US Catholic priests describe turmoil amid sex abuse crisis

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Mark Stelzer

In this Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 photo, Rev. Mark Stelzer, a professor and chaplain at College of Our Lady of the Elms, speaks with sacristan Marlene Czepiel, right, in the sacristy before offering Mass in the school’s chapel, in Chicopee, Mass. Stelzer is also administrator of St. Jerome’s Parish, in Holyoke, Mass., where he lives alone in a rectory while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families in the Catholic parish. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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CHICOPEE, Mass. (AP) — More than a century ago, waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Quebec settled in Chicopee and other western Massachusetts mill towns, helping build churches, rectories and schools to accommodate their faith. Today the priests leading those churches are under siege due to stresses, challenges and sex abuse scandals complicating their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.

The Rev. Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He’s a professor at a Roman Catholic college in Chicopee, and its chaplain. He travels frequently to out-of-state events organized by a Catholic addiction-treatment provider, recounting his own recovery from alcoholism.

Last year, his busy schedule got busier. Amid a worsening shortage of priests, the Diocese of Springfield named him administrator of a parish 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 St. Jerome’s Church.

“I’m at an age where I thought I’d be doing less rather than doing more,” said Stelzer, 62.

Stelzer loves being a priest, yet he’s frank about the ever-evolving stresses of his vocation that leave him nostalgic for the priesthood he entered in 1983.

“It was a lot simpler then,” he said. “There’s a real longing, a mourning for the church that was — when there was a greater fraternity among priests, and the church was not facing 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.

Weighing on the entire Catholic clergy in the U.S. is the ripple effect of their church’s long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by priests. It’s caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes grow scarce. They see trauma firsthand. Some priests minister in parishes wracked by gun violence; others preside frequently over funerals of drug-overdose victims.

One such victim was a 31-year-old woman whose family was among Stelzer’s closest friends. “This is one of the few times I actually felt my voice quivering,” he said of the funeral service he led last year.

Burnout has been a perennial problem for clergy of many faiths. But Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has screened or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics, sees new forms of it as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose trust in Catholic leadership.

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

The Springfield diocese, like many across the U.S., has a long history of sex-abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, priest Richard Lavigne was defrocked and several of his victims received cash settlements. In 2004, a grand jury indicted Thomas Dupre on two counts of child molestation soon after he resigned following a 13-year stint as Springfield’s bishop.

Stelzer had hoped the abuse crisis was abating but it resurfaced dramatically over the past two years. Abuse allegations led to former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s ouster from the priesthood and a Pennsylvania grand jury report asserted that about 300 priests had abused at least 1,000 children in the state over seven decades.

“It opened up an old wound, and now we’re back to ground zero,” Stelzer said in an interview at the College of Our Lady of the Elms.

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

“This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior,” he said.

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Two miles north of Stelzer’s campus, on a recent Sunday, the Rev. William Tourigny was getting ready for the 4 p.m. Mass — his fourth and last of the day — at Ste. Rose de Lima Church.

When Tourigny, now 66, was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

Even his own family has been scarred: Tourigny says the 27-year-old daughter of his first cousin was killed in circumstances he describes as fueled by her drug habit.

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

Tourigny says he’s worked nearly 40 years without a real vacation. For years, he’s had therapy sessions, which he describes as “crucially important,” and he strives to minister compassionately without being engulfed in the emotions of those he consoles.

“I can share their pain but I can’t enter into it,” he said. “I’d be overwhelmed by grief.”

With 2,500 families, many of Polish and French Canadian descent, Tourigny’s parish has fared better with membership and finances than several nearby parishes. Yet Tourigny says many Catholics now mistrust the church hierarchy because of the flawed response to the abuse scandals.

“I was ordained at a time when the church was so alive — there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things began to change quickly. It has changed the way people look at us. The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to get credibility back again.”

Plante, the California psychologist, says even priests deeply devoted to their work are upset.

“A lot are angry at bishops and the institutional church for screwing up — a lot of them feel they’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. “They’re also concerned that one of these days someone will accuse them of misbehavior, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re asking, ‘Did I do something 30 years ago that could be misconstrued, that will come back and haunt me?’”

The Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, said he has counseled people who’ve been abused by Catholic clergy and understands the “pain and horror” they experienced. Yet he voiced concerns on behalf of priests with unblemished careers who feel vulnerable to unwarranted suspicions.

“Sometimes a priest is confronted by an anonymous accusation from 30 or 40 years ago, and doesn’t have a chance to defend himself,” Fichter said. “It used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now a lot of priests feel it’s been turned upside down.”

