Wolves in Shepherd's Clothing: On Setting Boundaries and Abusive Priests

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Disclaimer: I am not a therapist nor am I a mental health professional. The following are observations and conclusions that I have come to as a result of my own experience. 

As a survivor of clerical sexual abuse perpetrated on me when I was a young adult, I believe that we need to have an honest conversation about what a healthy relationship between a priest and those under his care looks like, even those that don't fall under the commonly understood definitions of vulnerable.

I understand that this is not an easy conversation to have. I don't want to think that any priest I know would seek to use or abuse me. I don't want to entertain the thought that I would be taken advantage of for his emotional or sexual gain, or that he'd break his vows and betray what is, in many respects, a deeply personal and intimate relationship.

But the truth is that priests are people too; they're fallen mortals like the rest of us, and sometimes they break their vows. Sometimes, they become wolves that ravage the flock rather than shepherds that guard it.

Often the men who perpetrate this abuse are charismatic, talented priests who have the devotion and loyalty of their parishes-- not bitter, sour, isolated men, but genuinely charming, sociable, popular people. I don't know why these men sometimes choose to hurt those they should defend with their lives, why they choose to desecrate the sacrament of confession with their lusts, or why the dioceses they serve in so often turn a blind eye until forced by a civil suit to do otherwise. But I know for a fact that they sometimes do.

When I was in college, I was sexually assaulted in the confessional by my spiritual director, a monk who lived in the abbey adjacent to our small campus. I had known him for three years when the abuse happened, and I trusted him. He listened patiently in the confessional, was very popular on campus at the small Catholic college I attended, and was also relatively well known and liked in the diocese where the college was located.

He worked on breaking down my boundaries for months before trying anything physical. It started with relatively small things, even innocent things- closed door meetings one on one in his office. Playing pranks on the young adults in campus ministry. Unlocking the guest quarters of the monastery for us to take a shower when the water line broke in our dorm, despite it being against monastery policy. Poking his head out from around the screen to see me while I was in the confessional. Pressing me for explicit details when I confessed lustful thoughts. Making and perpetuating jokes laced with sexual innuendo. Showing up to the sorority sleepover at the sorority president's apartment to do a house blessing-- and then not leaving after the blessing, but staying for awhile in a living room full of young women in their pajamas.

Everyone seemed to think nothing of his behavior, and I trusted him, so neither did I. There were a couple times I felt uncomfortable, but surely that was something wrong with me, not him. He was a priest, a monk at that, and he made it a priority to make sure that we had access to things like frequent adoration, the liturgy of the hours, and the sacraments. He invited good, orthodox Catholic speakers like Peter Kreeft and Scott Hahn to campus. He was usually approachable if I needed to talk to him in my job in the campus ministry office, and he had voluntarily done research to help guide me through the intense bout of scruples I was dealing with at the time. If I felt uncomfortable, then surely it meant I had some hang-ups I needed to work through.

Besides that, it wouldn't do to displease him. I was heavily involved in the campus ministries that he ran, including my on-campus job, and my social and spiritual life, and to some extent my mental health, were all heavily dependent on him and on the group that hung out in that ministry office. Some of my scholarships were dependent on my work in that office too. The one time that I crossed him with ministry work (inadvertently at that), I genuinely feared that I would lose my job in the office, and I was terrified to the point of tears that I was going to lose my entire social group as a result.

I wish that I had known then what I know now, and that I had gone to one of the other monks or the mental health professional on campus for the help that I needed, if for no other reason than I worked for that priest in an office setting. It was in large part because he controlled every aspect of my life on campus, except for my grades, that he was able to wear down my boundaries to the point that he could groom me for what he did.

Since my own experience with a shepherd who decided to become a wolf, these are the boundaries I have set to keep myself safe.

Please note that in no way should these become a litany of blame on those who have fallen prey to these wolves in shepherd's clothing. As someone who has survived this type of abuse, I have first hand knowledge of how hurtful it can be when you are blamed for the choice that someone else made to hurt you, even when parsed as "well, you were young and inexperienced, so this wouldn't have happened to you if you were a little older." Saying that is NOT helpful, comes off as patronizing, and I don't think it's true either-- there are plenty of women older and more experienced than I was who have fallen prey to these priests too.

Priests, by the very nature of their vocation, are often called to be present in many of the vulnerable and intimate moments of our lives, and they are privy to much of our private lives in the confessional. In certain circumstances, they are even called to be alter Christus to us, to dispense the sacramental grace of Christ. They often have the greater power in the relationship, and they bear the responsibility for breaking their vows.

