American Catholic priests plagued by overwork, isolation and scandals


CHICOPEE, Mass. (AP) — More than a century ago, waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Quebec settled in Chicopee and other industrial towns in western Massachusetts, helping to build churches, parsonages and schools to accommodate their faith. Today, the priests who lead these churches are beleaguered with stresses, challenges, and sexual abuse scandals that complicate their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.

Reverend Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He is a teacher at a Roman Catholic college in Chicopee, and its chaplain. He frequently travels to out-of-state events hosted by a Catholic drug treatment provider, recounting his own recovery from alcoholism.

Last year, his busy schedule grew even heavier. Amid a growing shortage of priests, the Diocese of Springfield appointed him a parish administrator in Holyoke, Chicopee’s northern neighbor, where he lives alone in a mansion-sized rectory while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families of Saint-Jérôme Church.

“I’m at an age where I thought I would do less rather than do more,” said Stelzer, 62.

Stelzer enjoys being a priest, but is candid about the ever-changing constraints of his vocation that leave him nostalgic for the priesthood he entered in 1983.

“It was much simpler back then,” he said. “There is a real longing, a mourning for the church that was – when there was greater brotherhood among priests, and the church was not dealing with these scandals that are now emerging every day.”

Stelzer’s concerns echoed those of other priests and some of their psychological caregivers, who were interviewed by The Associated Press.

The ripple effect of their church’s long-standing crisis resulting from sexual abuse by priests is weighing on all Catholic clergy in the United States. This has caused many honorable priests to feel an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. This dismay is often compounded by an increased workload due to the shortage of priests and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes become scarce. They see the trauma firsthand. Some priests exercise their ministry in parishes ravaged by armed violence; others frequently preside over the funerals of drug overdose victims.

Burnout is an ongoing problem for clergy of many denominations. But Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University in California who has examined or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics, sees new forms of it as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose faith in Catholic leaders.

“You just try to be a good priest and now everyone thinks you’re a sex offender,” he said. “If you walk around a park with your collar on, people think you’re looking for children. … Some have been spat on.”

The Diocese of Springfield, like many others in the United States, has a long history of sexual abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, parish priest Richard Lavigne was defrocked and several of his victims received cash awards. In 2004, a grand jury indicted Thomas Dupré on two counts of child molestation shortly after he resigned after serving 13 years as Bishop of Springfield.

Stelzer had hoped the abuse crisis was easing, but it has resurfaced dramatically in the past two years. The abuse allegations led to the ousting of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood and a Pennsylvania grand jury report claimed that about 300 priests abused at least 1,000 children in the state during seven decades.

“It reopened an old wound and now we’re back to zero,” Stelzer said in an interview at Collège Notre-Dame des Ormes.

The injury is self-inflicted, said Reverend Philip Schmitter, 74, who served 50 years in Flint, Michigan. His position endears him to an African-American community where he has lived in public housing for three decades to maintain close ties.

“This cover-up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution,’ was just heinous and totally anti-Christian behavior,” he said.

Two miles north of the Stelzer campus on a recent Sunday, the Reverend William Tourigny was preparing for 4 p.m. mass — his fourth and last of the day — at Ste. Pink Church of Lima.

When Tourigny, now 66, was ordained in 1980, the Diocese of Springfield had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have more than halved and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, that meant many more funerals to manage, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

Even his own family was scarred: Tourigny says his first cousin’s 27-year-old daughter was killed in circumstances related to her drug use.

“But for her addiction, she was a wonderful mother,” Tourigny said.

Tourigny says he worked for nearly 40 years without a real vacation. For years he has had therapy sessions, which he describes as “crucially important”, and he strives to serve with compassion without being engulfed in the emotions of those he comforts.

“I can share their pain but I can’t get into it,” he said. “I would be overwhelmed with grief.”

With 2,500 families, the parish of Tourigny is doing relatively well with its numbers and finances. Still, Tourigny says many Catholics are now suspicious of the Church hierarchy because of the abuse scandals.

“I was ordained at a time when the church was so vibrant – there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things started to change rapidly. … The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to regain credibility.”

Plante, the Californian psychologist, says even priests deeply dedicated to their work are upset.

“Many are angry with the bishops and the institutional church for screwing up – many of them feel like they have been thrown under the bus,” he said. “They’re also worried that one of these days someone will accuse them of misbehavior, even though they haven’t done anything wrong.”

Since 1985, according to researchers at Georgetown University, the Catholic population in the United States has increased by almost 20%, but the number of priests has plunged from more than 57,000 to less than 37,000. That means more than work for priests, and more priests living alone rather than with colleagues.

Stress, burnout, depression and addictions are among the conditions treated at St. Luke’s Institute, a residential treatment center for Catholic clergy and lay leaders, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

St. Luke’s president, Reverend David Songy, is a psychologist who has worked extensively with struggling priests. A growing problem, he says, is that new priests are now often assigned their own parish within three years, up from 10 or more in the past, and may be ill-prepared to oversee finances and personnel as well as pastoral tasks.

“Some of the young people who come to us – they were overwhelmed and didn’t know how to handle things,” Songy said.

At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, there is more emphasis on selecting candidates for their ability to handle stress and avoid the burnout that now affects some priests, even at the start of their ministry.

“There is no doubt that these men who come forward face what will be a very stressful life,” said the Reverend Thomas Berg, vice-rector of the seminary.

“On top of that, in some places you don’t get the sense that their bishop is supporting them,” Berg added. “In many dioceses, priests are essentially treated as outside contractors.”

Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are collectively referred to as first responders. Arguably, priests deserve that label too, given how often they deal with trauma, especially gun violence and the opioid crisis that beleaguered communities across the country.

Gun violence is the scourge that afflicts Reverend Mike Pfleger’s parish in an African-American neighborhood of Chicago.

“It’s a war zone,” says Pfleger, pastor at Saint Sabina Church since 1981. “Doing children’s funerals is the hardest part for me.”

Now 70, Pfleger says his health is good and his job is rewarding. Still, he says he and his colleagues risk being overwhelmed by the constant crises facing their neighborhood of Auburn Gresham.

“You realize you can’t help everyone,” he said.

In Brunswick, Ohio, 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Rev. Robert Stec’s priorities have shifted due to the opioid scourge since he became pastor of St. Ambrose’s Church in 2005.

In 2016, Medina County in Brunswick reported 20 opioid-related deaths; Stec has presided over six funerals for these victims in a short time.

“We weren’t trained for this in seminary,” he said.


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