Why Priests Fail, and How We Fail Them

priest, ordination


I have wanted to write this article for some time, but was a bit reluctant as this is an emotional topic for many. But with the recent Best Picture award going to the movie Spotlight, I think it is time to explain the truth about errant priests and other clergy who have done terrible things. These things are too often attributed to the Church Jesus founded, the Catholic Church, but are not at all condoned by the Church or taught in any of its doctrines. Please note in advance, I am in no way going to try to dismiss or soften the impact of the evil occurrences that have come to light, but I do think it very helpful to understand the nature of such events, as well as to gain a better self-awareness of what might be our unrealistic expectations of inherently fallible men.

A Flawed Vision of Clergy

At the risk of being too blunt, it nonetheless needs to be said that there is a latent notion among many Catholics that holds the clergy to be sinless angels. Arising, perhaps, from a different time and culture when people generally respected priests more, the above notion is an example of respect and esteem taken to an extreme. This idea is seriously flawed, heretical, and borders on idolatry. The Church itself has never been absent of sinless people, never. In fact, Christ Himself picked sinners as His Apostles–not because they were sinners, but because He understood they could never not be.

Judas’ story of turning against Jesus is well-known and perhaps the best example. He sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, and, consumed with guilt and shame, Judas ended his own life over it. Peter betrayed Christ three times, yet Jesus not only forgave him, showing him mercy, but also made him the first Vicar of His Church. That is some pretty strong faith to have in a person, knowing he had already failed, miserably. Jesus gave them second chances. Why? Because He knew they would be tempted into failure, need mercy, and require forgiveness. Jesus knew this, tells us this, and yet many of us still do not accept it. We expect more of others than Christ Himself did.

It is a heresy to think that men in the Church would be flawless and without sin. The idea is based on a lack of solid theological understanding. 1 John 1:8-10 says:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

The tragic misunderstanding that clergy do not sin has led many away from the Church, which is both tragic and ironic, because those people, in an effort to punish or disassociate from the sins of a few, are turning away from Christ’s Church toward something that is by its very nature inherently evil: a post-Christian, secular society.

Christ and the Apostles

Christ indeed knew His Apostles were flawed, had moments of weakened faith, and were going to make mistakes. We see this in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Peter, James, and John cannot stay awake despite Christ’s request, and He admonishes them repeatedly. Yet He still picked those men, and the rest of the Apostles, to be His missionaries. Jesus knew, because it is the nature of men, that they would sin due to temptations. He knew that since they were sinners striving after perfection, they would make mistakes along the way; nonetheless, He created His Church and placed it into the hands of men. He also knew He would protect it forever, as He explains in Matthew 16: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” As the old saying goes, the fact that the Church has lasted as long as it has while being run by flawed men proves beyond a doubt that it is protected by Christ and the Holy Spirit. If that is not proof, I am not sure what is.

Why does God allow people to do bad things, especially “in the name of” His Church? He does not. God gave us all free will, the ability to make our own choices, and thus allowing us to choose to make horrible mistakes. All men have free will and have misused and made mistakes with it. We have the ability to make our own decisions, hopefully while employing an informed conscience. And to underscore the obvious, men making such mistakes, even while associated with the Church, are clearly not doing it in the name of the Church. They are acting outside of, and contrary to, her wisdom, doctrines, and guidance.

Imperfect Men in Positions of Power

Understanding then that all priests are imperfect, how is it that the more problematic ones get into their positions? Although they genuinely felt called by God, these men were not vetted well enough during the discernment process, or were not strong enough to resist their disordered temptations after ordination. The former was clearly the case for at least four decades in the United States, the era during which many of the sexual abusers were ordained. Another is they were not really chosen by God in the first place, but sought the priesthood for other reasons, e.g. status, family pressure, or lack of other opportunities. It is also possible that the devil, at times, and for reasons his own, will suggest to a person that he should pursue the priesthood or religious life, as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches.

