Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Reader Writes: How Do We Tell When Pastoral Relationships Are Exploitative?

In response to what I posted yesterday about David Clohessy's press statement calling on the Minnesota bishops to denounce the attempt of Fr. Christopher Wenthe to undermine Minnesota laws prohibiting inappropriate behavior of pastors with those in their pastoral care, Gbullough, a good reader of this blog wrote, 

We need to focus  on the case at hand. It is clearly a case of reprehensible behavior on the part of the priest. He was the woman's confessor. She clearly had mental health issues, having been a sexual abuse victim and having an eating disorder. Can you say "vulnerable adult?" Attempting to defend him is to attempt to defend the indefensible. However, as far as I can tell, no bishop has gone there yet.

That said, my friend David Clohessy's absolute pronouncement ignores the realities and nuances of the relations that develop between individuals in parish life, and in other religious institutions.

It's probably fair to say that many, if not most, priests who leave ministry "to marry" met their partners in the course of their ministry and that these usually were "congregants."  In most cases, the evolution of the relationship was mutual, and consensual. Why is this? Probably because most priests and religious have little social life outside of their ministerial life.

How do we tell which of these relationships are exploitive?

I'm not so sure we can.

But neither can we afford to issue blanket condemnations.

I've responded to this comment in the thread at yesterday's posting.  But since Gbullough also emailed me about this topic, I have responded to him directly by email.  And I want to post that response here, since it expands on what I say in my response at the previous thread.  I'm sharing it, too, because I agree with G. that these issues of what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior on the part of pastors involved in relationships with other adults deserve careful attention.

Here's what I say in response to Gbullough.  This is a top-of-the-head response by email, which I don't consider an exhaustive or complete reply--rather, an expression of my immediate response to serious questions that, in my view, deserve further discussion.  I appreciate G. for fostering this discussion:

I appreciate your emailing me to give me some context for your remarks.  And as my latest reply at my blog site says, in general, I agree with you.  Every case is unique.

Where I tend to see David Clohessy as correct is in the principle I hear him laying down: relationships of a pastor with members of his/her congregation are different than those outside the pastoral context.  I certainly realize that real life is messier than the principles we apply to it, and I'm willing to understand, accept, even affirm some of those real-life situations that may cross the lines sketched by the principles.

At the same time, I think that as a rule of thumb, it's always preferable for someone in pastoral ministry never to cross the line by developing intimate relationships with someone in his/her pastoral care.  With other adults in contexts outside the pastoral one, I have no such qualms--with other consenting adults.

As my reply to you at my blog says, I am troubled, though, by the contention that we ought to understand (and perhaps approve) these relationships because many pastors have little leeway for social contact outside their congregations or parishes.  In the Catholic context, that seems to me to be a big part of the problem.  I really do think that many of the priests who have acted out inappropriately with minors in their pastoral charge have done so because they have been socialized to be adolescents in adult bodies.

Socialized by the seminary system itself, and within the context of parish ministry as it's now configured to be adolescents in adult bodies . . . .  The system as it's now set up doesn't foster mature, responsible adult behavior on the part of many Catholic clerics, and we're seeing bitter fruit from the immaturity.

I'm also persuaded--and my comment to you says this--by the evidence of several situations about which I have detailed knowledge, in which priests began intimate relationships with women under their pastoral care.   In each of these "relationships," without exception, the women ended up realizing that they had been used, and that the relationships were not mutual.  They were consensual in that the women freely launched into the relationships before they recognized both the coercive aspect of the relationship from the priest's side (and they did recognize and talk about this in each case in the end), and before they recognized that the relationship could never go anywhere, as long as the priest was unwilling to risk losing any of his power and control in the clerical system.

These stories have convinced me that there is almost always an element of power and exploitation involved in clerical "relationships" with parishioners, even when those are consenting relationships.  And this is even more the case in a church in which the priest involved in such a relationship cannot even acknowledge it in public, can take no public responsibility for it, and cannot move it to the level of a lifelong, public commitment without forfeiting his ministry.

These are my own thoughts, for what they're worth, G.  I hope they're useful.

As I say, I hope that in replicating this email conversation between myself and a reader in the public context of this blog, G. and I can generate some much-needed discussion about where the boundary lines should lie when pastors are involved in intimate relationships with other adults.  I'm inclined to think David Clohessy is absolutely correct when he says that there's a huge difference between those adult relationships occurring with someone in the pastoral charge of a pastor, and those occurring with someone in a context other than pastoral care.  

And I'm also strongly inclined, on the basis of what I have seen happen in the case of several adult women who are friends of mine, and whom priests lured into intimate, non-mutual relationships, to think that many relationships in which a pastor entangles himself (it's always a "himself," when we speak of the Catholic priesthood) with someone in his pastoral charge are exploitative.  And always will be exploitative, as long as the power allocated to pastors in many churches (and societies) is greater than that enjoyed by those in their pastoral care.

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