Study reveals priests’ trust in bishops has eroded

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Priests are seen processing at the beginning of a special Mass for vocations at Cure of Ars Church in Merrick, N.Y., Aug. 4, 2022. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

A new study released today by the Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America reveals a deep crisis in priests’ confidence in the leadership of the U.S. bishops. Overall, only 24% of priests across America express confidence in the “leadership and decision-making” of the bishops.

The new research initiative, titled the National Study of Catholic Priests, is based on 3,516 responses from 10,000 diocesan and religious priests. Stephen White, director of the Catholic Project told Our Sunday Visitor: “The goal of this study is to better understand how our priests are doing.” “In particular,” White continued, “we wanted to better understand how the abuse crisis, and the Church’s response to that crisis, has affected trust between priests and bishops.”

In an early letter of support for the project, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York write, “[The study] is an ambitious project with the goal of ascertaining the overall well-being of the American presbyterate with a particular emphasis on how the two decades since the Dallas Charter have affected relationships and trust between priests and bishops.”

Perhaps surprisingly, overall priests report remarkable well-being. Using the Harvard Flourishing Index — a comprehensive quantitative measurement index — the study found that on average, priests scored 82 out of 100. This average, the study reports, is “relatively high in comparison to the general population.” One priest said in an interview conducted by the study, “I feel remarkably fulfilled in my life as a priest. I mean, just being able to minister to people, being able to love them. Being able to be Christ for them. It’s just, it’s such a beautiful life.” Despite finding “ample evidence” of “challenges and stress,” only 4% of priests report considering departing from ministry.

One of the most significant findings of the study is the disparity of burnout indicators between diocesan and religious priests. “Our study finds that 45% of priests report at least one symptom of ministry burnout, which is unevenly distributed between diocesan (50%) and religious (33%) priests, and only 9% exhibit severe burnout,” an initial report says.

The study found another disparity between religious and diocesan priests: trust in leadership. While 67% of religious priests express confidence in their major superior, fewer than half (49%) of diocesan priests express trust in their own diocesan bishop. This factor of trust significantly impacts priests’ well-being. The study found that “An erosion of trust between a priest and his bishop is associated with an 11.5% reduction in that priest’s level of well-being.”

According to the new survey, 90% of priests “see their dioceses as having a strong culture of child safety and protection.” Since the adoption of the Dallas Charter, the 2002 national policy implemented by the U.S. bishops for the protection of minors, a culture of fear has grown among priests. In the present climate, the study found that “82% of priests regularly fear being falsely accused of sexual abuse.”

Furthermore, in the case of a false accusation, only 36% of diocesan priests report that they would be provided with sufficient resources by the diocese to defend themselves in court. Only 51% of diocesan priests believe they would have the support of their diocesan bishop in such a case. Again the discrepancy between religious and diocesan priests is significant, since 85% of religious priests believe they would be given sufficient resources for legal defense and 86% report that they believe they would have the support of their major superior.

Going forward, the study concludes by proposing three significant steps to improve priests’ trust in the bishops. First, priests report desiring a father figure, rather than an administrator. While 70% of bishops reported seeing themselves as a father to their priests, only 28% of priests report they consider their bishop a father. Second, priests desire great transparency around processes like making assignments and the review process for allegations of abuse. And finally, priests desire to see bishops held accountable in order to rebuild trust with priests and laity alike.

“Every Catholic I know, from the lay faithful to the bishops, wants to support our priests,” says White. “To do that well, we need to better understand both how priests are flourishing and how they are struggling. My hope for this study is that it will help do just that.”

Our Sunday Visitor Staff

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