Clergy and the Lure of Temptation

Let us look into why some otherwise good people may choose to do some horrific things. We all fall to temptation from time to time, despite our best efforts. When we fall in one area, we often are led into another–these are “gateway” sins. For example, uncontrolled lust can lead to viewing pornography, which can lead to masturbation. That is why it is so important to fight even our smallest temptation, and may even be the most important task we face. If we cannot beat the small temptations, we will never defeat the bigger ones. Luke 16:10 states, “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater: and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater.” Priests, like all men, have differing temptations and differing amounts of strength and willingness to fight them. We like to think they are perfect people and infallible in every way, but we are misguided in that view.

A more diabolical reason we must consider is that the devil himself is working hard to destroy Christ’s Church by tempting priests, who as we know work in persona Christi Capiti (in the person of Christ the Head). If the devil can defeat a priest, how many more will that drive away from Christ? Take out a shepherd, if you will, and you will destroy the flock.  As a strategy to destroy the Church and claim souls, it is a good one, and tragically effective. As Dr. Peter Kreeft submits in his piece, How to Win the Culture War:

All sin is the devil’s work, though he usually uses the flesh and the world as his instruments. Sin means doing the devil’s work, tearing and damaging God’s work. And we do this. That’s the only reason why the devil can do his awful work in our world.  God won’t allow him to do it without our free consent.

Dr. Kreeft goes on to explain that though we think we have many enemies, we really only have two:

Who, then, is our enemy? Surely you must know the two answers. All the saints throughout the Church’s history have given the same two answers. For these answers come from the same two sources, from the Word of God on paper and the Word of God on wood—from every page of the New Testament and from Christ.  They are the reasons He went to the cross….Our enemies are demons. Fallen angels. Evil spirits…The second is even more horrible than the first. There is one nightmare even more terrifying than being chased by the devil, even caught by the devil, even tortured by the devil. That is the nightmare of becoming a devil. The horror outside your soul is terrible enough, but not as terrible as the horror inside your soul.  The horror inside the soul, of course, is sin.

Those are some heavy words to ponder, for certain, and they are not only very true, but important to understand, especially regarding our own temptations and struggles with sin. We are all sinners, each one of us. Saints have long spoken about those closest to Christ being tempted the most. After all, the devil hardly needs to tempt those already on his side. As St. Thomas Aquinas said in Summa Theologica, “The temptations of the devil assail those principally who are sanctified, for he desires, above all, to overcome the holy.” In Luke 4, we see that the devil worked very hard to tempt Jesus Himself into switching sides. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours’.”

The devil’s guile measures far greater than any individual’s resistance, save that of Jesus and Mary. We should thus not think that mere men living today in this increasingly post-Christian, secular world will be free from being tempted. While we should never accept the evil that people do, and must fight that evil with all our strength, we must appropriately understand its true source. We are not at war with individual sinners, but with the devil. Until we understand our enemy, we will never defeat him.

Countless priests have been and are wonderful, holy men, though far too many have caused irreparable harm to their flocks. Catholic priests, statistically, far outshine peers in other faiths when it comes to protecting children. That said, we still need to be careful that out of them we do not make idols. When we see stories of priests or bishops or other clergy who have committed grave sins, we should be more careful to condemn the actions, and the devil’s temptations, not the flawed humans who fell prey to him. We should recognize the demons, fallen angels, and evil spirits at work, and fall to our knees and pray for each wayward sinner. In doing so, we will begin to fully appreciate the true nature of sinfulness, and wisely exclaim, but for the grace of God Himself go I.

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9 thoughts on “Why Priests Fail, and How We Fail Them”