That said, I do think having a conversation about what our right relationship with priests ought to be and look like helps us recognize when something is not as it should be, and can be helpful to those trying to protect themselves and their families. I think that conversation has been neglected, and I think that people have suffered because of that.

First and foremost, it's important to recognize that, except for extremely isolated cases, abuser priests spend a fair amount of time grooming their intended targets (and often the family and close friends of their targets) by bending and breaking societal, personal, and emotional boundaries long before they break any physical ones. This usually isn't an overnight process, but takes place over the course of weeks, or even months or years.

Therefore, the first line of defense against enabling abuse is to set and maintain clear personal boundaries with the priests in your life. There are certain contexts and situations that priests should not be invited into.

 It's important to note here that it's a fine and healthy thing to have priests as friends. As I've stated already, they are people too, and they need healthy friendships to maintain a healthy mental and emotional state, just as the rest of us do. There's nothing wrong with maintaining friendships with someone who happens to be a priest. But those of us who are friends of priests should avoid making our confessor or spiritual adviser those same friends.

Here's a comparison to illustrate why. In the medical and mental health professions, there are certain ethical guidelines in place, guidelines that if broken could result in the loss of a licence to practice that profession. Some of these guidelines forbid doctors or counselors from taking on patients that are friends and family. One of the primary reasons these rules exist is because the patient becomes much, much easier to manipulate and take advantage of when they already have a pre-existing relationship with their doctor or therapist. These professions inherently involve very intense vulnerability on the part of the patient. When that vulnerability is coupled with extensive involvement in that person's personal life, it doesn't become difficult to see how powerful the doctor or counselor could suddenly become. The power dynamic becomes very unbalanced, very quickly.

A similar thing happens when we allow priests we're friends with to also be our regular confessors or spiritual directors. These priests suddenly gain a HUGE amount of influence over us in a relatively short amount of time, even if they keep their vow to maintain the seal of the confessional. They gain this power over us simply because we trust them with this huge, integral part of our lives.

In a perfect world, we would be able to trust them as we would Christ, and this wouldn't be a problem. But we don't live in a perfect world; we live in one populated entirely by sinners subject to the pull of concupiscence, and that includes priests.

Of course it's fine to be friends with a priest, just as it's fine to have a friend who is a doctor or therapist. But just as we would be forbidden to seek professional services from them, we ought to forbid ourselves from seeking particular vocational services from priests who are our personal friends.

(I recognize that there are some very particular circumstances, such as the mission field, where the only priest around for hundreds of miles is also the one that you work day to day with, and of course friendships are going to naturally spring up out of those sorts of circumstances. I think in these situations though, the importance of keeping very strict, though reasonable, boundaries becomes even more important than otherwise. There should be an agreement between the priest and those working with them that certain lines, lines that would be innocent in another context, won't be crossed).

What this means on a practical level is that you should not "hang out" with your regular confessor or spiritual director. They should not be someone that you go out to dinner with or socialize with one on one, neither should they be someone who regularly socializes one on one with your family. If you have a workplace relationship with a priest, such as in campus ministry or a parish office, you should probably find someone else to hear your confession or to dispense spiritual advice.

A confessor or spiritual adviser should be seen only in that context, or if your spiritual director is your parish priest, only in parish or other very public contexts.

In a world where we have a shortage of priestly vocations, I recognize that this becomes more difficult, and I know that it's necessary to support our parish priests even if they're the only priests we have access to. I don't have all the answers on how to balance these two realities while still keeping appropriate boundaries, I wish that I did. I do think that perhaps in some cases it would be appropriate (for women in particular) to seek spiritual direction from a lay spiritual director or from a religious sister and keep the sacrament of confession a "list 'em off" type affair so that a healthy relational balance can be maintained.

These boundaries become useful for identifying potentially compromising situations when you keep them, but the other person in the relationship does not. If a priest constantly and consistently disrespects, pushes, or disregards your boundaries, even in ways that seem minor, then this is a red flag and a sign that you need to keep your distance from them or even sever the relationship completely. If you find yourself making excuses for their behavior in your mind, or blaming yourself for being uncomfortable with something that they did, than you need to get away from them.

Because of what I experienced, these are the boundaries that I have set for myself, and the boundaries that I will teach my children to set. Hopefully they will be enough to keep them safe. By publishing them here, I hope that they might also prove helpful for someone else.

It rips my heart out that we even have to have this discussion. Church and our sacramental encounters with priests ought to be solely a place where we meet the mercy and love of Christ.

But alas, we live in a fallen world, which is why we need the mercy of Christ in the first place.