Psychologist consults and educates men who feel called to ordination

Monday, August 20, 2018 - Updated: 9:06 am

By DR. Anthony Isacco

The problem of child sexual abuse is both personal and professional for me. I know what is at stake as I am a Catholic father of four daughters and a psychologist who evaluates priests, seminarians and seminary applicants on behalf of dioceses and religious orders.

In 2002, I was in graduate school at Boston College and witnessed the outrage, anger, hurt and shock as the Boston Globe printed endless stories of clergy sexual abuse and institutional cover-up. As a practicing psychologist, I have counseled victims of childhood sexual abuse and feel deep compassion for their often long, arduous journey of healing. I have continued to practice my faith during this difficult time in church history, while knowing the pain of victims.

Yes, it has been painful to hear stories of victims, especially in cases when church leaders did not do enough to protect the most vulnerable. Many past mistakes are still not reconciled, and missteps are still occurring within the church. We saw this most recently when Pope Francis admitted that he was “part of the problem” in the recent Chile sexual abuse scandal. More work clearly needs to be done. I am writing this before the release of the grand jury report about clergy sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. When it is released, I suspect that a similar conclusion will be drawn — more work needs to be done.

For the past seven years, I have been involved in work that began decades ago. I first ventured into the psychological health of Catholic priests as a researcher. According to the John Jay College Report on Clergy Sexual Abuse (2011), approximately 4 percent to 6 percent of priests in ministry between 1950-2010 were alleged to have sexually abused minors. I wanted to learn how the 95 percent who weren’t offenders coped with the 2002 scandal.

When my colleagues and I published our first research study in 2014, dioceses and religious orders — as well as other faith traditions — began asking me to evaluate their clergy, seminarians and applicants. To date, I have conducted approximately 160 evaluations, including for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. This unique role has placed me on the front lines of gatekeeping as well as consulting and educating about the psychological health of men who feel called to ordination. I have learned a lot in this role and have been a part of important changes to protect God’s children and to improve the health of clergy.

Identifying red flags

People often guess that priests are sexually attracted to children and adolescents due to their vow of celibacy. Yet, research disputes that guess. Studies by Canadian psychologist James Cantor indicate that male sexual offenders have brain abnormalities that developed at birth, which means that their sexual attractions developed long before they became priests.

Similarly, I often hear from people who think that only Catholic priests commit sexual abuse. Again, the research disputes that line of thinking. Child sexual abuse is not just a Catholic Church problem. It is a societal problem. Statistics show that laymen are more likely than Catholic priests to be offenders. We should be asking why teachers, coaches and other professionals who interact with children are not required to undergo rigorous psychological evaluations in a similar way to priests.

Catholic seminaries began using psychological evaluations at least 40 years ago. Yet, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its first guidelines for such evaluations in 2015. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, I work closely with the seminary rector to apply them. The result is a comprehensive, collaborative and relevant assessment of the applicant’s personality and psychological functioning.

This is a monumental improvement. Fifteen years ago, an evaluation typically included one standardized, written personality test and a 50-minute interview. The resulting report was one to two pages, with no recommendations. Now, evaluations must include a combination of various psychological tests and clinical interviews that thoroughly assess an individual’s psycho-sexual-spiritual development. The reports are routinely eight to 15 pages and full of recommendations.

Moreover, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is the only diocese I work with that requires its seminarians to undergo this rigorous testing twice. They do it first as part of the initial admission process and later as a requirement to progress to their graduate studies in theology. There is no rubber-stamping of applicants, despite the great need for more priests. The seminary rectors and I fully agree that quality is far more important than quantity.

I often tell rectors that there is no perfect applicant, since every human being has strengths and weaknesses. If I ask enough questions, I will find a problem. We would not have any men in seminaries if the pendulum swung too far and over-pathologized every weakness. The psychological evaluation is not just to identify red flags, but to highlight strengths and provide recommendations that will enhance the human development of the applicant.

That said, the evaluation process does identify red flags. Men have been screened out of the admission process and their seminary studies for pornography addiction, alcoholism, severe psychological concerns, behavioral issues, developmental immaturity, incongruent personalities, and sexual interests in children and adolescents. The last group gets the majority of the attention and may be the main reason why you are reading this article. So how does a psychologist stop someone from becoming a pedophile priest?

There is faith, hope in my work

To be honest, I was shocked when a few applicants disclosed their sexual attraction to minors. The prevailing wisdom is that individuals who are sexually attracted to children or adolescents hide their deviant sexual interests. I have even been told by psychologists to not even ask about it because of dishonest self-reporting by the applicant. This challenge is compounded by the lack of an ethical and reliable test to identify pedophilia and related disorders.

Therefore, I rely on psychological profiling and identification of known risk factors. For example, viewing child pornography is a significant indicator of pedophilia, as is narcissism, lack of empathy and antisocial tendencies — none of which are desirable traits for clergy in any case.

Far more research is needed. I am lucky that the Diocese of Pittsburgh has allowed me to study its archival testing data. One clear conclusion is that applicants over the past five years typically did not have a pattern of severe psychopathology. Thus, the risk is very low that a group of pedophiles have been applying to the seminary. This aligns with the conclusions of the John Jay Report indicating that the majority of clergy sexual offenses occurred prior to 1985, followed by a sharp and continued drop in acts of child sexual abuse.

It is still not possible to identify a sexual offender with certainty. Unfortunately, the most accurate identification occurs after the crime has been committed and the victim reports it. This fact motivates me to continue to study and conduct research on how to prevent a sexual offender from entering a seminary. I can honestly say that I pray more and sleep way less now than five years ago as I remain constantly driven to protect God’s children. I feel blessed to have collaborators, including leaders of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, who are working toward the same goal.

As a Catholic psychologist, there is faith and hope to my work. I have seen some wonderful men respond to God’s call in ways that have inspired me and deepened my faith. Seminaries have drastically improved the way they approach the spiritual and psychological formation of future priests. I continue to hope for better psychological tools and more advanced and ethical methods of identifying sexual offenders. I continually pray for victims of clergy sexual abuse. I hope my role on the front lines prevents future victims and contributes to the church being served by holy, happy and healthy priests.

Additional reading and resources

• “Trauma and Recovery” by Dr. Judith Herman.

• “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012,” edited by Thomas Plante and Kathleen L. McChesney.

• “Sin Against the Innocent,” edited by Thomas Plante.

• John Jay College Study of Clergy Sexual Abuse: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/reports-and-research.cfm.

• USCCB Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in Seminary Admissions: http://ccc.usccb.org/flipbooks/cclv-guidelines-psychology-admissions/index.html.

• “Spotlight,” 2015 movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation of the sexual abuse scandal.

• Dr. James Cantor’s website: http://www.jamescantor.org.

Isacco is a licensed psychologist and associate professor in the graduate psychology programs at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. His clinical practice is focused on the psychological assessment of Catholic deacons, seminarians and women religious. He has published widely in academic journals in the area of the psychology of men’s health and has conducted empirical studies focused on Catholic priests and their health and well-being. He is the co-author of two forthcoming books, “All In: Breaking Barriers to Discerning the Priesthood” (2018, Lambing Press) and “Religion, Spirituality, Masculinity: New Insights for Counselors” (2019, Routledge Publishing). Isacco earned a doctorate degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University Chicago, a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College and bachelor’s degrees in psychology and philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, Catholic Psychotherapist Association and the CPA Seminary Assessment Working Group.

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