  1. Allow me to comment on what I consider a flawed article about “failed” clergy. You claim that “When we see stories of priests or bishops or other clergy who have committed grave sins, we should be more careful to condemn the actions, and the devil’s temptations, not the flawed humans who fell prey to him.” Perhaps we should heed the words of Jesus ans opposed to the ramblings of a lay blogger. It is quite clear in Matt 18:6 “”If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Jesus does not refer to the devil made me do it, my sinful nature, the lure of the body, forgiveness….he says harm a child, tie a millstone around their neck and toss them into the sea.
    “Spotlight” provides an insight into the working of the Church leadership. We all know that this filth exists among the clergy, the YMCA’s, the Boy Scouts, the JW’s, the Protestants and the public institutions. It exists wherever the young are captive audiences and the adults are in positions of power and are people incapable of adult relationships and and infantalize the world of the other.
    I lived in the midst of the crises of 2002 in Boston, the epicenter of abuse, the most Catholic center in the US….I knew many of the main characters personally. Yes there was the “sins of the fathers” and there were many; and there were many good clergy….but they knew and they watched. The very nature of evil existed in the actions of those who could have done something rather than directing their energies at the prevention of “scandal.”
    Cardinal Law and before him Mederios KNEW the Porters, Geoghans, Shanleys….they knew Shanley addressed NAMBLA and advocated adult-child sex. The response was shift them to another assignment, make another secret file, get treatment when there is no treatment for pedophiles or ephebophiles. They moved them around and a miniscule amount were thrown out. They had no screening of seminary candidate and no training in sexuality and adult relations. They hid, transferred and secreted scores of predators causing young to kill themselves, become addicts and lose faith. Grand juries were convened and no one remembered anything…Mother Church scurried Bernie Law away to Rome and made him an archpriest of a major basilica with a handsome salary. And yes the Popes knew well of Marcel Maciel and did nothing until his pandering became public.
    The same “Spotlight” story continues to be revealed regularly in many a diocese to this day…although the civil and criminal penalties are stiffer. Not human frailty, the devil, sin””but hierarchy enabling those who should have the millstone tied, as Jesus said. It is the fear of scandal to the tune of 4 billion in the US Catholic Church and mounting and the blaming of victims. No excuses!
    Yes strides have been made, mostly a result of litigation settlements, criminal probes and the anger of the laity.

    1. Great critique of the article!!! The devil didn’t make them do it. I totally agree. Moreover, not enough concern has been spoken for the victims and their families. That’s a scandal in itself.

  2. No one article can say everything, so I do not want to fault this one for not doing so, however, there are some other very important things that we have to say about the priest crisis of recent years that are not so obvious to those under 70 years of age. The first thing, to help us focus our minds, is that we are also going through a marriage crisis as well. Both of these problems are related to a crisis of faith. The world, the flesh, and the devil have always been there. What has changed in our ability to cope? What has provoked this faith crisis? Of course, there are many things one could say about this too, but I think it would be worth noting that many people were shaken by the changes that came in at the time of the Council, especially in countries where Catholics and Protestants were living side by side (and this is not a coincidence). There was a current of thought, called modernism, that basically had been suppressed by Church discipline in teaching faculties before the Council. It was basically a skeptical protestant approach (not like the evangelicals) which undermined the foundations of faith. After the Council, in the atmosphere of freedom and optimism that prevailed, seminary teachers often were proponents of this line of thinking which also seriously compromised morality in the seminaries and in later priestly life, both on a personal level and professionally in their counseling and preaching. When the faith is weakened, the results are what we are seeing. I do think, however, that together with this confusion, there was the rise of television. This did great damage to the prayer life of many. The family rosary went out the window, for example, along with evening holy hours, etc. Besides stealing God’s time, however, television also progressively introduced an alien view (the media view) of life, and this has grown more and more divergent from the classic culture of a Christian people. People who do not pray, priests who do not pray, and a community which is slowly being brainwashed by this new culture are fertile grounds for every kind of evil and are unprepared to deal with the temptations that people of the 1950’s could shrug off with the help of God’s grace. The solution, of course, is a multi-pronged one in which prayer has a principal role (and not just a Hail Mary here and there every so often). The next need, of course, is faith formation by absorbing true doctrine from sources faithful to the magisterium.

  3. “Catholic priests, statistically, far outshine peers in other faiths when it comes to protecting children” – source?

    1. I also would like a citation for this outlandish statement… some still do not comply state laws which mandate the reporting of “suspicion” of abuse to civil authorities; some dioceses still have no laypeole on review boards; some have delayed and declined audits; some have still not followed “one strike and you’re out.” And the new pontifical commission on reviewing abuse has thrown out how many? And ehy are bishops and cardinals who shifted predators from one position to another still in positions of authority….show me validation for for your statement …Any statement without proof can be dismissed without proof.

  4. This is truly the best article I’ve ever read on the topic. I wish everyone would read it. (David, I’ve written a based-on-a-true-story novel expressing much of what you conveyed. Please let me know how I can reach you if you have any suggestions for a publisher or agent.) God bless.

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