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Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 19, 2022
Priests are seen during a special Mass for vocations at Cure of Ars Church in Merrick, N.Y., Aug. 4, 2022, the feast of St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Catholic priests in the United States say that while they support the goals of the zero-tolerance policy against child sex abuse known as the Dallas Charter, they worry about being falsely accused and do not trust that their bishop would support them in the face of a false allegation.

That stress, a new report concludes, could be a contributing factor to high rates of burnout, especially among younger priests.

According to the report “Well-being, Trust, and Policy in a Time of Crisis: Highlights from the National Study of Catholic Priests,” published by The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America, 45 percent of priests responding to the survey say that they have experienced at least one symptom of ministry burnout. But burnout is less prevalent among priests who are members of religious orders. Among diocesan priests, half say they have experienced burnout, while just a third of religious order priests say the same.

According to a new report, 45 percent of priests responding to the survey say that they have experienced at least one symptom of ministry burnout.

Priests under age 45 are most likely to say they experience burnout, with 60 percent of younger diocesan priests and about 40 percent of religious order priests saying they experience burnout. The report considers burnout to include “cynicism, feeling emotionally drained, or feeling worn out after ministry work.”

Those numbers mirror previous studies, which found high rates of burnout among clergy of various denominations, caused in part by an increasingly secular culture, a lack of confidence in running the business side of church and declining church attendance. Ministering during the pandemic has only exacerbated those challenges among some clergy.

The new report is based on data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University and Gallup, with about 3,600 priests responding, and interviews with 100 priests.

Researchers tracked the well-being of Catholic priests in the United States and found that overall, priests report higher levels of well-being than the general population. Just over three-quarters of Catholic priests, or 77 percent, can be considered “flourishing,” based on a self-assessment called the Harvard Flourishing Index. Researchers found that the level of trust between a priest and his bishop is “a major factor” in the priest’s overall well-being.

Researchers found that the level of trust between a priest and his bishop is “a major factor” in the priest’s overall well-being.

But that trust has been eroding in recent decades.

In 1993, 55 percent of priests stated that they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the decision-making and leadership of their bishop. That number rose to 63 percent in 2001, the year the priest sex abuse crisis became more widely known, and has fallen to 49 percent in 2022.

Members of religious orders express higher rates of confidence in their superiors—67 percent—compared to diocesan priests, of whom just 49 percent said they have confidence in their bishops.

Overall, just 24 percent of U.S. priests express confidence in the leadership of “the US Bishops in general,” which has fallen several points from previous surveys.

Priests in smaller dioceses tend to trust their bishops more than priests in larger dioceses, researchers found, and sharing similar political views with his bishop tends to make a priest trust him more.

Priests in smaller dioceses tend to trust their bishops more than priests in larger dioceses, researchers found, and sharing similar political views with his bishop tends to make a priest trust him more.

That lack of trust is hurting the well-being of priests, the report found, noting 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.”

When it comes to the people priests turn to for social support, bishops rank toward the bottom of the list, with lay friends, family and parishioners offering the strongest support. Superiors in religious orders, again, get higher marks for offering support from their priests than bishops do from diocesan priests.

But bishops do not share the views of their priests.

When asked how well a bishop would support a priest dealing with personal struggles, 92 percent of bishops said “very well,” while just 36 percent of diocesan priests agreed.

Twenty years after the implementation of the Dallas Charter, majorities of priests agree that the church’s zero-tolerance policy demonstrates the church’s values in protecting the weak (67 percent) and helps restore trust with the public (66 percent), but 40 percent of priests believe the policy is “harsher than is necessary.” The study also found that 82 percent of priests “regularly fear being falsely accused of sexual abuse.”

Should they be falsely accused, diocesan priests “fear being abandoned by their diocese and bishop.”

False accusations of sexual misconduct against priests are rare, but they do occur. According to one study, as many as 1.5 percent of allegations were disproven. Dioceses will often try to help rehabilitate a priest’s reputation if an allegation is proven to be false or cannot be substantiated.

But according to the new study, most priests “fear that they will not be supported by their dioceses or bishops should they be falsely accused.”

Should they be falsely accused, diocesan priests “fear being abandoned by their diocese and bishop.” Priests who are members of religious orders do not share the same fears.

When it comes to how they view their interactions with bishops, “many priests feel that the policies introduced since the Dallas Charter have depersonalized their relationship with their bishops; they see bishops more as CEOs, bureaucrats, and legalistic guardians of diocesan finances than as fathers and brothers.”

The report suggests three ideas from priests who were interviewed that could improve the sense of trust between bishops and priests, including strengthening the personal bonds, increased communication and transparency, and holding bishops accountable for their actions.

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