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Mark Stelzer proudly identifies himself as an alumnus of Guest House, a residential facility in Michigan that has specialized in addiction treatment for Catholic clergy since 1956. He travels frequently to make presentations on behalf of Guest House, and teaches a course at his Chicopee college titled “Addiction and Recovery.”

By the time he was ordained, Stelzer says, he was consuming alcohol daily. Only after five more years of steady drinking did acquaintances suggest he had a problem, leading to his stay at Guest House.

Guest House’s president, Jeff Henrich, is an experienced drug and alcohol counselor. He says substance abuse among priests is a longstanding problem but has been aggravated by recent developments — including the “residual shame” arising from the sex-abuse scandals and increased isolation as more priests now manage parishes on their own.

Since 1985, according to researchers at Georgetown University, the Catholic population in the U.S. has risen by nearly 20%, but the number of priests has plunged from more than 57,000 to under 37,000.

“There’s fewer of them and more work to do,” Henrich said. “That means you’re far more likely to live alone than ever before — and very few of us were meant to live alone.”

In response, treatment experts urge priests in recovery to find companionship in a support group and to form friendships outside their ministry.

Stelzer agrees that isolation raises the risks of substance abuse.

“We’re lone rangers,” he said. “Substance abuse might go undetected for longer when you’re living alone. A lot of those in treatment now say it was because of isolation, working harder and longer, and not feeling support from leadership.”

The harmful consequences of the priest shortage have come to the attention of the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Addressing U.S. bishops in November, he urged them to be attentive to their priests’ health, spiritual well-being and sense of priestly fraternity.

“Many priests are saying they no longer know one another,” Pierre said. “Others, due to the priest shortage, are forced to live in isolation, managing multiple parishes.”

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

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

“Some of the younger people that come to us — they’ve been overwhelmed and weren’t sure how to deal with things,” Songy said.

Other stressful changes relate to ideological differences. Tourigny considers himself a progressive and has welcomed lesbian couples into Ste. Rita. He says many young priests now emerging from seminary are less tolerant of LGBTQ congregants and eager to revive the tradition of celebrating Mass in Latin.

Another change noted by several priests: Some parishioners, rather than showing deference to their pastors, openly challenge them.

“In the past they might have disagreed, but they’d be courteous. Now it’s different,” said Fichter. “They think you are not Republican enough or Democratic enough depending on which end of the political spectrum they occupy. … They want you to preach what they want to hear, and they will confront you.”

At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York — just north of New York City — there’s increased emphasis on screening applicants for their ability to handle stress and avoid the burnout that’s now affecting some priests even early in their ministry.

“There’s no doubt these men coming forward are facing what will be a very stressful life,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, the seminary’s vice rector. “We must be sure they have the skill set or will be able to develop it.”

“On top of that, in some places, you don’t have a sense that their bishop supports them,” added Berg. “In plenty of dioceses, priests are essentially treated as outside contractors — there’s a lack of a genuinely caring relationship.”

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Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are collectively labeled first responders. Henrich, the Guest House president, says priests also merit that label.

“They see trauma and loss on a very regular basis,” he said. “They get called out to hospitals, deal with grieving families, with lost and dead children.”

Gun violence is the plague besetting the Rev. Mike Pfleger’s parish in an African American area of Chicago.

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

The violence has ripple effects: He says parents of slain young people go through divorce, mental breakdowns, addiction.

“It becomes overwhelming when it’s day in and day out, and you don’t have the resources to meet the needs,” he said.

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

“I was seeing myself becoming depressed, after several violent deaths in a short span,” he said. “I needed to make sure I talked to somebody.

“Last year I didn’t take any days off — I realized that was a big mistake,” he added. “It’s important to have people around you to say, ‘Are you OK?’”

In Brunswick, Ohio, a town of 34,000 people 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland, the Rev. Robert Stec’s priorities have been transformed, due to the scourge of opioids, since he became pastor of St. Ambrose Church in 2005.

In 2016, Brunswick’s Medina County reported 20 opioid-related deaths. Stec presided over six funerals of those victims in a short span. While sharing parishioners’ grief, Stec resolved to combat the opioid epidemic and founded a multifaith coalition of northeast Ohio religious leaders.

Stec is grateful that Brunswick has better-than-average mental health services. But he and his fellow priests in drug-ravaged towns still employ a triage policy, seeking help for the most dire cases, because they can’t provide comprehensive support to every affected parishioner.

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

Still the priests treasure their jobs despite the challenges. Mark Stelzer holds onto his role as a comforter. “For a lot of people, I’m the last person they saw while they were still alive,” he said. “There’s an energy and grace in those moments.”

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Associated Press writer Martha Irvine contributed from Flint, Michigan.

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