Religion and Spirituality

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Will Psychological Screening Help the Catholic Church Identify Problem Priests?

October 31, 2008 02:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The Roman Catholic Church will use voluntary psychological testing to identify possible sex offenders, but critics say it’s not enough.

Screenings In-Depth, But Voluntary

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Over the past several years, there have been scattered attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to prevent possible sex offenders from entering the priesthood. Now, the church has issued rewritten guidelines on the matter, reports the BBC.

Authors of the new standards said voluntary, in-depth screening of priest candidates will “help avoid ‘tragic situations’ caused by … psychological defects,” such as a tendency toward homosexuality, uncertain sexuality, strong sexual urges, or hesitance to commit to celibacy.

However, the fact that the screenings are voluntary has some critics questioning whether the church’s plan will be effective. The U.S.-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said in a statement that the “larger problem: The Church’s virtually unchanged culture of secrecy and unchecked power,” has yet to be addressed.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI has praised U.S. priests for their efforts to address pedophilia, suggesting they “can take pride in being part of the solution,” reported The Washington Post. The pope also reiterated that the Catholic Church’s record of sexual abuse is not any worse than “public schools or youth groups,” for example, but the church has confronted the issue more openly. 

But victims and their advocates find fault with the pope’s words. They say “the essence of the scandal,” the actual covering up of sexual crimes by Catholic priests, is being ignored. Psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O’dea, who counsels victims of sexual abuse, found the pope’s comments “depressing.”

Furthermore, said Frawley-O’dea, the church’s assertion that it can weed out sex abusers from the priesthood is “absurd, because there is no known test … that will allow them to do that,” reported The Washington Post.

But church officials attest that this generation of priests has been subjected to more intensive screening than any before it. The level of psychological openness in seminaries has markedly increased, as well, they say.

Lingering, however, is the issue of whether enough candidates for the priesthood are being asked the right questions at the right time.

Background: A new generation of clergy

Recent classes of seminarians have “been selected and shaped in radically different ways than the generations before,” according to a 2002 article in The New York Times. In addition to criminal background checks and Rorschach tests, candidates are being questioned about “their dating history and sexual orientation.”

Many men are attempting to enter the priesthood later in life after leaving different careers, rather than moving directly from parochial school to a graduate level seminary institution. And subjects “once considered taboo—sexuality, addiction and the struggle to be celibate,” are also being addressed in seminary courses, according to The New York Times.

Related: The Church, homosexuality and psychology

In March 2007, church law expert Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda commented in the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica on the importance of psychology in “establishing the true nature of homosexual traits” of priest candidates. Ghirlanda emphasized the need for seminary authorities to discern between “deep-seated” and “transitory” homosexual tendencies when screening candidates, according to Catholic News Service.

In 2005, the Vatican instructed churches not to ordain active homosexuals or men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Men who’ve displayed “transitory homosexual tendencies or episodes” are not automatically denied. However, candidates must give consent for psychological testing and for therapy to “overcome” homosexuality, reported Catholic News Service.
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