Editor's note: Diane Girardot is sending dispatches from the American Psychological Association conference in Orlando, Fla. from August 2-5.
By Diane Russell Girardot, L.P.C.
Anthony Isacco's friend is a Catholic priest who tells Anthony he has become “hesitant, cautious, and lonely” since sexual abuse by priests and its subsequent cover up in the past decade have exploded in headlines across the world. The parish priest, who can easily spend hours ministering by a parishioner’s hospital bed as part of his job description, admits to his friend to being nervous about wearing his religious collar in public these days.
Isacco, a psychologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and Ethan Sahker, M.A, presented a study at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference Thursday that flips the negative attention to how a vast majority of Catholic priests have dutifully served God and their parishioners.
“Where are the stories about their strengths?” asked Dr. Isacco. His study gathered self-reports from 15 priests ages 29-76 who had been in the priesthood for 6 months up to 50 years in multiple work settings. These reports mirror Dr. Isacco's friend's comments about feeling lonely and stereotyped. Prior research has focused on the negative aspects of the priesthood within the Catholic church. This study highlights the group’s strengths, supports, and stressors.
The first strength is their dynamic relationship with God, an under-focused issue, priests rely on to assure them they are not alone with life’s difficulties. “They believe and teach that God carries people through everything,” explained Sahker. This relationship with God is important, he adds, to contribute to their own overall health and wellness and ability to cope with stressors.
Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, PhD, of the Presbyterian Seminary Counseling Center in Charlotte, N.C., presented data from a pilot study on the physical, psychological and spiritual health of Catholic priests and their fitness for duty.
“They are Devine caretakers,” she said, “that have to comply and believe in the “truth” of their organizational system. They struggle if they are silent and they struggle if they disagree.” Dr. O’Dea says the Catholic Church is a kyriarchy, a social/political system of domination that is based on the power and rule of the lord/master/father. She is outspoken about her belief that the sexual abuse cover ups were a tremendous mistake and a persistent problem.
Asked what positive press they both would like to see, Drs. O’Dea and Isacco agreed that the priesthood is about loving being a priest and doing important work - God’s work. Isacco said his friend is an extremely good priest who is happy being a parish priest and doing his job. He wants to feel loved and supported, not just by his parishioners, but by society as well. And he wants his collar to represent the true intentions of its existence - it designates him as a man of God.
Diane Russell Girardot is a Chester County-based licensed mental health professional, who is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter now merging both careers with her coverage of the APA convention.