summation of an already summary report. But you can read the report in its entirety on The Catholic Project website by clicking here.

There are three particular points from our study, however, that I do want to highlight.

First: 82 percent of priests regularly fear being falsely accused of abuse. Seeing that number in print is striking. Priests know that even a single, anonymous allegation can result in suspension from ministry. Priests know that even a false allegation, once made, can be very difficult to disprove definitively. And priests know that, even if such an allegation is dismissed as “not credible” and they returned to ministry, they may carry the stigma of that allegation forever. Add to this a widespread conviction among priests that bishops see the accused more as liabilities than as men who are innocent until proven guilty, and one can easily imagine how living with such fear – constantly, for decades – would take a toll.

Second: Close to 70 percent of priests support a zero-tolerance policy for abusers as set forth in the Dallas Charter, though 40 percent think it is too harsh. Our interviews added some flesh to these bones. Priests overwhelmingly, even unanimously, support the permanent removal from ministry of priests proven to have sexually abused a minor. There are no qualms among priests about zero-tolerance when it comes to such abuse. They are less sure that zero-tolerance is an appropriate policy for other sorts of impropriety, especially given a lack of clarity about what constitutes a “vulnerable adult.”

Third: Priests in religious orders show far less anxiety about what would happen after a false allegation. Religious communities are bound to take care of their own, even if a member of the community is accused of something as heinous as abusing a minor. They’ll have a roof over their head, food, and the community will provide defense counsel. This is not necessarily the case for diocesan priests.

Religious priests, especially among younger cohorts, also show lower signs of burnout than diocesan priests. Finding ways to combat isolation and strengthen community ties among diocesan priests ought to be priorities.

Our priests understand and support the reforms of the Dallas Charter, including zero-tolerance. Our priests, especially diocesan priests, are also acutely aware of just how weak the due-process protections of the Charter can be in practice. This leaves our priests feeling vulnerable, isolated, and distrustful of their bishops.

Yet through all of this, no doubt owing to grace, our priests remain deeply in love with their vocation and fulfilled in their ministry. They’re flourishing. That is no small encouragement.

The bishops are currently engaged in the process of revising the Dallas Charter, which they do every few years. My hope is that this survey will encourage them in that work – both as a reminder of the importance of the Charter, and as a spur to find ways to strengthen due-process protections for priests, even while continuing to improve protections for the vulnerable and accountability for the guilty.


*Image: Priests lay their hands on the ordinands during a Catholic rite of ordination [Source: Wikipedia, “Holy Orders in the Catholic Church”]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Reflections n the New Sex-Abuse Norms

Russell Shaw’s The Crisis of Ecclesial Communion


Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.