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Catholic priests worry about bishops’ support: study

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Catholic priests in the United States worry about false accusations of abuse and how much their bishops would support them if that were to happen, according to the largest survey of its kind in more than 50 years.

About 82% of priests said they “regularly fear being falsely accused of sexual abuse,” and many said their bishops will not support them, according to the “National Study of Catholic Priests,” conducted by the Gallup polling firm.

In addition, 86% of priests in a religious community said their superior would support them against a false accusation, but only 51% of diocesan priests expressed similar confidence.

With regard to their peers, 70% of diocesan priests and 86% of those in religious orders said their brother priests would support them. And 61% of parish priests and 71% of those in religious communities said the legal process would prove their innocence.

“There’s an immense amount of variation among priests in how much they trust their particular bishop,” said Brandon Vaidyanathan, chairman of The Catholic University’s sociology department and lead investigator in the study. “It varies from 0% to 100%, depending on what diocese you’re looking at, in terms of the level of confidence they have in their own bishop.”

Bishops, meanwhile, viewed themselves positively in the survey. Mr. Vaidyanathan said bishops “are more likely to think of themselves as being brothers and fathers and co-workers,” even though some priests say their bishop would view them as “a liability” if they went to their bishop with a problem.

“There’s … a question of alignment between priests and bishops, both theologically and politically, that seems to affect the degree of confidence that priests have in their bishop,” he said. “If you’re a very conservative priest, either politically or theologically and your bishop is very liberal or progressive, then you tend to have less confidence in him and vice versa.”

Mr. Vaidyanathan said that priests are asking for “more communication” with their bishops and that bishops should be more transparent with their priests.

Despite diocesan priests’ concern about support from their bishops, 77% of priests and 81% of bishops rated their lives as “flourishing” based on the Harvard Flourishing Index, a questionnaire that measures well-being. Just 4% of priests said they were considering leaving the priesthood, although others say they’re facing burnout.

In a statement released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop James F. Checchio of Metuchen, New Jersey, said he was “grateful for the insight provided by this study,” and said it would “assist the bishops in our ministry to our priests.”

Bishop Checchio chairs the conference’s committee on clergy, consecrated life and vocations. His comments did not directly address diocesan priests’ concerns about support when confronted with false abuse accusations, but he did say that bishops would “strive to address any issues that have damaged the unique relationship we enjoy.”

Gallup surveyed more than 3,500 priests and 131 U.S. bishops — with more than 100 clerics providing “in-depth interviews” — for the study commissioned by The Catholic Project, an initiative its organizers say aims to “foster effective collaboration between the clergy and the laity of the Church” in the wake of sexual abuse scandals.

The archdioceses of Washington and New York provided much of the project’s funding, and Washington’s Cardinal Wilton Gregory and New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan endorsed the survey in a letter to priests last year.

The Catholic Project report said the survey’s “final sampling error margin is [plus or minus] 2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.”



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